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Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse: Part 2
Five Pillars of Christian Thought
While national statistics indicate that one in four females and one in seven males are victimized by a current or former intimate partner, spiritual abuse is a tactic overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women.
This series explores the many complex dynamics associated with the pervasive problem of spiritual abuse. It provides a working definition of spiritual abuse; presents a more equalitarian view on the responsibilities and roles of women and men in both religious and secular society; gives facts about the reality of spiritual abuse; and offers readers guidelines and strategies on how to effectively address the issue. To read Rev. Miles's first post in his series on Domestic Violence and Spritual Abuse, click here.
Although spiritual abuse is found amongst couples subscribing to all faith-based, philosophical and religious groups, this series focuses on how the problem affects Christian women. The reason for this specific selection is because Christianity represents the author’s faith tradition and expertise.
About the Author
The Reverend Al Miles is a member of the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Board of Directors. Since 1993, he has served with Pacific Health Ministry as the coordinator of the Hospital Ministry department at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. A nationally recognized expert on how culture, faith, religion and spirituality intersect with domestic and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated against women and children, Miles speaks widely on these topics. He has authored four books and hundreds of articles on intimate partner violence. Rev. Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and has been an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) since 1983.
Here are five of the most frequently cited justifications offered to Christian women as to why they need to stay with an abusive husband.
1. The Sanctity of Marriage
“A marriage must be saved at all cost.” Uttered frequently to abused Christian women by clergy and congregants, the phrase implies that marriage is more sacred than the safety of victims-survivors. Alarmingly, the individual designated to be the marriage “savior,” and the person on whom all responsibility falls to fix any problems associated with marital abuse, is usually the battered wife.
“As a Christian woman, I was supposed to forgive my husband’s abuse, try harder, and save my marriage at all costs,” recalls Mary, who was married for 10 years before finally having her husband arrested for domestic violence. “A Christian woman is supposed to ‘suck it up,’ for lack of a better term, get her head together and stop causing problems by agitating her husband. Then maybe, Christian women are told, husbands won’t have to lash out at us.”
2. Divorce as Sin
The beliefs and teachings about divorce espoused by many Christian leaders and laity have caused problems for Christian women being victimized by their husbands. The idea that marriage is a sacred covenant that must be “saved at all costs,” coupled with the notion that divorce, under any circumstances—including domestic violence—is a personal affront to God and Jesus Christ, has trapped many women of faith in dangerous relationships with violent men.
“After having my husband arrested for abusing me I was told, both verbally and in a letter, that it was against God’s will to divorce my husband,” says Mary. “Due to this urging from my pastor, I spent the next two years in Christian counseling with my abuser. This was a huge mistake. My husband pretended to accept Christ into his life, made a fake transformation and then went right back to his old ways. All the while, my pastor and so many other church members were fooled by this man’s ‘amazing progress.’ They were deceived by him into believing he had repented of his sins and found God.”
3 and 4. Male Headship and Female Submission
Like many Christians, Mary was raised under the notion that men have “God-given” authority over women. “I was taught that the man is the head of the household and always right no matter what. He makes all the decisions and we ‘good Christian women’ are supposed to abide by those decisions. We are also to be submissive and take what is handed to us—even if we are hit, belittled or killed.”
The verses from Christian Scripture most frequently cited to justify men’s authority over women are Ephesians 5:21-33. In Part 3 of our series, we will discuss in detail how these passages have been misused to maintain a patriarchal social system.
Forgiveness is the decision on the part of a person who has been abused, betrayed or wronged in other ways to let go of or put aside, the justifiable anger, bitterness and hurt arising from being victimized. In Christian thought, it is held in the same high esteem as are faith, hope and love.
Although forgiveness can be achieved in a short period of time, it is often a very long-term process. This is especially true when a victimized person has been wronged repeatedly and over a significant period of time, as is usually the case in situations of domestic violence. Please note: an abused woman should not be encouraged or pressured to forgive her offender in order to make him feel better; rather, the virtue should be sought—when she is ready—in order to help with her process of healing and wholeness.
Unfortunately, the concept of forgiveness has been widely misunderstood. As a result, women who have been victimized by acts of domestic violence have often been pressured or rushed into extending forgiveness to the very men who have intentionally and repeatedly violated them. Female survivors are told it is their Christian duty to forgive and forget the damage caused by their male intimate partners. Then, somehow, all the problems associated with abuse and violence will be resolved. Women are further instructed that forgiveness and reconciliation are one in the same. These claims are not true.
Let’s further explore these comparisons.
Forgiveness as Forgetting
It is unrealistic to think a survivor will forget the punishment she has suffered from her husband or boyfriend. This can be better illustrated if we take a moment to recall any devastating occurrence in our own lives. Even if this event happened once, and long ago, it is usually still remembered. Therefore, victims-survivors will most certainly recall acts of continuous devastation, such as those committed in situations of domestic violence.
Furthermore, victims-survivors have disclosed that they felt pressured by pastors and other Christians to “forgive and forget” just as “God and Jesus instruct in the Bible.” But, the saying is actually from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear, spoken by Lear to his daughter Cordelia, whom he has wronged: “You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget, and forgive. I am old and foolish.”
Forgiveness Will Make Everything Okay
One of the problems with this equation is that it presupposes that a survivor’s actions can change an abuser’s behavior. This cannot be done. Still, in many Christian communities, victims-survivors are pressured into forgiving their offenders with the promise that their pronouncement will bring an end to the violence. Such instructions may cause a victim-survivor greater harm or even death.
Forgiveness as Reconciliation
As stated previously, forgiveness is the process of letting go, or putting aside our right to be angry, bitter and so forth, for having been hurt by another human being. Reconciliation, on the other hand, begins with the notion of restoration. It is the decision on the part of two or more people to reclaim, through mutually trustworthy behavior, a relationship that has been broken by abuse, betrayal and other wrongs. It is precisely here that equating forgiveness with reconciliation, especially in cases of domestic violence, can be very risky. A battered woman may choose to let go of her justifiable anger, bitterness, hurt and so forth, while, at the same time, choose not to “restore” a relationship with her offending partner because he cannot be trusted.
Why Christian Victims-Survivors Stay
One of the most frequently asked questions about victims of domestic violence is why so many of the women choose to remain with men who violate them. Curiously, people seldom ask why so many men, Christian and non-Christian, abuse the women they claim to love.
Many factors lead victimized women to stay with abusive men. To name just a few:
- Isolation from family, friends, places of worship and community resources
- The perpetrator’s promises to change
- The perpetrator’s threats to kill, kidnap, or physically harm the victim’s children, parents, siblings, pets and the victim herself, or to kill himself. (Caution: All threats made by perpetrators must be taken seriously. The most dangerous time for a victimized woman, by far, is when she attempts to leave her abusive partner.)
- The victim-survivor loves her abuser. (Most women don’t want their marriages or partnerships to end. They want the abuse to stop.)
- The batterer and others blame the victim-survivor for the abuse and she is told it is her responsibility to fix the problem.
Victimized Christian women have yet another major factor which keeps them in dangerous and unhealthy relationships: religious beliefs, teachings and traditions on the responsibilities and roles of women in both church and society.
In Part 3 of our series we will take a much closer look at how God, Jesus Christ, church doctrine, sacred text and cultural and familial traditions are utilized in ways to encourage male entitlement and male privilege and to demand females to accept subservient roles in both church and society.