The month of October takes us in a full-tilt turn toward autumn, with falling leaves and cooler temperatures. A look on our calendars may allude to pumpkin carving, apple picking, and costume parties. With all our holiday festivities and planning, we may be unaware that October is also the month in which our nation recognizes domestic violence. Since 1987, the nation has observed a month of awareness and unity among domestic violence advocates. This act of solidarity is an effort to mourn those who have lost their lives to domestic violence; stand with those who are currently affected; and support, celebrate, and connect those who work with victims. The recognition also keeps domestic violence on the legislative front burner as Congress renews the Domestic Violence Awareness Month Commemorative Legislation each year.
The truth about domestic violence is that it affects all of us. It is not merely something that occurs in the lives of “other” people. We cannot assume that it would never happen to us or that our friends and family would never get involved with an abusive person. The fact is that every ethnicity, every age group, every socioeconomic status, the rural, the suburban, the perfectly healthy, and the physically impaired—they are all affected by domestic violence. Typically, the abusers are male, and the only common risk factor in victims is that they are female.
Facts on Domestic Violence
The current statistics on domestic violence are chilling and invoke a zeal for seeking rescue for victims and changing the course for perpetrators of abuse. For every four women around you right now, one will experience some form of domestic violence. Each year, 1.3 million women in intimate relationships experience domestic violence. Women comprise 85 percent of domestic violence victims. Although most of these women are typically victimized by someone they know, 20–24 year olds face the greatest risk for non-fatal intimate violence by an unknown perpetrator. These statistics might give us pause, but even more disturbing is the fact that most acts of domestic violence are never reported to police.
U.S. statisitics show that half of the men who abuse their wives abuse their children as well. Over three million children are exposed to violence against their mothers, and 30–60 percent of those children probably experience some of that abuse. Approximately 275 million children worldwide witness abuse, which can lead to a repeat cycle of behavior. In fact, the strongest risk factor for children to grow up and become abusive is witnessing abuse between their parents or caretakers. The risk is twice as likely in boys.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that nearly one third of all female homicide victims are killed by their partners. In addition, in 70–80 percent of intimate partner homicide cases, regardless of which partner died, the man physically abused the woman prior to the murder.
Because of these heartbreaking statistics, it may seem that men are always the perpetrators; however, some reports expose domestic violence against men. In these cases, men are less likely to talk about issues of abuse because of cultural pressures that minimize female-perpetrated abuse and require men to maintain an image of strength and fearlessness. One study shows that controlling partners are not limited to one gender. In fact, controlling persons are reported more likely to be physically abusive—and that is equally true for both men and women.
A Christian Perspective
Domestic violence may seem to have less obvious connections to Christian action than, say, feeding the poor or building houses for the homeless. But the Christian faith has much to say about standing with the afflicted, giving voice to the voiceless, and fighting for the oppressed.
God’s very heart is demonstrated in Scripture passages like Isaiah 1:17, “Seek justice: / help the oppressed,” and again in 58:6, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: / releasing wicked restraints, / untying the ropes of a yoke, / setting free the mistreated, / and breaking every yoke?” Psalm10:17-18 confirms that God’s heart is bent toward victims: “LORD, you listen to the desires of those who suffer. / You steady their hearts; / you listen closely to them, / to establish justice for the orphan and the oppressed, / so that people of the land will never again be terrified.” Some translations put emphasis on the restraining perpetrators, saying, “In order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more” (New International Version 1984).
The Christian faith is in no way silent when it comes to violence, oppression, and abuse of power. God has a heart for all who are oppressed.
Misuse of Scripture
Unfortunately, while you can look to the Bible for assurance of where God stands on issues of oppressive behaviors, some have selected passages in the New Testament to excuse—and in extreme cases, condone—domestic violence. Chief among them is Ephesians 5:23, which says, “A husband is the head of his wife.” The chapter also says that husbands are to love their wives, but misinterpretations have been used to force women into submissive roles in relationships. The truth is that this verse is about love, not domination. Husbands should love their wives like Christ loved the church—he loved, served, and gave his life for the church. The passage speaks not of violent domination, but of a serving and loving partnership.
Similarly, in Matthew 5:39, when Jesus tells his followers to “turn the other cheek” (or as the CEB puts it, “If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well”), this teaching has been misconstrued to claim that we are supposed to be doormats and just take whatever comes our way. The verse is more about resistance and mocking an oppressor than about submitting to abuse.
A pamphlet for domestic violence awareness from the Mennonite Central Committee explains that in the time when Jesus gave these instructions, those in a higher-class status might backhand their inferiors on the right cheek to put them in their place. Culturally, an open-handed hit implied equality between the two people involved. Being struck with the back of the hand on the right cheek and then turning to offer the other cheek forced the superior to take an open-handed strike, thus creating a tone of equality.
People can use teachings of the Christian faith to free victims of domestic violence or to keep them bound in oppression. They can expose abusive tendencies in perpetrators or embolden them to greater abuse. In order to make a difference, Christians can dig more deeply into the Bible and discover God’s heart for victims of oppression and abuse. For victims, the Christian faith speaks worth, identity, and wholeness into lives that may have lost all three due to domestic violence. The cumulative witness of the Holy Bible is God’s love and redemption.
What Can Churches Do?
The North Carolina Council for Women and Domestic Violence Commission has created an information packet for religious communities. In the packet, they include lists of ways to make a difference for both victims and perpetrators. For victims, churches and relationships with spiritual leaders can be safe places for disclosure, where victims learn that they are not to blame for the abuse they have endured, and where they can express their hurt and seek a path to healing. Spiritual leaders are called to be ready with Scriptures that lift up victims andteach the church about domestic violence.
For perpetrators, spiritual leaders should confront abusers in a non-aggressive manner and acknowledge the abuse without accepting any excuses or explanations. Church leaders should demand that violent behavior stop and then refer the perpetrator to rehabilitation services in the area. Then, spiritual leaders should follow up with the perpetrator to provide accountability and ensure that he or she is on a path to restoration.
In a 2010 UMC.org article on domestic violence, the reverend Aleese Moore-Orbih shares that “if church members want to help abuse survivors, they have to develop the ‘cultural competence’ that allows them to understand the situations and develop better safety strategies and, hopefully, better outcomes.” She goes on to say that the first step to action is admitting that there are victims of domestic violence right there in your congregation. And while the church cannot replace social services, we can take seriously the call to walk with and advocate for the oppressed. Moore-Orbih calls the church to “give her [the abused woman] the spiritual direction and walk her down the path of wholeness and healing.” We support victims and point them to hope by walking with them on the path to wholeness.
This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.