Every time I asked a question Carol doubled down. Every time I proposed an alternate angle she aggressively dismissed it. When I tried to move the group discussion forward she loudly reasserted her core beliefs. When other women in the group asked questions or shared thoughts Carol shook her head disapprovingly.
I have facilitated hundreds of hours of groups with men, women, and teens experiencing family violence. Facilitating is unlike any other educational setting. It isn’t teaching, or lecturing, or therapy. At its best it is a profound time of connection around shared experience where the participants learn from each other, feel heard and seen, and leave with some new information that encourages them to think differently or consider a new perspective.
That last part is the hardest. Most of us have a hard time shifting our mindset or incorporating new information. Individuals in crisis however have the potential to be more open than most. I always have a deep appreciation for the people I’ve served who have come through deep pain and have the resilience and courage to consider the world in a new way.
Often times in a group-especially an adult group-there is at least one participant who is not only closed off to any discussion that may challenge their existing frame of reference but vocally antagonistic. The truth is that many participants will be feeling the tension of the new information to some degree. And that is okay-even desirable. That is where a skilled facilitator draws out the “why’s” behind the tension and guides dialogue that engages participants on a heart as well as head level.
But for those who are antagonistic such as Carol, their subconscious goal is to shut down dialogue. To protect the ideological framework that they have built. To quiet any voice that might weaken their internal rhetoric. That particular day I struggled for the entire 90 minute group to keep things productive.
In my experience, the degree to which a participant is resistant to new or challenging information is directly related to how much they have to lose or at least their perception of how much they have to lose. People don’t fear change. They fear loss. This is why perpetrator groups are especially challenging. Abusers have a lot to lose if they begin to consider information or narratives that contradict what has rationalized their behavior up to that point.
Carol had a lot to lose. The reason she had a lot to lose was evident from early in the group. Her religious identity, spiritual value, and eternal destiny were at stake. Her religious framework was too rigid to allow any shifts without threatening the entire structure. If she considered that God might not want her to be abused, her theology would crumble. If she considered that it might be okay to call the police on her husband, she might lose the blessing of God on her family for her submissive spirit. If she considered the nature of marriage as a covenant dependent on the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities, it would undermine everything from Adam and Eve on.
Carol could not risk losing the power that she believed she had with God.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely that Carol will be able to make any significant shifts until things become so bad that she begins to question herself or God or at least feel a lack of power with God.
Carol is not an outlier.
I spent nearly a decade at the helm of a nonprofit trying desperately alongside a wonderful group of people to negotiate change. I am currently in the middle of one of the largest corporate mergers in recent history. What have I learned? Almost everyone is afraid of change. Everyone is afraid of changing the status quo unless the status quo is so bad that there are no other options or they are deeply disillusioned. Even then, the fear doesn’t go away it is merely overwhelmed by the fear or pain or cost of not changing.
Even in awful situations most of us find some degree of equilibrium. Even if I have next to no power, I have the security of knowing exactly where I stand, and what my power is. We may have spent many years rationalizing a powerless situation by fabricating a false sense of power. If we are truly powerful in the existing state of affairs we are even more likely to fear change.
There are several questions that arise from this. How do you develop a mentality that embraces normal or natural change. How do you quiet fear enough to rationally assess change? How do you effectively lead others through change? How do you help someone who needs to make a change but is completely closed off? How do you build resilience into your life so that difficult changes don’t bury you?
The answers to all of these questions come down to identity. Knowing one’s self is the key to empowerment. There is great power in the ability to step outside of yourself and examine your past, your emotions, your decisions, your worldview, your beliefs, your personality, your desires, and your expectations. This is not a simple 1-2-3 formula but a lifelong journey of building existential power that no person or change can take away. It is about building the kind of self awareness that allows you to take responsibility for what you have power over, be confident enough to take action but humble enough to recognize that you may be wrong, safe enough to listen well and empathize even when you have nothing in common with the story you are hearing, and courageous enough to believe that your life is valuable enough to invest in a better future.
In an article soon, I’ll start unpacking what that looks like in concrete practical terms.
There is quite a bit of solid info out there about many of the health and well-being impacts of experiencing violence and abuse as a child. The ACEs study which I’ve written about here has illuminated just how significant and long-term the impacts can be.
It’s a little more difficult to find clear info on how abuse and trauma impact our psyche, mindset, and worldview. We all realize intuitively that going through abuse changes a person but it can be difficult to pinpoint the practical ways those changes manifest in a survivor’s life or appreciate just how determinative those changes can be.
I am not a therapist or a psychologist. What I am about to write comes from hundreds of hours spent with survivors and perpetrators of abuse as a pastor, facilitator, advocate, and student of life.
There are a number of mindset shifts that come about in many people who have experienced abuse especially if it was prolonged enough to be considered toxic stress (if you’re not sure what toxic stress is, I’ll be discussing that further in another article). These mindset impacts are not exclusive to or inevitable for abuse survivors. But in my experience they are common. I am going to briefly touch on a few in this article and possibly a few more in a future article.
