We Are a Safe Haven
(The Church Responds to Domestic Violence)
A Seeking Peace with Justice Sunday at Lexington UMC, Lexington, MA
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Susan J. Morrison on October 14, 2001
A Reading from Luke 13:10–17... the story of the bent-over woman who is healed by Jesus.
October is Domestic Violence month, a time when we are asked to break the silence about Domestic Violence, learn more about it and renew our commitment to providing victims and perpetrators with the emotional, physical and spiritual care that they need.
Anyone who is a victim of domestic violence is like the bent-over woman in our Gospel lesson this morning. Emotional, physical and spiritual abuse causes one to be crippled, unable to stand tall and be the whole person that God intended. There are too many of God's beloved people who are abused, bent-over human beings. It is reported that more than 2 million American women are assaulted by their partners each year. 95% of known victims of domestic violence are women; a small percentage of men are violated by an intimate or former intimate partner. As many as 3 million children witness acts of domestic violence each year. Domestic violence is an equal-opportunity employer, for it crosses all levels of income and education, all colors, classes, and creeds.
Let us refresh ourselves by understanding the meaning of domestic violence. Just what is it that causes the victim to be so bent-over? Rev. Anne Marie Hunter, colleague and friend and founder of the Safe Havens program offers a comprehensive definition.
Domestic violence, she writes, often has a physical component. It is kicking, hitting, dragging, punching, shooting, knifing, bludgeoning. The hospital emergency room says that domestic violence is the black eyes, the chipped teeth, the broken bones.
But domestic violence can also be verbal. It can be name calling and constant accusations. Partners are called stupid, fat, ugly, lazy, irresponsible and childish.
Domestic violence is isolation. Victims are systematically distanced from friends and family so that their dependence on the abused is maximized. Phone calls are monitored. Visits with family and friends are prohibited.
Domestic violence is emotional abuse. It is constant surveillance, constant undermining of one's self-image. It is threats to children, family members and pets. It is love that is always conditional, always scarce, always unpredictable. It is abuse that is followed by contrition, apologies, tears, and promises to change that never materialize.
Domestic violence is financial abuse. Victims are kept from spending money that they earn, or are not allowed to work outside the home. One is always expected to bring back a receipt and change.
Domestic violence is also sexual abuse. It includes sex that is unloving and abrupt, forced and lacking warmth, love or affirmation.
Domestic violence is spiritual abuse. When one's self esteem is broken, one's spirit is broken, also.
In final analysis, domestic violence is control...complete, domineering control over another person. It is not so much a series of isolated incidents, but a daily reality in which the abuser gets the victim to do what he wants, or give him what he wants, or act the way he wants.
It is no wonder that like the woman in our Gospel narrative, the victim of domestic violence becomes bent over, quite unable to stand up straight. And just like the healing hands of Jesus, it often takes outside intervention to bring about change and to encourage choices to be made that result in healing and new life. Acting on behalf of Jesus, I believe that the church can play a major role in that intervention, helping the victim to be set free from the infirmity of domestic violence.
But just as Jesus' contemporaries found fault with his actions and choices, so too there will be criticism from the victim's family and friends. “Now isn't a good time to leave” the voices say to the victim. “How will you support yourself?” “Shouldn't you just stay in the relationship and try harder?” But like in our Gospel lesson, these voices of reason become shamed even as the victim, who has lived a life of shame, is released from her shame and she stands tall, ultimately set free from the violence that has crippled her for so long. The analogy seems appropriate, doesn't it? A bent-over woman is healed of her ailment.
For us, today, the focus is on the church and it's role as the body of Christ, acting, as Jesus did, to help release the victim from oppression and mistreatment. And so I would like to ask two questions this morning:
1) Why should the church be involved in this issue of domestic violence?
2) What does it mean to be a “Safe Haven?”
Why should the church be involved? Isn't this a social issue that could and should be managed by social agencies? This congregation understands well that wherever there is injustice, God calls upon the church to get involved. In the arena of domestic violence, the church must be an instrument of justice and help to break the silence about this issue of violence and abuse.
For many years the church, unfortunately, has not been very helpful in dealing with the problem of domestic violence. Clergy, especially, have given unhelpful advice. Spiritual leaders, when confronted by the issue, have told women “Just work harder at being a better wife. Submit yourself to your husband. Scripture says he is the head of you, as Christ is the head of the church. Pray, so that you can endure this time of trial. God will never give you more than you can bear. Divorce? It is a sin. You must do everything possible to keep your family together.”
As a result of this pattern and history, victims choose not to confide in their pastors. As Rev. Robert Owens admits: “I think there's been a conspiracy of silence in the church regarding domestic violence. Victims are ashamed, embarrassed, and fear that their pastors will condemn or reject them, or encourage them to stay in an abusive relationship. Women fear that male pastors will side with the husband.”
Fortunately the church has had a wake up call and recognizes not only the importance of being a source of help in domestic violence situations but realizes that training and new understanding of scripture and theology are called for. Programs such as the Safe Havens Family Violence Prevention Project provide that critical training for interfaith households of faith.
