Breaking the 'Holy Hush 'Evangelicals find new resources to address domestic violence.
by Gail Martin
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that about 1.5 million women in the United States are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year. Nearly one-third of American women report having experienced physical or sexual abuse by a husband or boyfriend at some point during their lives, according to the Commonwealth Fund’s 1998 Survey of Women’s Health.
Christians are no exception to these alarming statistics.
“The rate of abuse in Christian homes is exactly the same as in the general population,” says Catherine Clark Kroeger, co-founder of Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH). “If we could tear off the secrecy and then allow God’s grace to work, that would be the greatest gift.” Kroeger, an adjunct associate professor of classical and ministry studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written, co-written, or contributed to eight books about women and domestic violence from a Christian perspective.
She became aware of the need for a response to domestic violence that the evangelical community would hear and respect after she founded Christians for Biblical Equality, an organization rooted in evangelical circles that promotes an interpretation of the Bible supporting the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnicities and all economic classes. She noticed that many women appeared more interested in the biblical roots of equality for the home than within church roles. In 1992, Kroeger and Denver Seminary professor of counseling James R. Beck held a symposium that led to their publication of Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal.
Over the course of her involvement with the issue of domestic violence and the church’s response to it, Kroeger felt a growing sense of frustration at the church’s flawed approach to domestic violence counseling. She observed a disturbing degree of silence on the topic among church leaders. When clergy became involved in family counseling on domestic violence, they were more likely to side with the batterer, counsel reconciliation, chide the woman for attempting to leave the relationship, and consider the case closed.
In response, Kroeger has formed partnerships with other Christian experts and advocates in the field. At a meeting of religious leaders interested in domestic violence during the late 1990s, Kroeger met Nancy Nason-Clark, a professor of sociology at University of New Brunswick who researches the relationship between faith and domestic violence.
“More and more, my work began to explore how faith communities are responding to domestic violence,” says Nason-Clark. As she studied domestic violence from an academic perspective, she was constantly asked whether or not the incidence rates were different within the faith community.
“There are very few differences,” says Nason-Clark. Those that exist are not positive. Women of faith, says Nason-Clark, are less likely to leave an abusive relationship, more likely to look first to the church for counseling, and more likely to wait longer to take action than women outside the faith community.
NETWORKING CONNECTIONS with scattered clergy, researchers, and advocates convinced Kroeger and Nason-Clark that their efforts would yield better results if a network could be formed. The result was the creation of PASCH, which describes itself as “a coalition of internationally renowned Christian researchers, scholars, and theologians” who have come together to “increase peace and safety in the Christian home and in the world it serves by addressing and decreasing domestic and sexual abuse in those homes.”
PASCH held its first international conference in Orange County, Calif., in 2005. More than 200 attendees from around the world and from denominations ranging from Mennonite to Episcopal gathered at the “Beyond Abuse” conference for a weekend of resource sharing, networking opportunities, and presentations by advocates, survivors, and experts.
Al Miles, author of Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know and two other books on abuse, was one of the keynote speakers at the first PASCH conference.
According to Miles, until pioneers such as Catherine Clark Kroeger, no one had pointed out that “there is a faith-related connection; there are things we’re doing and not doing that contribute to [domestic abuse].” As a pastor, Miles felt comfortable with PASCH’s theology and language, and he knew their qualifications were sound. He also notes that the group’s evangelical approach helps address the way some conservatives may use distrust of theological liberalism as an excuse to avoid the topic of domestic violence.
“The issue of domestic violence is messy,” says Miles, who is an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and is based in Hawaii. “It’s incredibly messy. It’s saying particularly when people are in my congregation that I as a pastor need to deal with this. We’ve known about it for a long time, even if we didn’t name it. The insidiousness is when you know the people and it’s right here. It’s amazing that we still tend to blame women for men’s behavior.”
Miles says that most pastors, when confronted with a situation of domestic violence, shy away because they lack training in the issue. According to Miles, pastors say things like, “I don’t know what to do; it’s messy; I wish it hadn’t been brought to my attention.” There is also denial. Miles describes the train of thought as “It couldn’t happen here because we’re so spiritual.” Others, he says, deny because their church is “too something”—too rich or too educated or too successful.
PASCH is committed to creating an “international prayer network” of concerned partners dedicated to the elimination of domestic and sexual abuse in Christian homes. PASCH hopes to accomplish this goal through facilitating collaboration among formerly isolated advocates and researchers, linking them to each other and enabling them to build on each other’s work. From this, PASCH hopes to encourage the creation of educational and training programs, as well as a steady flow of new resources from a distinctly evangelical perspective.
Kroeger is excited about the next steps for PASCH. One of the group’s newest ministries is the creation of a “shoe card”—a card small enough to be hidden under the insole of a woman’s shoe. The card is distributed in women’s restrooms, and includes a definition of what constitutes abuse, instructions, and the phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
“They’re absolutely flying,” says Kroeger, reporting that the cards disappeared so quickly from one church that organizers wondered whether they were being stolen.
In 2007, Kroeger hopes to host a training institute on Cape Cod to help clergy interact more successfully with social service resources. Both clergy and social service professionals have a long history of regarding each other with distrust. Many social service professionals report that when clergy are involved in a domestic abuse situation, they often make it worse by making the women feel pressured to remain within the relationship. Some members of the clergy are uneasy with social service professionals’ secular approach. Kroger hopes to ease that tension and help both sides gain more productive dialogue.
“A lot of it was about women and empowering women,” says Kroeger. She dreams of a continuum that reaches “from the steeple to the shelter,” and that finally removes the “holy hush” of silence and secrecy that Kroeger says supports and enables abuse.
“We want to pass the good news that the Bible provides a warrant for responsible conduct,” says Kroeger.
Gail Martin is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C. She directs The Refuge Project, a privately funded research and education project helping the faith community understand the long-term spiritual repercussions of abuse in order to become more accepting of and welcoming to adult survivors.
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