Ray Rice punching his wife Janay in an Atlanta elevator was a poignant reminder that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence is a “pattern of abusive behavior in which a person uses coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation and/or force to maintain power and control over an intimate partner” (Miles, 2011). Because it's a silent epidemic of epic proportions, presidents since 1987 designate October Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Still, churches seldom speak of it.
The scope of the problem is stunning. According to a 2010 national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 (35.6 percent) women and 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) have “experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” That same survey found 1 in 4 women (24.3 percent) and 1 in 7 men (13.8 percent) have been “hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something) at some point in their lifetime” by an intimate partner.
Since credible statistics say domestic and sexual violence crosses all cultures, classes, races and religions, the church is not immune. According to Presbyterian Pastor James Poling “more than 25% of the members of a typical congregation have experienced violence. Therefore, victims, survivors and perpetrators are present in every congregation whenever a sermon is preached” (1998). Shocked by this silent epidemic Sojourners' Jim Wallis calls domestic violence “the most prevalent but hidden injustice in our world today. From rape as a weapon of war to human trafficking to attacks on young girls seeking education, the treatment of women and girls across the globe is in a state of crisis” (http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/05/16/its-time-outrage-sexual-violence-and-church).
Conversation among Catholics about domestic violence began after the abuse scandal in 2002. This resulted in a publication by the Conference of Catholic Bishops called "When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women". Curious about Protestant churches response, IMA World Health Organization and Sojourners commissioned a study with LifeWay Research (2014). The results report a majority of pastors (74%) underestimate the level of violence in their congregations and rarely speak about the topic. (http://www.imaworldhealth.org/images/stories/technicalpublications
Cautious because clergy can be untrained, Presbyterian Pastor Bob Owens is reluctant to refer victims to pastors: “If a battered woman asks me whether she should talk to her faith leader or not I usually say no. I doubt that the leader has been trained. If s/he has been trained then s/he would have been talking and praying about it from the pulpit to let people know that they were trained, aware and available” (Fortune, 2010). LifeWay Research echos Owen's concern by citing that (62 percent) of the pastors polled said they provided “couples or marriage counseling” to those disclosing domestic violence (ibid). Many professionals believe this to be a dangerous practice that can escalate violence.
Another roadblock to responding effectively is conducting in-house investigations rather than partnering with outside agencies. Without a partnership with other specialists we can miss warning signs and take sides too quickly. I was consulted in a case like this early in my career. A church leader was berating and battering his wife. It took a toll on their two boys. Hoping for help, his wife told the Elders of the church. But they refused believe her. Naive about the complexities of why women stay, they blamed her because she didn’t leave. That, coupled with her husband’s charismatic personality and popularity resulted in blaming this victim and not holding the offender accountable. Sadly, her husband continued his ministry uninterrupted, but she was relieved of her duties as a lay-minister to the church women. This pattern prompted Catherine Woodiwiss' resource for churches: ‘I Believe You.’ Sexual Violence in the Church (http://www.amazon.com/Believe-You-Sexual-Violence-Church-ebook/dp/B00K1MMX9S).
Speaking for most faith leaders, often our silence comes from not knowing what to do. But because we are sacred sanctuaries and front line responders, God calls us to break the silence surrounding domestic violence by speaking up:
Summarizing, Judges 19 stories a Levite priest who pushes his wife out the door into the hands of an angry mob. They abuse her all night and leave her for dead in the morning. When the Levite woke and opened the door, her hands were draped over the doorway. The writer concludes the chapter with the words: “Consider it, take counsel and speak up!”
For "if no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the observer, its victim is not a victim and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator, both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen. A double injustice occurs...the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears" (Miroslav Volf).
Fortune, M. (March 23, 2010). The invisibility of domestic violence in faith communities. FaithTrust Institute. Retrieved Oct 10, 2014 from: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/blog/marie-fortune/71/?searchterm=the%20invisibility%20of%20domestic%20violence
Miles, A. (2011). Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
Poling, J. (1998). Preaching to perpetrators of violence (p 72). Telling the Truth: Preaching Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. Cleveland, OH: United Church Press.
Woodiwiss, C. (2014). ‘I Believe You.’ Sexual Violence In the Church. A Sojourners eBook.