In his book Domestic Violence — What Every Pastor Needs to Know, Rev. Al Miles cites a story of domestic violence that illustrates the importance of the church being aware and intentional about its response to the injustices of abuse.
Kara has been married to her husband, Rich, for sixteen years. Devout Christians, they both attend church regularly. Kara and Rich have a teenage son, and Kara describes her husband and son as “the great loves of my life.
Despite Kara's deep love for her husband, she told a coworker that Rich has abused her throughout their marriage. The disclosure was prompted by an incident that had occurred the week before. “I'd overcooked Rich's steak,” Kara explained to her coworker. “It was so stupid of me; I can't do anything right. After sixteen years of marriage, you'd think a wife would know that her husband likes his meat medium rare, not well done.” According to Kara, Rich then called her “fat and stupid” and threw the steak in the trash, and left home to eat supper at a nearby restaurant. On other occasions, Kara said Rich derided her for being overweight...Kara revealed that Rich also had pushed, slapped and spit on her from time to time. Her husband's actions and words hurt deeply, she admitted. Still, Kara blamed herself for Rich's behavior.
“It's all my fault,” she lamented. “If I were a better wife, is I weren't overweight and so stupid, Rich would have no need to say and do such awful things to me. Besides, he always apologizes for the bad mood he say I put him in and afterwards, buys me orchids and takes me out to a nice dinner. He says that as a Christian wife I must forgive him.” Rich also prefers not to treat her the way he does, Kara told the coworker, but says it is his “Christian duty to take authority” over her and to “correct” her when she is wrong. “My husband tells me the Bible demands that a man rule over his wife,” Kara explained.”"So when I'm out of line or do stupid things, then Rich has to put me in my place. Otherwise, my husband says, he's not truly a man of God.”
Kara's coworker encouraged her to seek help from a professional trained to address situations of domestic violence. The coworker also recommended that Kara speak to someone who understood what the Bible actually teaches regarding how a man and woman should treat each other in marriage. The battered wife was reluctant to follow up on either suggestion. The day after Rich threw his overcooked steak in the trash, Kara explained, she went to see a male pastor who is also a counselor at a Christian counseling center. This minister told Kara “any woman who stays with a man who abuses her must either like being abused or she must be exaggerating her claims.” The pastor also urged Kara to bring her husband to the next counseling session. “This will allow me to determine who's telling the truth,” Kara said the minister told her.
The coworker asked Kara if she had sought help from her own pastor. Kara said she hadn't. Pastor Lee was loving and sensitive, but Kara feared that the minister's close relationship with her husband would bias him. “The pastor may side with Rich,” Kara worried, “because my husband always presents himself as being this loving and respectful Christian leader around other people. Or, like that Christian counselor, Rev. Lee might think I either like being abused or I'm exaggerating.”
Afraid, and yet needing emotional and spiritual guidance, Kara decided to confide in her pastor. Fortunately, Pastor Lee had taken some domestic violence training. Meeting with Kara at the church, the pastor told his battered parishioner that she had not done anything to deserve the abuse Rich was inflicting upon her. Domestic violence has nothing to do with whether or not a woman is a good wife, Christian, or cook; nor does it have anything to do with a woman's weight, intellectual capacity, or her either exaggerating or liking abuse. No one deserves to be victimized, the minister insisted. He also assured Kara that God loves her exactly the way she is.
Appropriate training, sensitivity to the complexity of the issues involved in domestic violence, and awareness of the network of agencies prepared to assist victims of domestic violence put the church in a helpful and hopeful place regarding this issue.
Hopefully, it is clear why the church should be involved. Based on that understanding, the Lexington UMC sent a team of four to the Safe Havens Family Violence Prevention Project last year. The team attended approximately 25 hours of training and gained new perspective on the dynamics of family violence; the impact of domestic violence on children; the dynamics of batterers -their need for counsel, care and rehabilitation; teen dating violence -intervention and prevention; law enforcement issues; and the healing process for survivors. As a result of this training, the Lexington UMC has joined a growing network of churches, synagogues and mosques that are known as Safe Havens, places where victims or perpetrators can come for counsel, advice and referrals. Safe Havens are intended to be what their name implies — a place of safety where confidences can be shared and where holy listening takes place.
I most appreciated the number of care givers that we met, those equipped to help victims and batterers deal effectively with domestic violence. As a clergy person, I feel much better prepared to listen, to counsel and to make referrals for anyone involved in abusive relationships.
I hope that soon we can hang posters in our bathrooms, so that both of our congregations as well as all of the people who use this building throughout the week can be aware of telephone hotline numbers and other resources. I would hope that these could be translated into Korean and Spanish as well as English.
Let's support programs that will heighten our awareness about the issue.
Let's talk with our partner church, St. John's Korean, and learn together about the dynamics of domestic violence.
Let's talk with our youth about violence and teen dating.
Let's continue to support the marvelous and significant work of the Safe Havens project.
Let's welcome people from agencies and organizations that can teach us more about this issue.
Yes! Until domestic violence is eliminated, let us continue to make a commitment to take seriously this issue and to be the body of Christ that offers intervention and healing so that those who are bent over will be able to stand straight and be freed from oppression and injustice, eager to praise God, who is the Source of hope and justice and unconditional love.
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