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The Church's Role
For Christian women, faith may become another obstacle
to leaving an abusive and dangerous marriage. For women like Laura, some
teachings may confuse rather than clarify:
I think the church's contribution takes place much earlier than when it is finally perceived you are abused. So many times when I was frustrated with my husband, I leaned on my faith. My beliefs were about "turning the other cheek," "for better or worse," "treat others as you would like to be treated," all the sort of phrases that speak of unconditional love. They are profound, and they teach great things. But the church gives young women no perspective about protection, self-preservation, empowerment. Maybe these ideas are threatening in a basically patriarchal system. But the lack of them leads a well-intentioned wife to believe that selfless love comes before self-preservation. I was never taught to assess how others treated me. I was never taught that it was okay to stand up for myself.
In the family of faith, those who understand the servanthood of Christ and the concept of mutual submission within marriage -- and whose experience does not include domestic violence -- may see no problem with Ephesians 5:22-24:
"Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."
Yet if we could see how some Christian husbands use these verses to justify their abuse, we would have second thoughts. In Jenny's marriage, her church-going, Bible-savvy husband interspersed his tirades with Scripture, but she says, "It was always used to hurt me."
Unfortunately, a woman who finally overcomes her denial, self-doubt and fear to seek help from the clergy may find someone who uses the same verses to send her back to do a better job of being a wife. Even if her pastor is sympathetic, he may not be knowledgeable.
Many survivors of domestic abuse complain that even if they were taken seriously, the attention automatically focused on the abuser -- restoring him in order to restore the marriage. A woman whose husband has controlled her and robbed her of autonomy needs more than a church intent on controlling the outcome of her situation. She needs a safe, neutral and compassionate place where she will not have to fight for believability and where she can find comfort while gaining the strength to take steps to provide safety for herself and her children.
Rev. Fortune says: "Treatment of families experiencing violence and abuse requires integrating the needs of the whole person. Thus the importance of developing a shared understanding and cooperation between secular and religious helpers to deal with family violence cannot be emphasized too strongly.
"Occasionally, a social worker, psychotherapist or other secular service provider will wonder, 'Why bother with religious concerns at all?' The answer is a very practical one: religious issues or concerns which surface for people in the midst of crisis are primary issues. If not addressed in some way at some point, they will inevitably become roadblocks to the client's efforts to resolve the crisis and move on with her life.
"For a pastoror other person approaching family violence from a religious perspective, there is little question about the relevance of religious concerns. Rather, they may doubt the importance of dealing with concerns for shelter, safety, intervention and treatment. [They may think], 'These people just need to get right with God and everything will be fine.'"
In cases of domestic violence there are urgent needs which just can't wait until the abuser is willing and able to "get right with God." There are resources available -- though, as is often the case, the secular world is way ahead of the church in addressing this social problem and providing help.
Christians can do better than we have in helping women trapped by
1) Clergy can draw women out of isolation by opening the subject from the pulpit. As one pastor reports in the video, When You PreachRemember Me, "After preaching on this subject for the first time, the floodgates opened up, and a number of women came to me saying it was the first time they knew they could." Men also need to hear what is not acceptable and to know they can change.
2) We need to familiarize ourselves with the resources available to victims of domestic violence and make referrals to these agencies. At best, we might start volunteering to help in these agencies ourselves, working alongside those who are more knowledgeable and learning how to better serve those in need.
3) We need to stand ready to believe a woman who says she is abused and stay focused on her and her needs until she is safe.But first we need the humility to admit how far we have to go. Though our longing to serve wherever there is need might lead us to be on the cutting edge of understanding society's problems, often as not Christians remain not only unmoved by the pain and suffering outside church walls, but also blissfully unaware of that within.
And so while Jenny may have arranged the flowers on the altar, held our babies in the nursery and received communion with us a hundred times, we don't really know who she is. Unless a way is prepared for her to break the silence of fear and shame and doubt, we never will.
Barbara Curtis established a San Francisco crisis intervention program for rape victims, which is still in existence. She became a Christian in 1987.
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