Faith belongs to the broken. The ones who have felt the blows of time and chance. Those who have felt the weakness of the ones they trust and worse their own weakness. Some are born into bald-faced brokenness and find faith in a blaze of desperation and whole hearted pursuit. Their’s are the testimonies of radical conversion and tv worthy transformation. Others must face disillusionment to find faith. Their stories are slow, painful, tedious. They leave and come back and sometimes leave again. If you’ve been broken faith belongs to you. It offers hope that God can and will put all the broken pieces back in place.
Faith belongs to the tired. Those who began the journey with big bursts of energy. Who ran in sprints but feel like they found a dead end. Sometimes the good works, and fervor, and headlong pursuit leave a weary back and burning lungs, and stinging eyes. For them it is faith that picks them back up. More cautious perhaps. If you are tired faith belongs to you. It assures you that your efforts have not been in vain but not indispensable either. That rest is inevitable and that someone bigger than you is at the helm while you are in the stern asleep.
Faith belongs to the uncertain. Those who wrestle with doubt. The certain have less need for faith. They have dogma. The uncertain genuinely envy the certain at times. The uncertain get tired of asking questions. Big questions. Why questions. Questions that have no tangible answers. But ultimately they develop a faith that is powerful in its persistent stance of hope and appreciation of otherness. Or they don’t. Either way, it is in the doubters that faith is pushed beyond the limits of rationality and has the potential to blossom into its purest form-the substance of things hoped for. If you are uncertain, faith belongs to you. It allows for possibility in the face of the impossible.
Faith belongs to the aged. Those who have seen twilight don’t have the illusion of prolonging the day. They don’t have the luxury of speaking lackadaisically or clinically about mortality. They have learned enough to recognize how little they really know. They have no message but the message of faith. If you are old faith belongs to you. It gives you wisdom born not of learning but of gritty living.
Faith belongs to the dying for they are passing to a place no living have ever seen. Oh, there are stories told by alleged visitors to the hereafter. Gushing anecdotes full of religious caricatures and conflicting theology. If the dying derive comfort from those stories it is because of faith created and nurtured deep in the crevices of their soul not in proof or empiricism. If you are dying faith belongs to you. It takes your hand and guides you into the unknown with the profound sense that you are going home.
Faith belongs to us. It is inclusive. It does not flourish in the mainstream. It takes root on the margins. It gathers strength among the poor, the lonely, the outcasts, the publicans. It sparks on the fringes not only of society but of our hearts as well. Where we-all of us-have pushed our shared experience of inadequacy and insignificance into the shadows. And when we have quieted our fear through achievement, or wealth, or power, or religion we lose our connection with ourselves.
But faith still speaks to us from the dark corners. It echoes off the walls we have built around our pain. Sometimes it whispers through the nagging dissatisfaction of our facade. Sometimes it yells through the familiar pain of someone else. Regardless it persistently calls us to face our brokenness, our weariness, our uncertainty, our death. And when we do-if we do-we may not find resolution. But we will find more honest joys. The joys of truly knowing oneself, of living in genuine community, and of touching others not with pity but with understanding.
For we are all broken. Blessed are we who mourn.
Faith belongs to us.
Trauma shapes us. It alters brain development which shapes not only the way we think but how we interact with others, what we believe about God, what kind of intimacy we like or dislike, how we raise our children, and even our physical health.
Exactly how trauma shapes these aspects of our lives varies widely based on a multiplicity of variables. In fact, the term trauma itself is very broad, encompassing such things as complex trauma, developmental trauma, PTSD, and more.
In the next few articles I am going to provide a very narrow window into how negative childhood experiences can impact adults. Today we will introduce one of the most significant studies ever done on the subject: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. In future articles I will describe some of the common impacts I have observed over the course of my career as a minister and DV interventionist/advocate, and I will touch on some of the factors that influence resiliency and healing.
In 1985 a physician with the Kaiser Permanente Department of Preventive Medicine named Dr. Vincent Felitti was frustrated with the dropout rates of patients in his San Diego Obesity Clinic. In a talk he gave in 2015 Dr. Felitti said there was one case in particular that started everything.
“A young woman came in,” he recalled. “She was 408 lbs. and she asked us if we could help her with her problem. Our first mistake was in accepting her diagnosis of what the problem was.”
In 51 weeks the staff at the obesity clinic helped this woman go from 408 lbs. to just 132 lbs. Before he could proclaim astounding success however, something happened that he thought was “physiologically impossible.” She regained 37 lbs. in three weeks. When he asked her what was happening she said that she had been sleep eating. She would go to bed with a clean kitchen and wake up the next morning to find food out and dirty dishes in the sink.
Dr. Felitti was willing to accept what had happened. What he was confused about was why and why now. She told him that the sleep eating had started the day that she had been propositioned by a co-worker. Dr. Felitti continued to ask questions and discovered that the young woman had been molested as a child by her grandfather. It would be well worth your time to watch Dr. Felitti tell the story yourself.
