Domestic Violence: The Sin that Sin Created by Kelly Brown Douglas

Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-Douglas - Version 2In these last several weeks, the horror that one out of four women will encounter domestic violence- sometimes referred to as “intimate partner” violence- in their life time has come to the national forefront. Indeed, women are more likely than men to be killed by their “intimate partner:” one in three women who is a victim of homicide is killed by an intimate partner. While sixty percent of domestic violence incidents occur in the home, this is not where domestic violence begins. It is the perhaps inevitable result of a culture of violence against women. It is the violence that violence creates.

This is a culture of violence in which women’s work continues to be grossly undervalued. One third of all women are living in or near poverty, what has been described as “the brink of poverty.” Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. The average white woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar her male counterpart man makes; for African American women it is 64 cents and Hispanic women 55 cents for every dollar made by white men. Women devote more than double the hours as men to “unpaid interactive children care.” Women over 65 “are twice as likely as men of the same age” to live in poverty—primarily because they are full or part-time caregivers. A 2013 “State of the World’s Mothers Report” ranked the United States 30th of the 30 best countries in the world to be a mother, based on indicators such as economic status, political opportunities and universal health care. And what this report makes most clear is that the status of children reflects the status of their mothers. This means that at least 28 million children are living in poverty in the United States.

As for physical violence, one in four college aged women experiences an attemptted or actual date rape. Forty-two percent of women who have been date raped consider suicide. In the Shriver Report, Sister Joan Chittister suggests that in the United States, “rapes in military and rapes on college campuses go unpunished because ‘boys will be boys,’ and winning wars and football games are more important than protecting the integrity of the women who are victims of rape.” These statistics represent nothing less than systemic and cultural violence against women and their children.[i] And, such violence is a sin.

Far too often our attention is driven to the individual, personal attacks against women; that is, the individual personal sin. The focus is on the individual sinner, as if to punish the perpetrator of domestic violence is to address the sin. In this regard, we domesticate the violence, and hence, domesticate the sin. In so doing, we fail to uproot the sin that sin produces—the interactive systemic, structural, and cultural sin which fosters violence against women. One again, women are caught in the trap of a private/public split. Violence against women is treated as a wrongdoing in the private space, and not a symptom of a public offense. Male violence against women is inextricably connected to patriarchal violence against women.

Sin is more than simply an act a committed by an individual or even a society for that matter. It is an orientation. It is an orientation that alienates us from god, from one another, and hence from our very god-given humanity. It alienates us from the people that god has created us to be– a people who respect the very sacredness of our own creation, by cherishing the sacredness of all creation. This is a people meant to reflect the image of a god that is creator of life, unqualified justice, and compassionate love. If we are to reflect such a divine image we must be unswerving in our commitment to build societies and communities where all people, regardless of the way in which their humanity is embodied, are valued and thus enjoy life enriching wages, life-protecting housing, life-nurturing health care, life enhancing education, and a life-respecting environment.

I am informed by the central symbol and divine revelation of my own faith tradition, Jesus. While his one-on-one compassionate, caring, and non-violent treatment of women is impressive and instructive in the way in which we are to regard one another; even more notable is the way in which he took on the very systems and structures of sin that perpetuated violence against women and created ethnic, religious and gender “outcasts” within his world. Jesus took on the social, political, and ecclesiastical patriarchies of his day. He recognized and met head-on the religious, social, and political forces that sustained a reality of sin. He called out not just the demons that possessed individuals, but the “demonarchies” that possessed the world. Jesus was crucified not because he was a paragon of personal piety, but because he was a threat to the “principalities and powers” of sin. The “parousia” about which Jesus spoke and embodied in his living was about a time and world filled with god’s peace—this is a peace of justice.

Injustice of any kind is violence. It defies the very peace of god. We live in a world and society that is oriented toward violence. Violence is sin. To stop the violence against women means ending the social, economic and cultural injustice inflicted upon women. It means calling out and disrupting systemic and cultural sin. The end of domestic violence begins with addressing the sins of our society that disrespect the bodies of women. As long as women continue to be disparaged, devalued, and dehumanized systemically, economically, and culturally, then they will continue to be victims of domestic violence. What happens in the private space is a reflection of what is happening in the public space. If women are to be treated humanely and non-violently in the private sphere, then they must be treated humanely and non-violently in the public sphere. If “men are going to get it,” then we must interrupt the patriarchal world of men.

