OVER DINNER my friends and I reflected recently on the headlines that surprised us last year. A few were especially painful: former Rep. Todd Akin's comment that "legitimate" rapes do not lead to pregnancies; failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment that a pregnancy from rape is "something that God intended to happen"; and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in effect since 1994, ending as the 112th Congress closed without reauthorizing it. All reminded me why the second edition of The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response, by Pamela Cooper-White, is still needed almost 20 years since its first edition.
The Cry of Tamar reads as a graduate textbook on providing pastoral support for the victims of violence against women. It weaves pastoral counseling methods and social and psychological theories in dialogue with biblical exegesis and constructive theology to give clergy, pastoral caregivers, and religious leaders tools to help victims of violence and the larger Christ-community.
The story of Tamar, a girl raped 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem, frames and guides the book's goal of providing healing to the girls and women who are victims of violence today.
Advocacy, prevention, and intervention to stop violence against women have advanced since the 1995 first edition. Religious communities and congregations have become more informed about how to care and respond to both victims and perpetrators. But the need for increased awareness and education is ongoing. This second edition is an effort to update the conversation and keep it on the table.
The first of the book's three parts provides a theologically grounded framework for analyzing the forms of violence against women and the church's response. To understand human violence, Cooper-White begins with Martin Buber's study of interpersonal relationality—what he calls the "I-Thou" and "I-It" relationship. We all have an innate yearning for genuine connection. Violence and exploitation occur when the other is objectified and becomes an It rather than a Thou—power and control over the other replaces relationality.
I appreciate that Cooper-White adds another dimension to the I-Thou/I-It scope by introducing the I-Thou-We paradigm, adding the communal aspect of accountability. "We"—community—is the third dimension that holds the I-Thou accountable. It's a reminder that true communities are built on subjects (Thou) and not objects (It).
In part two, Cooper-White analyzes forms of violence against women: sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault and battering, sexual abuse by clergy, and sexual abuse of children. The chapters include narratives of each type of violence and describe the myths surrounding it, followed by a pastoral response or a theological and biblical resource to help clergy.
The last section of the book focuses on the church's response. First, Cooper-White reminds clergy of their own wounds, the dangers of burnout and triangulation, and the importance of keeping boundaries, doing self-care, and finding a supportive community. She encourages them to be attentive witnesses, guided by the Spirit. Second, the book offers a practical guide to providing pastoral counseling to a perpetrator while holding him firmly responsible for his actions and the need to unlearn violence. Lastly, Cooper-White discusses pastoral care and counseling for the victim. The role of a pastoral counselor is to walk alongside a victim during the long recovery process and create a safe space for discerning God's call toward an abundant life—to help her know she is not an It but should be received and treated as a Thou.
As reflected in the I-Thou-We paradigm, Cooper-White concludes by bringing the We element to the victim-perpetrator relationship. It is the responsibility of the congregation, not just the pastor, to assure a victim of God's love. A congregation can be taught to be a support and shelter for authentic healing, not pushing for cheap forgiveness and grace but seeking justice as the only path to potential reconciliation and restoration of the whole community.
The statistics are loud and clear: Violence against women is rampant. Addressing it must be part of the mission of the church. This book is a good place to start.
Aimee Kang, office manager at Sojourners, has master's degrees in divinity and theology from Emory University, and is being ordained as a United Methodist deacon.