Where is God in Abusive Relationships? by Karen Leslie Hernandez


karenLast October, 2013, I filed charges with the New England United Methodist Conference against my former partner who is a Pastor with the New England United Methodist Church. I was in a relationship with this man for a little over three years, and in that time, he was abusive. On March 1, 2014, a Just Resolution was signed by myself and my former partner, concluding the judicial process carried out by the United Methodist Church within its Book of Discipline. This piece is to bring awareness, giving me the ability to write of my experience, and give invaluable insight into domestic abuse and all its fallacies.

The Facts

Did you know that an average of three women die every day in the United States at the hands of their husbands or partners? Did you know that every nine seconds a woman in the USA is assaulted or beaten? Did you know that around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime? Did you know that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined? Did you know that studies suggest that up to ten million children witness some form of domestic violence annually? Did you know that nearly one in five teenage girls who have been in a relationship, said a boyfriend threatened violence or self-harm if presented with a breakup? Did you know that mental and emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse?

These statistics are somewhat staggering and extremely alarming. Women, and men, for that matter, from all backgrounds, find themselves in all types of abusive relationships. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, the color of your skin, how much money you make—all women can fall into this trap. I know this because I experienced an abusive relationship.

[Note: This post is about domestic violence and abuse, a sensitive and important topic. And because we considered it important to the integrity of the post, this blog is longer than the usual posts published on FAR.]

My Story

My abusive relationship lasted for a little over three years and ended in February, 2013. In the time we were together, this man, who happens to be a United Methodist Pastor, mentally and emotionally abused me. He would do things such as tell me he was ashamed of me, yet, that he loved me, then would turn on a dime and tell me he was using me and all I was good for was a “fuck.” He cheated on me with a married woman, and he threatened to kill me in the Fall of 2011.

Why did I stay? Well, I saw the good, and I simply loved him. But, I also stayed because every time he would do something to me, he would threaten to end his life. Yes, I understand that this was part of his abusive, controlling, narcissistic, manipulative behavior, while I was in it, and even more so now that I am out of it. However, coming from an abusive childhood, and having someone close to me as a child who tried to end their life three times before I was twelve years old (and yes, this man knew this about my past), the cycle of abuse I found myself in was anything but unfamiliar.

Some Insight

It is difficult to explain what it is like when you are in an abusive relationship. It is even more difficult to explain what an abusive relationship is like when you are out of it—looking back and trying to articulate the fear, the uncertainty, the confusion, the pain, and the trauma, is a difficult process.

As you break away from your abuser, there’s also a realization that you will always be tied to this person – it will never fully go away. Yes, we move on, but the emotional ties are incredibly strong and the aftermath of the relationship sits there, looking you in the eyes. There are choices to make and questions to ask. Such as, do you, as the abused person, talk openly about the relationship, or remain silent, as you did while in it? The reality is that you are never fully away from the ramifications of an abusive relationship. Domestic abuse becomes a framework of who you were, who you are, and who you will be.

There’s another side to abusive relationships as well—when you are in an abusive relationship, people judge you. I had one friend stop talking to me because I was a “bad role model” to my college age daughter. I had two other close friends and colleagues tell me I must, “… like the drama, because you keep going back.” Ah, yes, that was most definitely it. I loved the drama so much so that I stayed for the pure elation it brought me, especially when it felt as if I didn’t matter at all; as if I wasn’t worthwhile or revered as a human being. I loved that I was a bad role model to my daughter while in this relationship. I loved that I felt trapped while in this relationship. I loved walking on egg shells and fearing if I said something “wrong” it might set him off. I loved that I was confused, couldn’t concentrate on anything, and felt isolated while in this relationship. I loved that at times, I felt like the whole relationship was a mess because of me. I loved that I was scared of him. I loved that overwhelming feeling I would have when I would think of leaving after an incident, and then I would get a text that said, “My life isn’t worth living.” I loved that I loved a man that only chose to hurt me. Yes, I “loved” the drama. Indeed, that is exactly why I stayed.

