Becoming Myself by Katie M. Deaver

Last weekend was a special one for me.  After many years of study and dedication I graduated with my Ph.D. and am now, officially, Dr. Katie Deaver.  The weekend was filled with celebrations to mark the completion of a milestone that I have spent years working toward.  The amazing outpourings of love, support, and care that I have experienced throughout the last few days is quite humbling.  The happiness and pure joy of my family, friends, professors, mentors, and multiple church communities have left me in awe.  As I reflect on this love and support it helps to heal the wounds and scars that have accumulated throughout the process of earning this degree.

The undertaking of a Ph.D. program is significantly more difficult than anyone tells you.  This difficultly lies not necessarily in the course work or the dedication to constant reading, writing, and learning but rather in the personal growth and vocational affirmation that takes place within the process.  My dissertation explored the primary understandings of the doctrine of atonement and addressed how this doctrine can, and has, been used in ways that perpetuate, and in some cases even encourage, domestic violence.

My own fascination with the topic of atonement and its links to domestic violence was brought about at the suggestion of one of my undergraduate professors at Luther College, Dr. Jim Martin-Schramm.  From the moment that Dr. Martin-Schramm explained the links between theologies of the cross and domestic violence I knew that I had found my new passion.  Writing a dissertation on the topics of domestic violence, theology and women of faith was an extremely personal, and intimate experience for me.  This topic forced me to accept my own lived experience.  To claim myself… out loud… as a survivor of domestic violence. As a result the writing of my dissertation was particularly personal, and painful, as well as extremely life giving.

Memories that I had not let myself acknowledge, spans of time that I had fought to keep buried or ignore completely came back to me through the writing of this dissertation.  As would likely be expected, not all of these memories or experiences were positive, but not all were negative.  The process of writing continued to affirm my personal vocation to continue writing and to teach feminist theology in both academic settings and within faith communities.  As a woman of faith the process has further inspired me to continue the work of ending domestic violence, and to work within faith communities to meet the needs and desires of those communities.

This process of researching, writing, and fully becoming myself led to changes in my relationships with family and friends.  Because of my new understandings of myself and my experiences I could not continue to remain within unhealthy relationships, even if those relationships were with family members or long term friends.  As a feminist theologian who writes about domestic violence and specifically how to support survivors of violence I absolutely cannot participate in relationships that are abusive or violent.  Trusting myself enough to know what I need in order to be emotionally and physically safe and healthy has been a welcome, though unexpected, blessing of the Ph.D. process.

Having spent so much time researching and writing on the topics of atonement and domestic violence I expected to be eager to begin scholarship in other areas, but my focus continues to be called back to the problem of domestic violence.  Each time that I have presented on this topic I am once again reminded of the fact that this area of study is absolutely necessary for people of faith.  In rooms full of academics, pastors, lay leaders, and interested feminists many have never even considered this topic.  Each time I begin to explore the connections between the cross event and domestic violence there are audible gasps, looks of deep sadness, and an overwhelming weariness that seems to accompany these heavy theological and personal topics.

I believe that one of the problems with the available resources related to this topic come from approaching domestic violence as a theory or detached concept rather than as a fully embodied and experienced reality for many human beings throughout the world.  If we strive to understand domestic violence theories as well as how Christians understand the cross even we are better able to take the abstract concept of domestic violence and turn it into a tangible problem that we can work toward ending.

As a feminist theologian I affirm Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s assertion that a truly feminist theology must be both deconstructive and reconstructive at the same time.  I also believe that these deconstructions and reconstructions must be rooted in lived experience in order to be applicable to people of faith.  We cannot continue treating domestic violence as an abstract concept that is secondary to other forms of oppression and violence.

As a woman of faith I believe that domestic violence is unacceptable and that faith communities have a responsibility to speak out against violence in all its forms, even when it is not easy or convenient to do so.  We as people of faith can do better, we can affirm the lived experience of survivors, we can create spaces that are supportive and life giving, and we can focus our ministries on not only denouncing the violence in our communities but ultimately working toward ending that violence in all its forms.


