On Tuesday, March 5, United Methodist Women organized and moderated parallel event at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women exploring the critical but often hidden issue of domestic violence from a U.S. context and a Christian perspective. Participants dialogued with panelists on faith issues in domestic violence and best practices for faith groups.
When seeking church help, punished instead
Deaconess and nurse Sharon Hachtman, from Turning Point shelter in Pennsylvania and a panelist, shared the painful story of one woman’s experience seeking help from her pastor. After a period of being addicted to drugs and being sexually promiscuous, this woman was turning her life around and attended church as part of her recovery. As she spoke to her pastor about wanting to baptize her two children into the church, her abuse at the hands of her husband came up. Though she asked for forgiveness for her past transgressions, what she got in return from her pastor were “punishing words twisted from the Bible” telling her that her children and continuing generations would be punished for her sins.
Ms. Hachtman described this experience as a form of “spiritual violence” at the hands of clergy and congregations that:
- Protect the abuser instead of the survivor of abuse.
- Encourage silence about the issue so as not to disrupt the congregation’s or faith community’s perceived harmony.
- Refuse to take sides with the survivor if the abuser is also a member of the congregation.
- Use scripture to fault the survivor for disobeying a husband’s authority (Eph. 5:22).
Christian church is part of the problem
The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune of Faithtrust Institute, a United Methodist Women partner, says the Christian experience is often the problem, from clergy, scripture, and theological teachings. Women of faith trust their pastor’s advice, she said, and despite the danger or fear they have, they take the advice to heart.
Often, a pastor’s advice stems from a rigid reading of the scripture at the cost of a domestic violence survivor’s livelihood and well-being. To Ms. Fortune, this is “scriptural abuse” because it does not consider the real dangers a survivor can face if she stays in a potentially fatal situation. She referred to three specific scriptural passages and teachings that constitute spiritual abuse as it relates to domestic violence:
- Jesus’ teaching on divorce as a sin (Matt. 19: 1-12).
- “Wives be subject” (Eph. 5:22).
- Teachings about forgiveness; specifically, asking the survivor to forgive her abuser.
All of these teachings neglect a survivor’s basic needs in order to maintain and protect scriptural posturing.
Congregations as a whole can also be roadblocks to healing and addressing the issue in churches, Ms. Fortune said. “If a parishioner tells a pastor or congregation that she has cancer, you can expect a sympathetic response.” The church responds to most of these needs, “unless a person is assaulted, and there is no excuse for that anymore.” She continues, “The Bible says to stand with the most vulnerable and dispossessed; it’s pretty simple.”
Programs for helping women and ending domestic violence
Clergy and congregations have been a part of the problem, but now they need to facilitate change. Ms. Hachtman is concerned about the silence of faith; of faiths making “no public sound” about domestic violence or other kinds of violence against women or family members, and asks, “What will we do?” After seeing women day in, day out at Turning Point, she has learned the important skill of being available, which to her means to be connected to the holistic issues women who have been abused face. That needs to take shape on a community- and society-based level, she said.
“Because women are so focused on their survival, they are disconnected to their own health; their survival and ways of getting income comes first,” she said. “It is not helpful to educate proactive health if resources aren’t available.”
Dr. Renee Campbell, Executive Director of United Methodist Women-supported Wesley House Community Services in Louisville, Ky., shared many resources available to women, from help in admitting and opening up about abuse to enacting and enforcing laws.
Herself a victim of sexual abuse as a child, Ms. Campbell suppressed the abuse until she was in her 20s. When she also faced psychological abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, she realized she had to help other women. Her work as a domestic violence advocate have led her to initiate and promote programs touching the sensitive issues survivors face:
- The Clothesline Project. Because domestic violence survivors struggle to verbalize their history of abuse, women can come together and make color-coded shirts that symbolize the violence that they face or have faced in order to raise awareness about how widespread domestic violence is. According to Ms. Campbell, it is a symbolic way to “air dirty laundry” of abuse. Ms. Campbell has helped to start a local Clothesline Project in Louisville and has even taken it to Ghana.
- VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday). This national victim notification service “allows crime victims to obtain timely and reliable information about criminal cases and the custody status of offenders 24 hours a day,” according to their website. If an abuser has been put in jail, a survivor can call to know when or whether he is freed to ensure her safety.
- The Center for Women and Families. The Center is partnering with local police to track intimate partner abuse at the first 911 call. The Center has created a list of specific questions to ask the potential survivor about her partner’s behavior. If abuse is suspected, the police contact a domestic violence counselor and monitors the household.
Discuss domestic violence like you would bike helmets
In addition to these grassroots projects, communities need to discuss and act on the issue openly, just as they would discuss and act to mandate everyone wear bike helmets. Ms. Campbell’s advice includes:
- Don’t judge a survivor based on your moral norms. Regardless of your thoughts on how a woman became a survivor of abuse, the first response should be about support. Whether she was a sex worker or abused drugs has nothing to do with the situation.
- Develop a threat assessment. If your work may see you working with survivors of domestic violence or abuse, make sure you have a proper way of identifying abuse and the level of danger a survivor faces if the abuse continues. “Design the right questions to understand the concerns of women,” says Ms. Hachtman. If you’re in law enforcement, medicine, counseling, social work, faith-based work or teaching, these professions merit awareness on domestic violence.
- Clergy: Get training. For those who value their faith communities in times of support, clergy need to know how to identify and properly respond to domestic violence in a holistic, Christ-filled way that puts the woman’s safety first. Clergy also need to know how to communicate this response to the congregations they lead so the survivor can feel protected by her faith community.
- Financially support havens for abuse survivors. Donations to safe havens for women and other domestic violence survivors is the only guaranteed way to ensure a survivor has a place to go if she needs to leave an abusive situation. Financial support must happen at the governmental and policy levels as well as the individual and community levels.
- Encourage men’s work around domestic violence. While raising awareness for women to understand and look out for the kinds of abuse that can occur, men also need to be part of the solution to ending violence against women.
- Educate boys. Promoting respect for women is crucial to ensure the next generation of men will not be new offenders of dating or domestic violence, and instead be advocates for ending violence against women and girls.
Solutions for the church: “Push faiths forward to be the place we say we are.”
In light of the specific problems faith communities bring to exacerbate silence on domestic violence, Ms. Fortune suggested people of faith “mine for values” to justify why violence against women shouldn’t happen. Because of the prevalence of scriptural abuse, she said women should start by examining scripture to find resources in the Christian tradition. Where are the resources?
- We must witness to experiences in scripture. Some suggest we omit the violent stories out of the Bible. Ms. Fortune believes it is important to leave them in to remind us that our stories are being told. “Tradition says to tell the story,” she said.
- Know where our story is solidified in scripture. For example, the lamentations in Psalms express grief and sadness, which can aid in truth-telling of abuse and reassure that God does not condone suffering.
- Remember that Jesus came for us to have abundant life. John 10:10 says Jesus did not just come for us to live, but live abundantly. This can serve as consolation that survivors do not deserve abuse in the eyes of God and it does not have to be tolerated.
- Be a balm for each other. Jeremiah’s mourning asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? … Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer. 8:22.) We as Christians need to be a balm for each other, individually and communally, when addressing domestic violence and abuse.
Other solutions need to involve male Christian leaders and address clergy abuse. Men in congregations, whether clergy or lay, need to make their voices heard on issues of violence against women. Encourage them to partner with women’s organizations in the church, like United Methodist Women’s partnership with United Methodist Men to address domestic violence.
Additionally, the Rev. Pamela Tankersley from the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa in New Zealand paved the way for setting up protocols to address clergy abuse. Before, there was no formal way to make complaints about a particular minister in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church. Now, all pastors must be educated about boundary-keeping and their roles as counselors if someone comes to them about matters of domestic violence or abuse. Ministers adopted a code of ethics and an automatic counselor is provided to someone who raises issues of abuse.
This has helped changed the mindset about domestic violence, clergy abuse, or violence against women, because now it is not a hidden part of the church and congregation. People know how to respond effectively.