I believe that before this relationship, I would say to myself, Why do women stay in abusive relationships? Why don’t they just leave? I thought that I would never let myself be treated that way. I was far too smart for that. I was too strong for that. I was wrong. Any woman, or man, can find themselves in my exact situation. This is important to recognize. It is important not to judge when you haven’t been there, or even when you have, because there are many factors on both sides when it comes to abusive relationships, and every relationship is different. It is important to understand that while the abused person is in the well, they are trying to get out. They want out. They are looking up and they can see the light and the rim of the well. They have their hands on the ladder and they see everyone above them, outside the well, telling them to come out – it’s safe where they are. Yet, the abused person is stuck, knee deep in the mud, knowing they need to leave, but, for various reasons unbeknownst to all those who think it looks so easy, they just can’t get out.

Accountability

I admit it—I have accountability for staying in the relationship. I could have left the first time I felt inadequate; the first time he told me he was ashamed of me; after the countless times he told me he was just using me; or, after the first time he lied to our mutual friends and his own family about the nature of our relationship. I could have left when he cheated on me, and yes, I should have left when he threatened to kill me. I really could have left multiple times. I chose to stay. I have accountability in that.

I stayed for a myriad of bad reasons, but mostly I have realized that I stayed because I had already been there before. Even though I loved him, yet was miserable, I was, in an odd way, comfortable. I was in familiar territory. I already had the coping skills to deal with such a relationship that I had developed as a child, so, I dealt with it like a pro. Yet, I didn’t understand this until I got out. I didn’t understand why, when he threatened to kill me while sitting literally inches away from me in bed, I didn’t jump out of the bed. Why didn’t I put my arms up to defend myself from what he conveyed in his words and anger? I understand all of this now that I am out and more clear-headed. As a child, I had already been exposed to how to live with someone who had violent tendencies. I already had been exposed to someone who threatened me and actually physically harmed me, so for me, my coping mechanisms kicked in and I just lived in it.

Seeking the Divine

I would say that the biggest aspect I struggled with was the question of, Where was God in this relationship? I am a theologian and I was dating a Pastor, after all. Was God even there? Was God present in my partner, or in me, at all? It was perplexing, because he would and still does exude God’s presence to everyone else. I would watch him in action, and as people reacted to him and his pastoral presence, his spirituality, and his sense of calm and peace, I wondered why he wouldn’t show that side of himself to me. Why did he despise me, hate me, make love to me, say terrible things to me, hold me, cheat on me with a married woman, but show, what seemed like, authentic love, to everyone else? Where was God in his actions? Where was God in my bad decision to stay?

Sometimes my partner would say I was like God because I gave unconditional love again and again each time he hurt me. It took another pastor friend of mine to tell me how manipulative that was and how it gave my partner that much more control over me. Of course I see it now, but, at the time, I was even smitten with his comment, thinking I was like God to him.

Finding My Voice Again

As a writer, this is my outlet. This is my voice. This piece has been a long time coming. In the little over three years I was with this man, over 3000 women died at the hands of their partners in the USA. I often wondered if he was really capable of killing me as he threatened. At times I would lay awake staring at him, telling God how much I loved this man, who was so warm lying next to me, holding me so tightly, with perceived love, and I even felt safe in those moments. Yet, I was afraid of him at the same time. It was very confusing.

After moving away from Massachusetts last Summer, I was removed from the memories of the relationship that were all around me. This was the best thing I could do for myself and it empowered me to finally file charges in October of 2013. The process within the United Methodist Church is arduous, but, detailed and thorough. After my initial charge in writing, backed by choice emails and texts, my former partner had the opportunity to write his response to my charges. Of course, his abuse continued even then, and he denied everything. I then had to come back with more incriminating emails and texts, illustrating that he had even had a second affair with another married woman before he met me, to illustrate a pattern in his behavior. With that, he had no choice but to admit to his abuse and inappropriate behavior.

What I absolutely love about the Just Resolution within the United Methodist Church judicial process, is that is comes from me. The Just Resolution is designed to give me, my voice back. This is more empowering than I can ever explain. The Just Resolution gave me back my muted voice that was taken away while in the relationship. It lets me be heard and it enables me to hold an abusive man accountable. This is a luxury that most abuse victims do not receive.