His personal research and work eventually led to a partnership with the CDC in the mid 90s to launch the largest study of its kind into the impacts of childhood trauma on adult health outcomes. The study involved more than 17,000 people and was built around a simple 10 question survey. The 10 questions were about three types of adverse childhood experiences: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
Dr. Robert Anda who cofounded and helped design the study would later say “This was the first time that researchers had looked at the effects of several types of trauma rather than the consequences of just one. What the data revealed was mind-boggling. I wept. I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
The questions included:
Two thirds of the study participants answered yes to at least one of these questions. Researchers were able to discern noticeable increases in various types of health risk among participants with two and three yesses. But where things really started to jump out was when participants had four or more of these experiences in childhood.
Participant’s with four or more of these “ACEs” saw health and well-being risks skyrocket. They had a 240% greater risk of hepatitis, were 390% more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and a 240% higher risk of a sexually- transmitted disease. They were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.
The evidence showed that “people with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto- immune diseases, and more work absences. Persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life, including those for several of the leading causes of death in adults.”
The results of the original study have been duplicated many times. Since the study was done in the mid 90s, the field of neuroscience has exploded and is helping explain why ACEs have such a significant impact on later life and why it’s so important to address these problems as early in a child’s life as possible.
There are too many of us who are affected directly or indirectly by trauma to neglect exploring its social, relational, and mindset impacts. In my experience some of those impacts include.
And these are just a few. In a follow up article, I will be discussing some of these in more depth.
We cannot afford to live, work, and worship in environments that demand a facade of conformation and do not give us the space or empowerment to heal, transform, and grow.
A few years ago I was sitting in a small circle with a couple of young teenagers and a co-facilitator. I was helping spearhead a brand new program for teens who had been exposed to domestic violence. A boy named Caleb with floppy red hair sat straight across from me. He stared sullenly at the floor. In the couple of hours I had spent around him, I had never seen him act interested in anything or anyone. He barely spoke. He shuffled around begrudgingly and only participated in social interaction when forced to.
I had spoken to his mom earlier that week. She was in the midst of a courageous fight for freedom from a violent abuser. She sat in my office and told me some of their story. She had been abused by Caleb’s father when Caleb was just an infant. She had a second child-a girl- and left their father shortly thereafter. She had some short term relationships during the next few years but nothing solid. When Caleb was 9 she married a man with a teenage daughter of his own.
At first things were okay. But within the first year the man began to batter her. She tried to stay and work it out. She thought things might get better. She wanted a stable home for Caleb and her daughter. But one evening things got worse than they had ever been. Her husband chased her around the kitchen with knife. She fled to the only room in the house that still had a lock on the door-the bathroom.
She told me that Caleb stood in the hallway holding his little sister and watching his stepfather beat on the bathroom door screaming obscenities and threats. Caleb was twelve. He felt like he should do something. But he was torn between protecting his mother and sheltering his sister. In the end he felt helpless to do either.
How does this kind of trauma impact a child? In this article I’m going to provide a simple and at times slightly oversimplified description of the neurological impacts that occur and often follow children into their adult lives when not addressed.
Long before the incident that Caleb witnessed at twelve years old, his brain had already been impacted by trauma. Caleb could not even remember his father but the violence he was exposed to was damaging nonetheless. In order to understand why you need to know a little about brain development.
The brain can be visualized in three basic sections: the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the cerebrum. Caleb, like all babies, developed the raw materials of all of these sections in utero. However, the brain stem is what defined his first experience of life. The brain stem is the control center of the body’s vital functions. Body temperature, breathing, blood pressure, sleep, and digestive functioning all get their cues from the brain stem.
The cerebellum contains what is sometimes referred to as the Limbic system. Among other things, this part of the brain receives input from the senses and begins the process of directing the body to respond appropriately. Stimuli enters a part of the Limbic System called the Thalamus and is passed on to the Amygdala. The Amygdala automatically assesses the emotional significance of the stimuli. If it is potentially threatening it sends the information to the hypothalamus which controls stress hormones including adrenaline that are released to prepare the body for fight or flight. Obviously, a baby cannot fight or flee and must depend on a caregiver.
During the first few years of life the cerebellum does its most significant growth. In fact, many neuroscientists believe that the first two years are the most critical in the development of the cerebellum. It develops in what neuroscientists call a “use-dependent” way. Meaning that the environment and stimuli it experiences program it over time.
During those first couple of years, the cerebrum which is responsible for abstract thinking, rational interpretation, and other higher cognitive functions is only minimally functional. A baby does not have the capacity to rationally think through what it is experiencing. The baby receives input and relies on attunement to a primary caregiver (whose cerebrum is informing and coordinating with their cerebellum) to regulate its emotional state.
While Caleb’s brain was in an important stage of development his primary caregiver-his mother-was in serious danger. Caleb experienced sensory input that was highly threatening and he was completely helpless to contextualize, or respond to it. When the fight or flight response is triggered severely or too often it can do significant damage to the brain’s ability to effectively manage input even in adults who were previously healthy. They see danger in normal every day situations, may struggle to react appropriately to stimuli, may struggle to regulate important bodily functions such as sleep patterns, and may find it impossible to focus or function consistently.