And so, in this span of time where the attention of the nation has been drawn to domestic violence (and the attention span is no doubt a short one), we must not allow this issue to be domesticated. As we address the demons of violence within individuals, let us call out the demonarchies of violence within our society. Just as the male perpetrators of domestic violence should not be exonerated, neither should the patriarchal society that fosters such violence. Domestic violence is indeed the sin that sin created.   Let us not domesticate the sin.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Christianity, Domestic Violence, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Patriarchy, Rape Culture, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Suffering

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22 replies

  1. Powerful. And of course as your stats imply, one (not the only) of the reasons women stay with their abusers is financial. A male partner who works is often the one who pays the bills or at least enough of them to keep the family housed and fed or housed and fed well. So raising the minimum wage also is one of the routes to giving women the freedom to leave abusive situations.


    • What you bring up Carol is so important. Financial reasons are often very crucial in leaving an abusive partner– raising the minimum wage would allow some women a financial freedom they have never had. I also wanted to bring up something that friends and I were discussing this week. We were commenting how difficult it is to leave because of religious upbringing and shame. It has left me thinking quite a bit if women are not just set up to stay by the theology that has been built around marriage. At least within Catholicism ( the tradition of my youth), the theology built up around marriage and gender, especially after JP2 is a disaster. Theology of the Body is so unimaginably harmful when it comes to empowering women. I came from such a conservative home (and even more conservative Catholic community as I grew older), I know at least for me, breaking down the patriarchal strings of shame and the gender binaries that made me feel tied to certain traits and roles STILL make me struggle– years after I have left the Church and that community behind. If I didn’t have financial stability– and then I had that theological chain around my foot– I could never imagine leaving. It just breaks my heart.


    • Or becoming self employeed. I started a business after immigrating to the US with only the clothes on my back. I mowed lawns the first summer and then found another service to perform for income: interiorscaping – watering plants indoors. That was 23 years ago. I am married for 32 years now but I love my financial independance. It makes for a good marriage in my experience. I had no education or money to invest but I just kept my vision of self-employment firmly in mind and worked toward it daily. Here is one of my current websites: It’s great to be self employed and free to be my own person and boss. You can too!


  2. I only became aware of the women’s group Ultraviolet recently, but what a timely and important group they are. Very impressive their idea of flying banners over football stadiums to protest the abuse.


  3. Thank you for this concise passionate naming of the origin of this sin. And thank you for reminding us of where Jesus stood and stands.


  4. Where are the top 5 places to be a mother in the world?


    • I was interested in the top places to be a mother in the world too and came up with — (1) Finland (2) Sweden (3) Norway (4) Iceland and (5) The Netherlands, The lifetime risk of maternal death in Finland, for instance, is 1 in 12,200. In Sweden women hold 45 percent of the seats in national government. Norway has an average income per capita of nearly $89,000. More at Huffington Post.


  5. I blame sports and don’t think religion really has much to do with domestic violence. We’ve turned sports–and especially that most violent of all games since the Roman Coliseum shut down, football–for violence, domestic and otherwise. I think football teams are the model for gangs and football and military organization model each other.

    Here is what I wrote in the late 80s as the opening to a chapter in Secret Lives. I think it’s still true.

    On the last Sunday in January, 1990, the circle gathered, Madame Blavatsky mooching every little goodie she could get paws or whiskers on, at Emma Clare’s house for a quiet Sunday potluck. The women there not only to plan the celebration of Imbolc, the true beginning of spring according to their old religion’s lunar calendar, but also to take refuge from the dreaded Super Bowl.

    “It’s turned into a national holiday,” Cairo ranted, as she had every year for the past twenty. “It’s a national disgrace. Why would anyone establish a holiday to celebrate violence and commercialism?” This was a topic on which her friends were in full agreement. “There’s more domestic violence today than any other day of the year,” she went on. “The newspapers report it every year. And does anyone care? Sport? Hah! It’s vicarious warfare supported by Big Business. Blocking and kicking. And scoring. And those disgusting little victory dances. It’s testosterone poisoning, that’s what it is. A day for couch potatoes to act out their macho fantasies. Complete with sexy little cheerleader bimbettes to help them get it up.”