I cannot give exact details on the Resolution, but what I can say is that instead of retaliation or retribution, I chose rehabilitation. My former partner has about five years of work ahead of him to fulfill the Just Resolution, and his future with the United Methodist Church as an ordained clergy person is still in question. The best part of our agreement is that I gave myself the gift to be able to use my voice to speak of my experience to help others.

I chose rehabilitation because for me, retribution won’t restore my former partner, or, myself. In my seeking a Just Resolution, I was never seeking revenge, but, my voice, and more, holding my former partner accountable for his atrocious actions as someone who preaches righteousness from the pulpit, but wasn’t living his truth. In my holding my former partner accountable in the Just Resolution, he has no choice but to hold himself accountable, and now, live his truth. The justification of the Just Resolution for me, is that it enables me to feel human again. The Just Resolution evens the playing field. My former partner is no longer in control. I am. I am very proud that I stood up and said, No. You were wrong and you will not treat another woman like that ever again. For my former partner, there’s no more hiding under the facade any more – no more lying and no more deceit.

What of the others?

I am thrilled that the Just Resolution allows me to use my voice and educate about domestic abuse. This piece is not only for me and my healing, but for the countless others who are going through, or have been through, abusive relationships, and may never find their voice again.

I am writing this piece because, as with most abused women, this relationship affected everything I did for those 3+ years—my work ethic, my relationships with friends, colleagues, and my daughter, my decision making, my ability to function sometimes—it affected everything. This is an educational moment, for you, for me, for everyone. My hope is that this piece will open up very important conversations that are constantly being snuffed-out for being too controversial, or deemed harmful to those involved. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, actors, economists, carpenters, writers, and yes, even pastors, can have abusive behavior. No one is immune, regardless of what you do and who you are.

I am simply writing this because domestic abuse in its many forms is a norm across our culture and no one talks about it, and when those that are abused do try to talk about our experience, we are told we shouldn’t, because we may hurt people or make people feel uncomfortable. This attitude makes me angry and to that I say, “Get over it.” As a woman who was abused, I have the right to share my experience. I remained largely silent while in the relationship because I was fearful, and because he was a pastor and my going public might destroy his career. Now that I am away and free, am I selfish or wrong because I cannot and will not remain silent anymore?

The truth is, the silence around domestic abuse is deafening. Can you hear it?

Finding the Divine

In the end, the question still begs – Where is God in abusive relationships? To this question, this is what I have learned and I am still learning…

God is in healing. God is in second chances. God is in the faith that someone who hurts, with help and rehabilitation, will choose to never hurt again. God is in love of self. God is in accountability. Mostly though, God can be found in forgiveness in abusive relationships. I am not sure I like this altruistic, and what some may say, condescending attitude of forgiveness, but, reality says that forgiveness sets people free. This is true for me on all levels. I have forgiven my former partner. The beauty of forgiveness, I am finding, is that it is a process. God is present in that process of forgiveness. As enraged as I felt, as hurt as I was, as painfully paralyzing as it was at times, my abusive past is just that—past.

God is in my choice to forgive. Quite frankly though, forgiveness is not for those who hurt, it is for those whom have been hurt. In the end, I am learning that the forgiveness I have offered will set me free and give me reason to feel hope, to have faith, and to give love again someday to a man who will choose never to hurt me. It is in my eternal optimism that leaves me with the knowledge that I will be okay, because I choose to be.

The forgiveness I choose gives me the ability to view my former partner as a teacher, and not as an enemy. This, admittedly, is incredibly difficult. Viewing someone who treated me in such a way and who lived a lie in the public sphere, as your teacher, is not easy. This overall view of seeing those that hurt us as positive, and making these difficult moments in our lives, teaching moments, is incredibly important in dealing with people who hurt us. Our enemies are our teachers. They teach us what not to do.

God is in the hope you hold as partners in a relationship. God is in the respect you show in a relationship. God is in the kindness and effort you show in a relationship. God is in smiles, meals, affection, conversations, sex, tears, healthy arguments, and laughter. God is in Just Resolutions and in churches that listen, have laws in place that are followed as they should be, and in the people – the Bishops and the caring lay leaders – that are there to guide, listen, and love, in a difficult and at times, frustrating process.