Dr. Katie M. Deaver, earned her Ph.D. in Feminist Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Deaver holds a B.A. in Religion and Music from Luther College in Decorah, IA, as well as MATS and Th.M. degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the connections between the Christian understanding of atonement theology and the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. Her other areas of interest include the connection between power and violence, sexual ethics, and working toward the elimination of the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.

Categories: abuse, Abuse of Power, Academics, Academy, Belief, Christianity, Christology, Church Doctrine, Domestic Violence, Faith, power, Redemptive Suffering, Sexual Violence, survival, trauma, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Suffering

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22 replies

  1. Congratulations Katie.

    Maybe in your next blog you will share with us the short version or versions of your understanding of the connections between doctrines of the atonement and domestic violence. Is it that God is willing to allow or engage in violence for a higher good? Does it have to do with doctrines of divine omnipotence and foreknowledge that violence will happen or even predestining violence? Or something else?

    You are lucky to have advisors and others who support you. My graduation was attended by my mother (my father had planned to come too, but he thought the date was in June) and Judith Plaskow. I was not even planning to go as I had few positive feelings about my experience at Yale and I certainly was not congratulated by any of the faculty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Carol!

      Yes I am definitely planning to do a post or two explaining some of my understandings of those connections. I actually started to do so in this post and realized quickly it was going to be much too long!


  2. I am fascinated by the subject of your dissertation and second Carol’s suggestion. Congratulations on your Ph.D., Dr. Deaver!


  3. Atonement and domestic violence are linked – a connection I probably would never have articulated until reading this essay. For some of us it is too easy to take responsibility for other people’s actions, especially when they are our own children. I was finally forced to acknowledge that the PATTERN of abuse began with my parents, was continued by me choosing an abusive partner, and now is being reenacted by my adult sons.

    Congratulations on Your PhD!

    And just think of how many women you will be able to help!


    • Thank you Sara.

      I have also found it interesting to look at those patterns of abuse and see how they play out within different generations and situations. I would be incredibly grateful if any of my work could help even one person so thank you so much for saying that!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations! Yes, earning a Ph.D. is hard work. Ask my son what it’s like to have a mommy who is writing a dissertation. (I started my coursework a couple days after his third birthday and graduated when he was almost eight years old.) All of us who jumped into the academic ocean and didn’t drown (or go crazy) deserve congratulations–for persistence and (hopefully) good grades..


  5. Congratulations Katie!
    I experienced the link between “atonement” and abuse while working in social services. A woman’s husband, after years of abuse, tried to kill her. The response of her relatives was to be “like Jesus” and accept suffering. I had a different response, which thankfully she followed!

    I find the whole idea that “God” would send “his son” to die for my sins to be very out of date. I think it is influenced by the Roman and Greek understanding of divinity and by the worship of the Jerusalem Temple – strong influences on the early Christian communities. And of course, if Jesus came to die for my sins, then there has to be an “original sin” so bad that God “himself” can’t forgive it even though Jesus told us to “forgive 70 times 7”. Some tell me that this is because God is so “above us” and an insult to his majesty requires sacrifice. This is the hierarchical understanding of divinity.

    It is time to change this and re-discover the Creating Spirit in place of the King and his Court. This would have a positive effect on our relationships with all of creation. We have moved beyond the image of a flat earth and “God” on his throne above the dome of the heavens, to the photos from the Hubble telescope.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Barbara!
      Exactly, I’m originally from a small town in rural Wisconsin and that message to be “like Jesus” or that violence is simply a “cross to bear” is terrifyingly common.

      I really like your point about re-discovering the Creating Spirit as opposed to the problematic hierarchical King/Father imagery. Thank you for this comment!


  6. Congratulations, Katie! It’s hard to finish a Ph.D., but even more difficult to finish a dissertation that exposes and deals with a major wound in your life. I know from my own experience: I wrote a dissertation entitled “Motherhood for the Fatherland: How Nazi Propaganda Portrayed Women.” When I started it, I had no idea that the subtext of my work was my own rape. But when I was done, I was a different person as well. Writing freed energy that had been bound up with the rape. I became more creative, less hampered by fear, and had more vitality. Hallelujah for your perseverance and winning the prize of greater wholeness!