Even more so, young children whose brains are still in the early stages of development suffer serious consequences and in domestic violence situations often live in a constant state of high alert. When fight or flight is triggered it interrupts normal functioning and development.
The classic illustration of fight or flight in action is of stumbling across a bear during a walk in the woods. One second your brain and body are calmly processing input and experiencing a complex interconnected web of feelings, thoughts, and responses. The next second you see the bear charging your direction. In that nanosecond, with no conscious thought on your part, your brain shuts down everything and redirects all your energy to survival.
The Thalamus takes what you are seeing sends it to the Amygdala and the Amygdala sends it to the Hypothalamus which triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. Your veins open up and your heart rate rises pumping extra blood to the parts of your body you’ll need to survive. Your peripheral vision blurs allowing you to focus only on what is immediately important.
You take off running and your brain continues to enable you to focus on nothing other than surviving this bear attack. Your brain is super effective at this task. If you’re tearing through the woods and a tree branch rips your arm open. Your will likely not even register the pain because your brain has filtered that stimuli out as unimportant.
If you manage to outrun the bear your brain and body will slowly return to normal functioning and you have thoughts such as “where am I?” And “Ow, what happened to my arm?” You may experience some initial feelings that are your brain's way of beginning to process the experience. You may cry or laugh or shake. When you make it back to civilization you will probably tell everyone you know. You may have some nightmares, schedule some counseling sessions, or take a survival class. You will never forget the experience but you will gain the ability to reflect on it without having a physiological response.
Caleb grew up with a bear in his home. During some of the most important developmental years of his life, his brain was constantly being interrupted and his body was being placed in fight or flight mode. He may not have remembered his father but his brain had locked in the trauma and, without access to the normal ways that people in healthy environments have to process such experiences, in some ways his brain had become frozen in time.
As I looked across the circle at Caleb, I knew that his sullen demeanor was a protective wall for a brain that struggled to see anything but threats. Like many children with unprocessed trauma, Caleb struggled to attune to social cues, focus on cerebral tasks, or even participate in athletic or team activities that required brain and body to coordinate with others. The balance between his cerebrum and his Limbic system was skewed heavily toward the survival functions of the latter. The medial prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum is supposed to inform the emotional and survival responses of the Limbic system. When someone raises their voice, the cerebrum coordinates with the Amygdala to discern if they are just trying to be heard or if they are threatening harm. Are these arms wrapped around me hugging me or trapping me? Is that stranger staring at me or simply glancing around the room?
Those kinds of determinations are often made by our brains with little conscious thought on our part. But for Caleb the healthy coordination of his brain has been interrupted by trauma.
That day I wanted desperately to break through his defenses and help him connect body, mind, and community. I picked up a little squishy ball out of a bag of prizes beside me and tossed it gently in his direction without breaking my talk. I motioned for him to throw it back. For the next fifteen minutes We made a game of him trying to surprise me with a throw. I don’t know if he heard anything I said about anger or whatever I was talking about at the time. But his body loosened up. He smiled. His movements became rhythmically attuned to mine as we threw and caught the ball. For a few minutes he came down from high alert and connected. When I speak to churches and nonprofits, I talk about simple, practical ways such as this to connect with and provide healing space for children.
In his fascinating work The Body Keeps the Score, one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk writes “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful satisfying lives.”
And he is not simply referring to immediate symptoms. He is talking about long term health.
What I have attempted to show in this article is the devastating neurological implications of experiencing family violence in childhood. In my next article I will tackle the practical and sometimes subtle ways that these experiences shape survivors, particularly those who struggle to find the space or resources to properly heal.
This article is going to give a partial answer to three common questions I get about about children and domestic violence.
How do children get exposed to domestic violence? What are the immediate effects? What can I do to help a child who has been through it?
First-how children are exposed to domestic violence. When domestic violence is happening in a household children experience it in a variety of ways. You can break it down into three categories:
While some types of exposure may be more traumatic than others it is important to understand that all of these are extremely damaging and have the potential to cause lifelong challenges. In another post I am going to discuss the neurological implications of experiencing DV. For now let’s move on to some observable symptoms that often accompany exposure. It’s important to note that a some of these symptoms in isolation and moderation can be present in normal healthy childhood.
I’ll try to break these into categories as well for ease of reference.
In future articles, we will explore how these symptoms follow children into their adult lives and the types of challenges that they develop in to.
For now, let me offer a few simple suggestions to those who may be trying to figure out how to help a child who has been exposed to DV.
Empathy, honesty, and respect go a long way with anyone who has experienced trauma and children are no different. You can make a difference and there are lots of reasons to be hopeful for healing. Some of the most resilient, courageous people I have ever met overcame abusive childhoods. When I speak to churches, nonprofits, and business teams about DV, power, and resilience, I carry with me a humbling appreciation for the many survivors who have taught me through their own grit and courage that it is possible to overcome.
