October 8, 2000
There are some stories I will tell you this morning that are hard to hear but our faith demands that we be truth tellers and our churches must be places where truth is spoken. To do less is to dishonor our covenants with each other as members of the body of Christ. To do less is to turn our back on our covenant with God.
Claudette is a Christian woman in an abusive marriage. Listen to her own words: "Hitting had gone on for a few years before we went for help. We were members of a strict Protestant denomination. They had a counseling center and we wanted Christian counseling. We talked to the counselor about our marriage, our children, about everything, except the violence. Finally, I told him I was afraid of my husband. The counselor told me in front of my husband to be a better wife and mother, to pray harder, to be more submissive. He told my husband he shouldn't hit me. When we got home, my husband only remembered the part about how I should be more submissive."
Here is another true story:
A shelter worker described a battered woman who told her that her church was her family. Her husband and abuser was a church leader. Her appeals for help from her church family and the pastor received little substantive response. They did not support her need for safety. To them, the sanctity of the marriage was more important than her safety. When her husband went for pastoral help to end his abuse, the church told her that he was working on it. However, she continued to be brutally assaulted by him. She later divorced him - losing all sense of family because the church rebuffed her. After a time, he assured her that he had gotten help, and she returned to him. The day after she returned, he beat her. In the wake of the beating, she committed suicide.
More than 50% of all women will experience violence from intimate partners. Wife beating results in more injuries requiring medical treatment than rape, auto accidents, and muggings combined. 30% of women murdered in the U.S. are murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands, or boyfriends. The March of Dimes has concluded that bettering of women during pregnancy is the number one cause of birth defects.
Domestic violence primarily affects women but men are also victims. Violence perpetrated in the home by both partners and caregivers against the elderly and disabled is a growing problem because the elderly population is increasing and more seniors and disabled individuals are choosing to live at home. Children witnessing violence in their homes are deeply affected and the possibility for them to become abusers increases. Women with children fleeing domestic violence make up a large share of the homeless population.
It is more comfortable to think of abusers and victims as the "other" - not like us, not in our pews, not in our neighborhoods, not among our friends and families. But that is denying truth.
This past Friday a Renton man was sentenced to prison for the vicious murder of his wife who had recently announced plans to divorce him. The judge in this case said: "Despite being educated, professionally successful and a church leader, he was typical of abusers, who, despite their community standing, control their partners through psychological abuse and intimidation." The three children of that family are now being raised by their mother's parents.
Last year there were 14,000 domestic violence convictions in Washington State. Since 1990, 247 Washington women have been murdered by their partners or ex-partners. The number of battered women and their children turned away from King County's domestic violence shelters due to lack of space has increased dramatically, leaving thousands of victims without help when they need it most. Domestic violence is the No. 1 reason for homelessness among Snohomish County women and children. A couple of weeks ago I read through the police report in the weekly Monroe Monitor. Eight incidents reported were related to domestic violence; eight in one week. In our pews today are people who have experience with domestic violence. This is a religious issue. The body of Christ is being battered and too
often scripture is used to compel people to stay in abusive relationships. It is a religious issue because people who are abused often feel abandoned or punished by God. People who are victims of domestic violence are oppressed and the Bible mandates that the oppressed be set free. Those in ministry (like much of society) have been ignorant of the magnitude of domestic violence, uneducated in its causes, insensitive in their response to victims, and blind to the role the church and they themselves have played in perpetuating such violence.
Let us look again at the scripture reading from Mark this morning. Jesus is being asked this question about divorce in an attempt to trap him into saying something that could be used against him by getting him to challenge Moses' authority. But, Jesus takes the discussion out of the realm of law and puts it in the context of the purpose of God: "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." This is not the first time Jesus reminds us that human and spiritual values are to be set above specific regulations. While recognizing and honoring that the value of Jesus' words about the marriage covenant is important, we would be greatly in error to take those words and isolate them from his overall ministry of love and justice in relationships in order to justify someone staying in an abusive relationship.
A marriage covenant is not broken because a person leaves an abusive situation. What "God has joined together" is separated when violence or abuse in a marriage occurs and the trust, which was assumed between partners, is shattered. The perpetuator of the abuse is responsible for the fracture of the relationship. We should not be trapped into an assumption that any marriage is better than no marriage at all. Churches and communities that encourage that fašade to be maintained at any cost will themselves become part of the violence.
Our response to the perpetuators of domestic violence must be quick and clear: the abuse must stop. The violence will not be covered up or rationalized by the community. Supporting the victim and making him or her safe will be the priority.
A genuine and substantiated effort for change on the part of the abuser may lead to a renewal of the marriage covenant. But a faithful covenant between people can only exist if there is a clear commitment to nonviolence in the relationship.
We are called by God to respond to injustice. The calls of those oppressed by domestic violence are loud and clear. Listen again to our psalm from this morning:
With my voice I cry to the LORD, with my voice I make supplication to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit is faint, you know my way.
In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
Look on my right hand and see - there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.
I cry to you, O LORD; I say, "You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living."
Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.
Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.
Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name.
The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.
The good news is that we can make a difference; we can be part of the loving response of God to victims. We can be the hands of God providing support and protection for those being abused pulling open the doors of their prisons. We can be the voices of God naming this injustice, calling the perpetuators to account, and being clear that a Christian response to relationship does not tolerate violence.
We must respond by become educated ourselves and then helping to educate others about domestic violence. We must become acquainted with the "myths" surrounding battered victims, and become aware of how many of the social systems (cultural, legal, religious, economic, sexism) subjugate victims, force them into silence, subject them to stigma, and prevent them from having the needed resources to leave abusive situations.
As church we can serve as a first point of contact for victims in faith communities and the wider community who are experiencing domestic violence. We can serve as a bridge to community services and resources creating a relationship that leads to a coordinated response of the community. As individuals we can support those who are suffering and be a sign of God's presence to them. We can challenge ourselves to be willing to struggle with the many questions, which such experiences may raise. Written resources visible in the church will provide information and send a strong message that domestic violence is not to be tolerated. I have put some of those resources out this morning.
This is not easy work; it is not painless work. But, as Christians we cannot turn a blind eye to such injustice. And, as Christians, we know that we are not in this struggle alone. The power of God is available every moment and working to bring justice to all.
Let us pray:
Compassionate and mighty God, help us to meet the challenges of domestic violence in our community. Guide us to ways we might be your hands and your voice of justice. Help us to be prophets, teachers and healers for the wounded and oppressed so that the whole body of Christ may be in healthy and loving relationship. Amen.
Notes: The story of Claudette is taken from "It Could Happen to Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay" by Ola W. Barnett and Alyce D. LaViolette. The story told by the shelter worker is from "Woman-Battering" by Carol J. Adams.