    My introduction to the connection between “atonement” and domestic violence was Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s _Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us_. This powerful book describes Christianity’s complicity with violence: that the “atonement” theology bear the marks of unresolved trauma; it glorifies suffering; ultimately it says, if God sends his Son to be killed for our sins, that makes this violence salvific and sanctions that violence, and makes obedient, self-sacrificing love an ideal. This ideal of good people caring for others (and not themselves) makes domestic abuse invisible, in fact, makes its perpetrators unaccountable for their deeds, and gives victims no voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this comment Nancy!

      Your dissertation sounds incredibly interesting! And its wonderful to hear how someone else has also worked through past trauma with a dissertation. Proverbs of Ashes was one of the first resources I read on this topic as well along with Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: A Feminist Critique which both Parker and Brock have articles included. It has certainly been a topic that once you see and understand it you begin to realize how thoroughly entwined in Christianity it truly is and it completely changes how you view the “good news” of the gospel.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Congratulations Katie – continue to be delighted as well as to explore and develop and become more and more yourself.

    I’m on the long list of people interested in atonement – and in fact in all the doctrines / teachings / pictures of salvation and the behaviours that they promote. Have you published on this? I’d love to get hold of some of your work – unless your PhD is accessible? Looking forward to hearing more in any case in your blog – glad you will continue to share with us.

    be well



    • Thank you Margaret!

      I am working on publishing possibilities right now actually. My school encourages us to put a one year hold on our dissertations to encourage us to publish them so it will be a delayed release but by this time next year it will be accessible through ProQuest or (hopefully) through a different publishers sooner! Its actually wonderful to hear that so many are interested in this topic and definitely inspires me to keep writing!


  8. Congratulations Katie. I can understand a PhD made more difficult by your personal journey, but also a document thus given incredible depth. DV and its condoned place in Christianity needs so desperately to be exposed. Like you and for the same reasons, I have surrendered contact with my biological family; it was heartwarming and affirming to hear another woman speak the same decision.


    • Thank you so much for this comment. I’m so glad that my story resonated with you… I continue to be amazed at how often we struggle with these issues and questions, but we always think we are alone. I so appreciate the reminder and connection that others are asking these question as well!


  9. Congrats on earning your doctorate. Please share you dissertation or a synopsis of it. I remember the pastor and members of my church in Indiana telling me to “suffer domestic abuse” because divorce was worst. I divorced the bastard and everyone was surprised. That was 50 years ago and I have been happily married 46 years to a wonderful man. I hope no woman believes that garbage, but I know there are women who do, because I almost did, until my cousin reminded me Jesus loves us too much to live like this. Lizzy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lizzy thank you so much for this comment! Congratulations to you on removing yourself from such a harmful situation and gaining the happy and loving relationship that you deserved. I will absolutely share more about my dissertation soon! Thank you again for sharing your story!


  10. I’m a bit late to posting. Didn’t have a chance to visit the site yesterday. Congratulations, Katie. I’m a Luther grad as well, and took a Christian Ethics class from Professor Martin-Schramm many moons ago. I would be interested to learn more about and/or read your dissertation. I am also a victim of domestic violence, and part of my healing was turning my heart and thoughts back to my time at Luther when I was learning about feminist theology and embracing its teachings. Bringing feminism back into my life and following this blog have been key in my recovery. I have completely turned my back on Christianity and especially the Christian church because the underlying teachings do perpetuate domestic violence. I came to this conclusion instinctively, bodily, as I processed the trauma of my 17 year marriage. Your post from yesterday resonated with me deeply. Thank you.


    • Kristin,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I am so thankful that my post resonated with you. Its really neat to hear that others started their journeys with feminist theology at Luther as well… as always fun to connect with another Luther grad as well! I will definitely be writing more posts related to my dissertation and am actually hoping to publish a study guide that women could work through alone or in groups to start to really understand these issues. Thank you so much for sharing some of your story and the ways that feminist theology has helped in your recovery. It is gives me a lot of hope to know that things that have helped me are also helping others and we are all so very connected in more ways that we even know.


      • Katie, your study pack sounds wonderful and much needed – I look forward to hearing about that and offering it to friends – thank you for developing practical resources as well as the still sadly necessary academic articles.


        Liked by 1 person

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