    • So stop supporting them. No more cooking and serving while they watch the game. Go out and have a nice time on your own or with friends. In fact just to be even safer – stay away for the weekend. Organize a “staycation” with girlfriends, sisters, nieces, aunts, mothers etc at a local hotel/motel and talk, relax and give each other the real connection of time spent together. We lack this vital connection so much. Enjoy. I do!


      • Cmsorority–this is precisely what I tell women in “real life.” Stay away from sports games and their supporters. Unfortunately, the NFL and other organizations do everything they can (like promoting fan fashions for women) to attract female fans. In my novel, the women are also following your advice and getting away from the boys and their games.


  6. “The end of domestic violence begins with addressing the sins of our society that disrespect the bodies of women. As long as women continue to be disparaged, devalued, and dehumanized systemically, economically, and culturally, then they will continue to be victims of domestic violence. What happens in the private space is a reflection of what is happening in the public space. If women are to be treated humanely and non-violently in the private sphere, then they must be treated humanely and non-violently in the public sphere. If “men are going to get it,” then we must interrupt the patriarchal world of men.”

    If there was a way to do a standing ovation in a blog– I would do it. This is so powerful and so needed. I kept hashtaging #arenasandcathedrals this week because I felt powerless in the face of what I could not verbalize but wanted to connect. I’v been speechless watching in horror while sharing articles/blogs on social platforms. I feel powerless when seeing how interconnected patriarchy, religion and sports are and the mirror images of whats happen over the last days and then the last 20 years in churches– the cover ups, the excuses, the way people–fans–will make any excuse to not leave/challenge something they love). Thank you for this. This helps build the gap I was trying to find and gives a voice to what I could not verbalize. Thank you so much for your post.


  7. What an excellent post! Another version of the word sin is “missing the mark” not quite hitting the chosen goal. In that sense as well, we are sinning when we let men rule our lives, run our relationships and own our children. I urge us all to pay attention to the crux of our femininity as a way to connect to the Divine Feminine. Practicing CM: conscious menses is an amazing process that allows us to sift and glean, sort and discard, emerge and individuate. We are powerless to stop monthly bleeding and in connecting to that great unstoppable reality we gain a deeper sense of our own essence and strength. Go to and begin to change the patriarchal effects we suffer from, to genuine feminine values.


  8. Great post, Kelly. The “domestication of the sin” seems to me to be the outcome of our individualistic patriarchal culture. People, especially men, don’t “get it,” because they truly believe that it’s individuals who create and run their own lives. Individualism is violent in its competitive form, because it sees the world as “me against you.” As a result, it allows many people in our culture to blame the victim for what happens as well. Somehow she is supposed to be able to get out of “her” abusive situation, not looking at the systemic problems that keep her there.

    The “personal is political” as you imply when writing about women caught in the public/private split. Even the personal application of patriarchal hegemony in defining who women are is violent, as Janice Poss reminded us a year ago. It is verbal abuse when “someone…defines the ‘other,’ not allowing for their own definition…in the words of Patricia Evans, expert on domestic violence…One defines oneself in a healthy relationship”


  9. If men are the ones beating their wives and girlfriends and doing the vast majority of the killing of women and children in homes, then really, we need to think about women NOT LIVING with men period. We need to get women out of these homes, and have other options. Why women continue to live with men is a big mystery to me. Women are exploited in the home, that is where it all happens. There is no way to get men to end this in home exploitation, they are never going to change. Women continuing to marry men, have kids etc. really has got to end on a massive scale. Otherwise it is the same old same old, nothing will change. Women need to advocate for a far more radical world view. But knowing het women the way I do, they are going to live with the oppressors till the day they die, again and again and again, and I think heterosexual women really need to take a hard look at this. But they won’t naturally.