By Andy and Kristen Wallace
Jane is frazzled, anxious...and downright scared. You see, she's in an abusive relationship.
The story we’re about to tell you is true. The characters are fictional. But the story has been played out in more or less the same way thousands of times. You may very well have lived it yourself.
Jane scoots into her pew after dropping her youngest off in the nursery. She wrangles her other two in behind her trying to ignore the disapproving stares of the people who weren’t late. She wrestles her mom purse and the children’s coloring supplies under the pew in front of them.
Jane is frazzled, anxious, self conscious, a little bit of a mess, and downright scared. You see, she is in an abusive relationship. Her husband yells at her, curses her, threatens her, tracks her whereabouts, and has hit her several times.
The pastor gets up and begins his sermon with a reading from 1st Peter. Jane doesn’t hear much of the introduction because she’s getting the coloring out for the kids. She tunes in just as her pastor begins to tell a story. He tells about a woman who was in an abusive relationship. He doesn’t actually call it that. But he describes how the husband berates, pushes around, demeans, or maybe even hits his wife occasionally. But the wife-the pastor tells the congregation with admiration in his voice-she stays and she prays and she keeps going to church and doing her Christian duty day in and day out. Years go by. The wife remains faithful to God and to her husband. She is meek and quiet. She doesn’t nag or fight back. She serenely goes about being a good Christian woman. And guess what? After 15 years, the husband is converted and they live happily ever after. All because she stayed and prayed.
...It's more important to preserve the power structure of the home than to have a healthy relationship.
I can’t really tell you how Jane reacted to this story from her pastor. There are many Janes. More than you realize. They all respond in different ways.
Let’s break the pastor’s story down a little. First of all it’s important to state the explicit teaching. The lesson is that it is more important to preserve the power structure of the home than to have a healthy relationship and that it is godly and heroic to endure abuse because that is the most likely way to secure a positive spiritual outcome. Stated with more religious potency, God approves of preserving structural power even when abusive and provides spiritual benefits to those who submit.
There are a number of commonly held religious values that serve to undergird this teaching. We’re going to identify just two important ones here. The first value is that of unquestioned obedience to positional authority. There is a reverence for the virtue of following the leader whether the leader is right or not. In some cases the leader being wrong merely amplifies the nobility of obedience. This obedience is seen as a sign of faith and godliness.
The second value builds upon the first. It is that positional authority (especially in the religious and home settings) is divinely bestowed based on an ordained power structure. This value places primacy on preserving the power structure at all costs. In much of conservative Christianity, that power structure centralizes authority in the hands of men, particularly husbands and male religious leaders. Obeying one’s husband or pastor becomes directly connected to obeying God himself because God structurally ordained their authority.
This value is so potent that abuse itself can be excused or at least endured by appeals to Providence. The reasoning goes that if God ordained this authority structure, then God must have ordained how this power is being used. Furthermore, in connection with the first value, resisting or questioning that God ordained authority brings fear of divine judgment. Many abusive religious leaders have gotten a pass under the protection of the sorely misapplied quotation: “touch not God’s anointed” or similar veiled threats about the mortal and spiritual danger of questioning the “Man of God.” Many an abused wife has stayed with their abuser out of fear of divine disapproval for “coming out from under their husband’s protection” or “breaking their vows” or “destroying the family unit.”
These broad values are not always enough by themselves to keep victims of religious/spiritual abuse or intimate partner abuse from wanting out. There are several specific motivators that are layered on top and are implicit in the story we began with. The story plays on a victim’s desire to be a good faithful Christian. Often, there is the implication of heavenly reward for enduring abusive power patiently. Victims may have a deep emotional attachment to the abuser and are given the impression that submitting to them may be the only way to eventually save them. The victim may be told that they will be a good testimony to the outside world by submitting in the face of abuse. And deep down, the entire framework of the victim’s faith hangs in the balance. Staying in the abusive situation may give a victim some sense of control over their inner spiritual lives. Even though they may be abused on the outside, they cling to the idea that they can choose to remain submissive and thereby keep the approval of God.
Whatever the setting of abusive power, the victims lead stifled lives at best..."
In the meantime, there are dreadful results compounding every day that the abuse continues. The most obvious impact is on the immediate quality of life of the victim. The victim must live in constant fear. And this is true even in situations where there is no physical violence. Imagine a victim being given fifty dollars one morning by their abuser to buy groceries. That day she goes to Wal-Mart and buys fifty dollars worth of groceries and some feminine products. Later that night, her abuser returns home and demands the money back.
She is caught off guard and tries to remind him that he told her to get groceries. He begins to berate her and tell her that he never said any such thing. He calls her wasteful. Says she is ignorant of the real world. Says that she doesn’t know how to handle money. She is the reason they have money problems. He implies that she is not a good mother.
When he looks through the items she bought he expresses disgust at the feminine products and can’t believe that she already needs more. She doesn’t exactly believe everything he says and she tries to defend herself but his demeanor is intimidating and he is very sure of himself which makes her doubt whether she made a mistake. So an ordinary day with a mundane and necessary activity such as getting groceries has become a source of fear and anxiety.
