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?