  10. I really get quite bored with this constant hand wringing, with no real radical solutions being mentioned. Why should I care? I’ve told het women for decades to get out of this trap, to not have kids, to not be dependent on men in any way shape or form, but they want the het privilege, they want the mother privilege, they want the social status of having a man in the house, and they will risk their lives to do this and have this.


    • I know plenty of lesbian women with children and also know of domestic violence in lesbian relationships, sadly. It is not “male” dominance, but it can be “butch” dominance. Or it can just be violence. Sigghh


  11. Hi Turtle Woman! I understand your frustration. But the divorce rate in America is actually skyrocketing, beginning in the late 1970s gradually rising, and in the last ten years a big jump (mostly because of change in the divorce laws apparently). About 50% of all marriages in America now end in divorce. For second and third marriages the rate is even higher, between 67 and 74 percent according to a site called


    • The point I am trying to make is not so much about the high rate of divorce, except that it shows that women are clearly ready to liberate themselves from relationships that are not supportive for whatever reason (and not necessarily because of abuse, either).


  12. I’ve been reading this post and discussion with great interest. I have always thought that the main instigator of patriarchy is the christian church and thus the main instigator of domestic violence would be the same. I know this is not what Jesus taught but the men didn’t “get it” and here we are. I also think that there is a slow awakening happening among women (and yes, some men). This blog and the many comments point to that as well as the increase in women speaking out on the subject in other arenas. But I am not so naïve as to think that there is a simple solution to the problem. I believe we are in a faze of evolution that is going to take time and a lot of hard work to achieve our goals. I don’t think simply getting rid of men is the answer either(although I have had blissful dreams about such things). I have a lesbian niece in and abusive relationship and she refuses to listen to reason.

    The first step is definitely to educate our younger women to have the self love it takes to get out of these kinds of relationships. Following close behind is to convince women to treat their bodies as a sacred gift belonging to no one but themselves. When I was a christian the single most devastating teaching was that a woman’s body belonged to her husband(it’s in the bible, read it for yourself). This kind of propaganda takes away a woman’s right to say what she can do with her OWN body. And that’s just one bible verse among many that demean women and their bodies. It’s this kind of thinking for over 3000 years that have gotten us in this mess.

    The answer for me was leaving christianity. I could no longer be a part of a belief system that treated women as less than men and that denied the feminine in it’s deity. I have great respect for any woman that stays within that culture and is trying to change it from the inside. Since the US seems to be a mostly christian country it will probably be these women’s efforts that will have the most impact on this society. But make no mistake, we are in for an epic battle. Let’s try to stick together as well as possible.


  13. Hi Kelly! I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is DeDe Jacobs-Komisar and I took your Theodicy class at Goucher in 2004-ish. I just want to tell you that I think about that class almost every day. It was a tremendously powerful experience that opened me up spiritually, philosophically, and on a human level, as I began to connect with the suffering in the Black experience in a real way (and got really into Liberation Theology). I greatly appreciated the opportunity to think deeply about the major questions of meaning and good/evil in the world, and I haven’t stopped thinking. It was a treat to see your name on this blog, and I thank you for that class and for your posts here.


  14. “It is not “male” dominance, but it can be “butch” dominance. Or it can just be violence.” – I appreciate the reminder here that domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships occurs at similar rates to relationships between cisgender, heterosexual couples (, but calling it ‘butch dominance’…

    As a self-identified butch and survivor of domestic violence (at the hands of my feminine partner), I think it is important not to assume that the butch is the perpetrator and be careful about referencing so-called masculinity to violence. That’s not to say that misogyny does not exist in LGBTQ communities, but the kind of automatic reference to ‘less feminine’ as ‘more violent’ has implications beyond sexual identity. Those deemed ‘less feminine’ (which too often means ‘less white’ in a society dominated by patriarchal, white supremacy) receive less care in any number of circumstances including during childbirth, after instances of sexual assault, and when reporting instances of DV. Supposed masculinity of the target too often turns into yet another form of victim blaming. Rather than masculinity, the major attributes of batterers are self-hatred and some degree of sociopathy. I feel the issue is in the way patriarchal dominance rewards or ignores* unconscionable behaviors. Who gets a ‘pass,’ and why? Yes, it’s the sports players and the college men… but it is also other people who have learned to ‘play the game.’


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