Now imagine that this woman experiences something similar almost every day over almost any equally mundane activity. Or, almost more unsettling, experiences it completely unpredictably over things that had previously been accepted. Perhaps her abuser is simply constantly berating her over her imperfections. He fusses about money management. He criticizes her weight. He undermines her parenting. He scorns or warns about her friends. Imagine the constant anxiety and fear.
Religion can be just as battering. The constant refrain of much religious preaching is that the hearers need to do better. A pastor may lay out an unattainable list of expectations and create an atmosphere in which congregants police each other and shame and fear become the working capital of an oppressive spiritual economy.
Post something on social media that the pastor doesn’t like? You can bet the Facebook police will let him know of your actions and that you will be publicly shamed from the pulpit.
Wearing your high heels or your skirt an inch too high? You can bet that you will be the recipient of an entire public sermon directed at you and other “baby Christians” or “backslidden believers” just like you.
Those who learn to play the game well rise in status. Working in every ministry possible and pulling 12 hour church shifts on Sundays, these people are set on a pedestal and heralded as truly spiritual and committed to Christ.
Those who struggle or question the rules of the game are shunned or shamed. Many simply try to fly under the radar while nursing a devastating insecurity about their place before God. It’s a double tragedy when a person is experiencing this at church and at home.
Whatever the setting of abusive power, the victims lead stifled lives at best. There is never any room for real self discovery, positive growth, creativity, or joy. These last couple of paragraphs don’t even touch on cases where abuse is physical or sexual.
The relationship rests on a field of eggshells. It is filled with undertones of cynicism and distrust and jealousy.
And the victim’s’ quality of life only scratches the surface. When abusive power goes unchecked, the victims’ relationships are also decimated beginning with their relationship to the abuser. By not confronting abusers and reconfiguring the relationship dynamics, not only is hope destroyed for the victims, but the abuser is the loser as well- albeit in a totally different way. The relationship rests on a field of eggshells. It is filled with undertones of cynicism and distrust and jealousy.
The victim also begins to lose healthy relationships with others. The abuser must isolate the victim from people who are not under the abuser’s power. An extreme example of this is the compound of a cult. Isolating people from others outside of the religious leader’s influence is a remarkably effective way of maintaining power. Many churches emphasize a less extreme but still insidious doctrine of social separation that serves mainly to increase the leader’s influence over the members. The practical nature of this approach is easy to see in an intimate partner setting. The abuser doesn’t want his partner spending time with anyone who may validate his partner, plant doubts about the nature of the relationship, or provide her a support system that decreases his leverage.
For relationships that the victim has within the abuser’s sphere of influence the results are even worse. Competition and jealousy and self preservation separate the members of a household or religious community into classes. In many, if not most abusive marriages, the hierarchy is simple; husband, sons, daughters, wife. While the children may for a time be under the authority of their mother, eventually the pattern of abuse puts her on the bottom rung in terms of value and worth.
This is one reason why counterintuitively, children from abusive households often blame and resent their mother (the victim) as much or more than their father (the abuser) especially if he reserved the severest abuse for their mother. The extended family are forced to take sides and surprisingly often side with the abuser for reasons that are important but outside the scope of this article.
Religious communities also traditionally skew heavily toward male priority in establishing the classes. They also tend to come up with a diverse set of shibboleths that test the member’s stances or commitment to issues related to outward appearances, specific social activities, or political positions.
The consequences of encouraging a victim to remain in an abusive relationship are unthinkable.
Perhaps one of the most devastating impacts of abusive power going unaddressed is the long term impact on future generations. The effects of these abusive atmospheres on children are only recently being fully recognized. We don’t have the space to go into any depth here. But suffice it to say that abuse is cyclical and crawls its way from generation to generation spawning destruction the whole way. There are neurological impacts, psychological impacts, economic impacts, social impacts, and relational impacts that often require years of therapy and incredible resilience to overcome. It is also important to note that studies indicate that there is about a fifty percent likelihood that a man who physically or sexually abuses his partner will abuse their children as well.
The stakes are incredibly high. The consequences of encouraging a victim to remain in an abusive relationship are unthinkable. The consequences we have outlined thus far assume that the victim survives. Many a victim has been told to stay with their abuser and wound up dead.
...the one with all power and all justification to use that power in a demanding way...gave his power to the powerless.
Let’s go back to where we started for a moment. If misguided religious values would lead Jane to remain in an abusive situation, does that mean that religion-Christianity in this case-must be discarded all together as an impediment to freedom from abuse? Having spent a great deal of time with a great number of survivors, we can tell you that many of them felt that they had to make a choice between their faith and their freedom. Church dogma about divorce, submission, prayer, forgiveness, suffering, and many more have all been wrested to support misplaced values about power and this pose a barrier to victims.
However, we believe that this does not have to be the case. Theology-orthodoxy and orthopraxy-can provide a robust case for power that is empowering and faith that makes a way for victims and holds abusers accountable.