God is not in the uttering of unkind things. God is not present in the action of instilling fear in your partner. God is not present in degradation. God is not present in the threat of violence against your partner. God is not present in lies and deceit. God is not present in the demeaning of anyone. God is not present in infidelity. God is simply not present in abusive behavior – ever.

In my work of finding forgiveness through God, and finding God in forgiveness, I am choosing to not let my emotions overtake my actions. I can see, as I move forward, that the well I was in, is still there, holding others in its grasp. As terrible as this relationship was with this man whom I truly cared about, I have now come full circle. That circle is a circle of grace, rehabilitation, compassion, accountability on both sides, and understanding. In the end, it is both of us who carry the pain of the abuse, but in the end, it is me who can make a choice to hold on, or, to let go. My ultimate choice is to let go with love—love of myself and love of the one who hurt me. God is present in that love and it is in this love, that I find God and myself. Because, simply put, God, who is love, teaches us first to love ourselves. In that love of ourselves is compassion. In that compassion, there is forgiveness. God not only teaches, but expects all of us to forgive. I know God forgives and loves my former partner, just as much as God loves and forgives me. It is in that forgiveness that God shines Her light, and it is that light that wins over all that is negative and hurtful—always.

If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help. You do not deserve nor enjoy such treatment, nor do you like the drama, nor do you delight in the pain that is being afflicted upon you. There is help, through your pastor, your teacher, your Rabbi, your friend, your family, your Imam, or even your neighbor. Even if you cannot hold your abuser accountable as I did, respect and love yourself enough to try and escape what harms you. 

Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian with a concentration in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism. She writes, teaches and lectures on Islam, Christian-Muslim relations worldwide (past and present), Jesus in the Qur’an, Al Qaeda, Islamophobia, theological responses to terrorism, and social issues of our time. Karen has a Master of Sacred Theology in Religion and Conflict Transformation, Boston University School of Theology; a Master of Theological Research in Christian-Muslim Understanding, Andover Newton Theological School; and a BA in Peace and Justice Studies with a concentration in Islam, Wellesley College. She has published with the Women’s United Nations Report Network, Onislam, The American Muslim, and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Karen currently lives in San Francisco and works as a consultant with United Religions Initiative. 

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Christianity, Domestic Violence, Ethics, General, Healing, Violence Against Women, Women's Voices

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20 replies

  1. Powerful, thank you. God bless you as you go forward in His light and love.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. You sound positive about the final outcome and in a good place to rebuild your life. I, too, was in a very long term abusive marriage involving physical, emotional, psychological abuse. Since freeing myself from that marriage I have been working to raise awareness in this area and I have been a member of Scottish Women’s Aid Faith Groups Forum. We have found across the board that the Institutional Church/Mosque/Temple/Gudwara is difficult to engage on the issue of Gender Based Violence. In fact the long held traditions within each Faith Group are the root of the problem. There are many willing activists within all our communities but the leadership doesn’t prioritise this as a serious issue, so women seeking help do not go to their Faith leaders, they go to Women’s Aid which cannot cope with the numbers requesting refuge. This is a deep seated cultural problem that must be brought into the light…and bit by bit is coming to the light. More must be done and needs doing by Faith leaders being concrete and clear.

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    • Thank you, Julia! I couldn’t agree more that more must be done to bring this issue to light. I am not sure it is safe to say that long held traditions are the root of the problem though. I do believe that patriarchy does play into domestic abuse, but I also believe that culture and how people are raised also plays a huge role. It is quite convoluted… Thanks again!

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  3. All I can say is “wow, are you powerful, Karen!” Your choice to share your thoughts and actions encourages truth to ourselves.

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  4. Thank you, Karen. This is an important piece that really adds to the discussion of abusive relationships in a powerful way. I’m so glad that the “Just Resolution” process exists so that you — and other women who have been abused — can find your voice again, find your love of self, and begin to create the life that you want.

    I agree with you that forgiveness is a very important part of this process, because it has been for me as well (re: my rape, etc.). I believe that forgiveness is a process that a person goes through more for herself than for the person forgiven. It frees us up (as you describe) to live our lives more fully. So I agree that “Simply put, God, who is love, teaches us first to love ourselves. In that love of ourselves is compassion. In that compassion, there is forgiveness.”

