Domestic violence and faith

October 6th, 2014

Staring into the dark hole

Since 1987, October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States. This October, domestic violence was already in the public eye due to a series of incidents involving professional football players.

The most publicized incident centered around two videos showing Ray Rice, at the time a Baltimore Ravens running back, assaulting his then fiancée, now wife, Janay. In the first video, which surfaced in February, Rice drags an unconscious Janay from a hotel elevator. The second, which emerged in early September, shows what happened inside that elevator: Rice punched her in the face. Five months after the first video’s release, the National Football League (NFL) suspended Rice for two games, a disciplinary action roundly criticized as too light—“more farce than punishment,” comments novelist and essayist Roxane Gay. Soon after the second video became public, the Ravens cut Rice from the team, and the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell calls the second video “extremely clear, extremely graphic, and . . . sickening.”

“But what did Goodell or anyone else expect the video to show?” asks sportswriter Mike Florio. “What’s not clear, graphic, or sickening about a criminal complaint signed by a police officer that accuses Rice of doing precisely what the video showed him doing?”

We shouldn’t have to see such abuse to believe it happens, but the Rice videos are, as journalist Ian Brown calls them, “our latest chance to stare into the dark hole of domestic violence.” Our reactions to what we see can show both how our awareness of the problem has increased and what we must still do to address it.

The scope of domestic violence

Domestic violence doesn’t usually make headlines, but sadly it’s a common occurrence in the United States. According to statistics compiled by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in three women has experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. For 3.2 million women, that violence is “severe.” Less frequently, but no less seriously, men are victims: One in ten has been stalked, physically harmed, or raped by an intimate partner. Domestic violence constitutes 15 percent of all violent crimes.

Incidents involving celebrities should remind us that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. “It’s important to note,” says Nanci Kreidman of the Domestic Violence Action Center in Hawaii, “that domestic violence crosses all socioeconomic classes, professions, education levels, religious and ethnic groups. It’s not just the poor and uneducated.” In fact, educated and professional victims may feel more shame, from others and themselves, because they think, “These things shouldn’t be happening to me.”

Domestic violence does, however, disproportionately affect some populations. Women living in poverty, for example, have “fewer options for economic self-sufficiency and social support systems with little ability to offer financial help,” explain researchers Andrea Hetling and Haiyan Zhang. These women feel “more trapped in unhealthy relationships” in which they are at risk. Black women, too, face greater risk: According to The Dallas Morning News, they are “about three times more likely to die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner than members of other racial groups.”

As the Rice story unfolded, TV journalist and talk show host Meredith Vieira told viewers about her own experience in an abusive relationship. “I know it’s rampant in this country,” Vieira said, “and we all have to accept the fact that it’s not just an issue with the NFL—it’s an issue with all of our lives, and until we take it seriously, more and more women are going to get abused.”

Asking the wrong question?

One question that commonly arises in discussions of domestic violence is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It has been asked about Janay Rice—even during last month’s Miss America pageant, when host Kathy Ireland asked contestant Victoria Cowen (Miss Florida), “As a woman, what do you think of her decision?”

Social media is giving victims a chance to answer that question and be heard. Shortly after the second Rice video gained attention, author Beverly Gooden, who herself survived over a year of physical abuse from her former husband, started posting to Twitter statements illustrating the complexity of domestic violence—for example, “I stayed because I was halfway across the country, isolated from my friends and family. And there was no one to help me.” The hashtag Gooden used, #WhyIStayed, quickly went viral, attracting tens of thousands of responses. A companion hashtag, #WhyILeft, also trended rapidly as victims told their stories of escape.

These social media streams are providing much-needed understanding to and support for victims of domestic violence. But another question demands attention. After #WhyIStayed started trending, counselor Noa Ashkenazi told The Globe and Mail, “In the past 24 hours, I have been asked 100 times, ‘Why do women stay?’ None of you ask, ‘Why do men hit? Why do men abuse the women they love?’ ”

No single answer addresses all situations. Many frequently offered ones are wrong. For instance, alcohol does not cause domestic violence, though excessive drinking may increase the risk it will occur. Nor does a perpetrator’s supposed inability to control anger cause the problem; abusers don’t lash out at people in general, but only at certain people under certain conditions.

So why do men hit? “It’s an ideological problem,” states Dr. Jackson Katz, leading antisexism educator and activist. “It’s an attitude about entitlement, about power, about who has the right to control the system. . . . [It’s] a choice about your emotions, and not a big mysterious thing . . . beyond our understanding.”

People choose to commit domestic violence, meaning they can sometimes learn to make different choices. Treatment groups can hold men who abuse accountable for their behavior, teaching them to recognize and take responsibility for their actions, and helping them find new, nonviolent ways to respond to their emotions and interact with their partners.

Domestic violence and the church

The NFL’s reaction to domestic violence has drawn some sharp criticism. Even as Goodell announced that the league “will get our house in order” when handling the issue going forward, many observers remained skeptical. Nita Chaudhary, cofounder of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, claims Goodell “is responding to public outcry. He’s already proven that if the public spotlight isn’t on him..., he’s more than willing to sweep domestic violence under the rug.”

At times the church, too, has failed to address domestic violence in honest, healing ways. Whether by interpreting difficult biblical texts in ways that undercut rather than support victims or by staying silent on the subject altogether, we have been complicit in domestic violence. “I think many pastors still don’t think it exists in their congregation,” says Yvonne DeVaughn, director of Advocacy for Victims of Abuse.

At other times, however, the church does rise to the challenge of speaking and embodying God’s good news of freedom and new beginnings in situations of domestic violence. Some examples:

• Black Mountain (North Carolina) Presbyterian Church trained its staff and volunteer leaders in responding to victims of domestic violence; educated its whole membership, young and old, on the issue with age-appropriate curricula; and committed to “regularly lifting up the issue in worship and once a year in sermons.”
• The Indianapolis faith-based organization Not to Believers Like Us, Inc., sponsored a conference in October 2013 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church to raise awareness of domestic violence among faith communities. The conference urged every congregation to develop a “safety team” and “safety plan” for victims of domestic abuse.
• To address a shortage of space in local shelters, King of Kings Lutheran Church (Milwaukie, Oregon) worked with other congregations and community groups to create a housing project for women and children fleeing domestic violence.
• United Methodist Men is collaborating with United Methodist Women to increase efforts to end domestic violence. “Domestic violence occurs in lots of homes,” says Gilbert Hanke, top staff executive, “including parsonages.” He believes being a real man means not tolerating attitudes that assume women occupy a lower status.

When we as Christians take such concrete actions to educate people, within and beyond the congregation, about domestic violence and to advocate for those affected by it, we follow Jesus, who came to free captives and proclaim good news to the oppressed (Luke 4:18) “so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest” (John 10:10).

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