The very foundation of Christianity is that the one with all power and all justification to use that power in a demanding way, laid his glory aside and used his power to heal the sick, bind up the broken hearted, set captives free, challenge the religious establishment, forgive the prodigals, minister to the outcasts, and ultimately lay down his life for all humankind to literally give us access to and power with God. He gave his power to the powerless.
That’s not some trite cliche about empowerment. It’s much more transcendent than petty enforcements of temporal power structures. The life of Jesus is the ultimate example of empowerment. He turned the concept of hierarchies on its head. The status of positional authority is profane and ugly when it is used for selfish purposes. But when the master washes his disciples feet he engages in a profound, beautiful exchange of power.
In the earliest Christian epistle James wrote to the believers that “pure religion” is characterized by its care for those without social status or power in that day such as orphans and widows. He continued with a categorical condemnation of favoritism or prejudice in the church.
Throughout Paul’s epistles, the teaching about relationships is concerned with mutual benefit, empathy, compassion, respect, consideration, and importantly, accountability. Serious warnings are given to those who abuse their power or treat others poorly. Every single passage in the New Testament that specifically addresses marriage-which incidentally are few in number-presents a picture of mutuality not dominance.
In our opinion, people of faith have a responsibility and an incredible opportunity. Namely; to educate themselves on the dynamics of abusive power and bring to bear the chain breaking, tyranny defying, victim rescuing, abuser busting power of good theology, sacred community, and informed transformation. For many people of faith who are used to a religious exercise that is static and conformation oriented, this may be scary because it will feel like a loss of control. But effectively ministering to victims of abusive power will require a value shift from protecting the status quo to giving power away.
There must be a place where family intimacy gives opportunities for mutual accountability, support, and even intervention if needed.
What are some practical ways that faith communities can systemically address abusive power? First of all, the church cannot pretend to be the expert on every single issue. Domestic violence is a complex, dangerous, multi layered problem that people have dedicated entire lifetimes to studying. Jane’s pastor thinks that because he’s had a few experiences with troubled marriages or taken a few classes on couples counseling or counseled many couples, or heard stories about domestic violence from other pastors in his echo chamber that he is qualified to give blanket recommendations from the pulpit. He is not.
This is not to say that pastors don’t bring a valuable perspective to the issue or that they have nothing to offer. In fact, just the opposite is true. If we are arguing for anything in the article, it is that victims and abusers need powerful and informed churches and ministers. But in order for that to happen, those churches and ministers must avail themselves of the resources of organizations that specialize every day in the dynamics and logistics of the issue. How might the landscape look different if more churches partnered publicly with their local shelter, had a local expert present once or twice a year in their services, and paid for training for their staff?
Secondly, faith communities can model appropriate use of power by putting processes in place that clearly make those with positional authority accountable to those outside the direct impact of their power. There are a number of ways to do this which we don’t have space to go into here.
Thirdly, faith communities should intentionally create appropriate space where authenticity and vulnerability are protected, valued, and modeled. Robes and rituals and worship traditions are important. But there must also be a place where family intimacy gives opportunities for mutual accountability, support, and even intervention if needed.
What if Jane were part of a congregation where no one was as concerned with an uninterrupted service as they were about helping Jane get settled in with her kids? What if no one felt the burden of comparison with Jane or felt embarrassed for her over her lack of being put together? What if the pastor affirmed the evil of abuse and the heart of the gospel for the oppressed instead of telling a half baked anecdote completely devoid of the complexities and nuance of real life? What if the foyer table included a pamphlet about a shelter that would give some reassurance to Jane that she could confront her abuser and have a place to escape to in the likely event that his abuse escalated because of the confrontation? What if Jane knew others in the church who had been through trauma in their past and had experienced healing through therapy?
What if Jane’s church wasn’t busy measuring spirituality and quantifying godliness and verbally flagellating in a paradoxical grooming of self righteousness? What if they were taking the beatitudes to heart and looking for the favor of God toward the poor, the broken, the persecuted, and the meek?
What if they gave Jane power?
My wife, Kristen, is a competitive powerlifter. On her dead lifts she is very close to being in the 300 club. Yes. 300lbs. I regularly get jokes about how she is stronger than I am. I want you to know though that I can lift a car. I’m not exaggerating. I am capable of lifting a car without a jack or a mechanical lift. All I need is a little bit of leverage. I could lift a vehicle of up to 5,000 lbs. with just a fulcrum (think the middle part of a seesaw) and a lever about 12 yards long. The Ancient Greek Archimedes famously said “give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.”
Leverage plays a role in most relationships whether at home or at work. Leverage is not inherently bad or good. In a relationship context it simply refers to any process that allows one party to exponentially multiply their degree of influence on another party. Intimate partnerships such as a marriage inherently create an enormous amount of leverage between the two people. This leverage can either be used coercively or cooperatively.