    But I can’t agree that “God not only teaches, but expects all of us to forgive.” The reason for this is I have at least one friend who cannot and will not and I believe should not forgive a person who did unspeakable wrong to her. In some cases, I think that is the most self-loving thing a person can do. My friend has compassion for this other person, but she will never forgive him. Saying that “God expects ALL of us to forgive” blames the victim when forgiveness is not a possibility.

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    • Thanks, Nancy, for your comment… I do understand what you are saying about forgiveness being sometimes almost impossible. Do you agree though that forgiveness is a choice? I can imagine what your friend went through must have been horrible. I don’t mean to convey that the victim is to blame if they cannot forgive. I think I just stand in a different place. I have spoken to many people who have forgiven their perpetrators… One being a woman whose son was killed. She chose Restorative Justice, as opposed to retributive justice. She was in contact with two of her son’s killers while the were in jail, and is still in contact with them now. She knows their wives and children and has lunch with them periodically. What her grace taught me is that forgiveness is indeed a choice. However, I realize some people just can’t get there… to protect themselves…. this is completely understandable. Thanks again for your comment and be well.

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  5. Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to voice your story. I have forwarded your Blog to MCC BC where they offer a program “End Abuse” for members of their many churches in British Columbia, Canada. Also, a program started in BC called “When Love Hurts” also offers support to Christian+ women who suffer abuse by misuse of the bible. Very good work is being done, and so necessary to shift our dominant patriarchal culture that silently and pervasively consents to the abusive treatment of women.

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Karen, and for putting to rest the many myths surrounding abuse. I took an excellent course on Domestic and Sexual Violence in Theological Perspective and I would like to share with everyone here at FAR some of the books we used for that class that I found especially helpful. They include the following 3 books by Marie M. Fortune, a minister in the United Church of Christ: Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse; Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us; and Sexual Violence: the Sin Revisited. Other books I found very helpful are Woman-Battering, by Carol J. Adams; and Getting Free: You Can End Abuse and Take Back Your Life. I hope people find these helpful.

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  7. I know what it’s like to be severely abused by a (former) spouse. I strongly feel that forgiveness is a must, and agree that it is indeed a process. For a long time I asked God to forgive him because I couldn’t. One day I realized that wasn’t enough. I’m still working on it. Please pray for me and for the many others out there who are trying to heal.

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  8. I guess I don’t know what it means to “forgive” someone who does not accept or understand that he or she has done anything wrong. I agree that it is important to transform anger and that compassion for the perpetrator can be a good thing, but forgiveness? Perhaps what I am suggesting is that forgiveness occurs within a relationship in which the harm that was done is acknowledged, and the perpetrator seeks help. I do not think forgiveness is the right word for actions, intentions, or feelings on the part of the victim, when forgiveness is not requested, harmful behavior is not recognized, and no apology is offered.

    Thanks for sharing your story, it is powerful.

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    • Forgiveness is something we must do with no expectation of anything in return. Sure, it would be nice if the person would understand, care, acknowledge and own what they did. But it is the job of the Holy Spirit to bring them around, and it is not in our timing or control. Also remember that Christ died for us and forgave us of all our sins, knowing even then all that we would commit. We should be willing to extend love for His sake. Great and mysterious things happen when we “Let go and let God.”

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    • Thanks, Carol, for your comment.

      I see forgiveness as something I offer, even if the person whom has hurt doesn’t seek, ask for, want forgiveness, or even cares if you forgive them. I feel when we put that out there in the universe, that forgiveness, that feeling of release, that is, as I wrote, not only for the victim, but for the collective whole. A Theology of Forgiveness, if you will, has no conditions or indications that it can only be given if the perpetrator acknowledges their hurtful and harmful actions. This is not easy. I know. If you bring God into it, God forgives all of us, regardless of what we do. That’s difficult to comprehend, yet, in that spiritual enlightenment, real and honest.

      I am the first to say that forgiveness is not easy. Thanks again!

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  9. Where can I find your Comment Policy? I would like to familiarize myself with it before posting my comment. Thanks.

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