In a domestic violence relationship, the batterer uses a variety of coercive tactics to increase their leverage. When people ask why a victim doesn’t leave, what they are really missing is an awareness of just how much leverage the abuser has. Leverage can turn a small amount of force into an incredible amount of stopping energy.
Sometimes a person with a family member or friend in an abusive relationship will tell me “we’ve told her she could come stay with us but she just won’t leave him!” They are often in disbelief that a victim would stay because in their minds the only barrier is having a place to stay. But there are always a large number of visible and invisible ways that the abuse has leverage. The victim may believe that the abuser would hurt another member of the family (in fact, one study found that in 20% of intimate partner homicides the homicide victims were not the domestic violence victims themselves, but family members, friends, neighbors, persons who intervened, law enforcement responders, or bystanders). The victim may believe that the abuser will win custody of the children. The victim may believe that divorce is a sin. These are all forms of leverage that the abuser may be using coercively. And these only scratch the surface.
Domestic violence prevention and intervention centers or shelters are fundamentally in the leverage mitigation business. They provide ways for victims to take leverage away from their abusers. Shelters provide so much more than just a roof. They provide professional counseling to help reduce psychological leverage, life coaching and support groups to help reduce emotional leverage, educational and job resources and transitional housing to help reduce economic leverage, attorneys to reduce legal leverage or leverage related to custody issues, and much more.
Even in intimate partnerships where there is no abuse, many struggles occur because of coercive uses of leverage.
In the corporate world things can be just as bad. Sexual harassment, discrimination, and toxic work environments, often have coercive leverage holding them together.
In many marriages and corporate settings, things are not that severe. No one party is trying to dominate or control the other parties. However, that doesn’t mean that coercive leverage is not being used at all. Before I go any further it’s important to note that I believe that marriage is a true partnership where at any given time or in any given setting either party might be providing leadership while in a corporate setting there is usually a defined hierarchy. Regardless, in both settings one or more parties are prone to manipulate others and may at times use coercive leverage to do so. In fact, those who see themselves as positional authorities (managers, bosses, and-in many cultural and faith traditions-husbands) have often been taught a style of leadership based on coercion that they use even when they have good intentions.
Leverage is not always unhealthy however. Most of us use leverage in some way or the other every day. Leverage is an important tool for progress. So how do we know when leverage is unhealthy? Here are a couple of giveaways that you may be experiencing or practicing unhealthy leverage:
My Father taught me to be a man. He did not teach me to be a cultural stereotype or a caricature. He didn’t fill me with gender role rhetoric-conservative or liberal. Sometimes he told me to be tough and sometimes he held me and gave me a kiss.
My Father taught me to be a man. There were times when we spoke about manhood. But mostly, I think I just followed his example. He is six foot tall, solidly built, well educated, exceptionally intelligent, articulate, and self motivated. There are many situations in which he is the most powerful person in the room whether in terms of influence, intelligence, capacity, position, or physical dominance. And routinely as a matter of intentional habit, I have watched him use his power in those situations to empower others.
My Father taught me to be a man. Not a macho man with no feelings or pain. A flesh and blood man who accepts pain as part of living and walks through it believing that it has purpose. He taught me that there is no shame in the unavoidable fact that there are some things in life that you cannot overpower or be the best at. Resilience-getting back up-is a skill set that has value whether you win or not.
My Father taught me to be a man. He taught me that being well rounded means being able to access and utilize a diversity of responses. He is not monochromatic or static. Life is nuanced and so is he. Hammers are good for some things. But any man can tell you that having the right tools is half the job. Life is the most complex job that exists. Sometimes it needs blunt force. More often it needs precision and care.
My Father taught me to be a man. He never went looking for conflict. He taught me that physical violence was a last resort or a rare necessity to avert a crisis. He taught me that the greater nobility was in not having to strike back. He taught me to use power to protect the vulnerable and stand up to those who abused others. The most honorable use of strength is to serve the interests of greater virtues such as love, equality, and peace. And the highest outcome is forgiveness and reconciliation.
My Father taught me to be a man. He didn’t use words like “sissy” or “wimp” or “gay” as pejoratives to shame his sons into building a facade of pseudo-strength. He let us express pain or disappointment appropriate to the circumstances and stage of life we were in. There is a time to cry and a time to suck it up.
My Father taught me to be a man. He treats my
Mother with respect. He never told me girls were gross or that women weren’t as smart or capable or valuable as men. I have never heard him practice or excuse sexually domineering behavior or language of any kind.
My Father taught me to be a man. To be strong and meek. To be willing to fight but be eager for peace. To be able to speak up but to practice being a good listener. He taught me to play to win, to play to learn and to play to have fun and that it’s possible to do any one of those three without the other two. He taught me to stand up to the oppressor and serve the oppressed.
My Father taught me to be a man. The things he taught me I am striving to teach my son AND daughter. Because the virtuous and ethical use of strength and grit and competitiveness, are not exclusively applicable to one gender. These lessons may apply to different people in different ways. And they usually apply to the same person in different ways at different times in their lives. If that’s too complex and nuanced for you perhaps you should spend some time learning from my dad.