A Middle: Understanding the Relationship between Violence and Power by Katie M. Deaver

In my last post here on Feminism and Religion I unpacked the three primary understandings of atonement theology as well as some of the feminist critiques of those understandings.  In this post I’d like to focus a bit more on how the relationship between power and violence influences how Christian women view the atonement.

In her book, On Violence, Hannah Arendt puts forth a new analysis of the relationship between power and violence.  Arendt’s analysis, though primarily focused around concepts of the potential for worldwide destruction and war following major global occurrences such as the Second World War and the struggles for civil and women’s rights within the United States context, supplies an interesting framework with which to consider this relationship as it relates to domestic violence.   

Arendt’s base point is that violence occurs when and where power is threatened.  While reading this book for one of my doctoral classes a couple of years ago, I was immediately struck by the way that this statement is connected to the cycle of many violent domestic relationships.  A helpful illustration of this is, likely familiar to most people, the Cycle of Violence wheel.  This model is somewhat dated in current domestic violence studies because the majority of violent situations tend to be much more complicated than this wheel can fully represent.  That being said I think it is helpful for this blog post since so many of us are likely somewhat familiar with it already.  

The cycle of violence and each of the phases within it are different for each and every situation and the length of time that passes between each phase can vary greatly depending on the specific context.  Generally, these phases continue to repeat over and over until the cycle is somehow broken.  The Tension phase in a violent domestic relationship is often described as walking on eggshells.  The person being abused is very careful not to “set off” the abuser or to initiate or inspire a violent episode.  Often however this care and self-monitoring does not ward off the intimidation, threats, and emotional manipulation which frequently occur within the tension phase.

The Explosion phase is understood as a/the violent episode. (This understanding is part of why this wheel is problematic and has generally been replaced with more helpful understandings within domestic violence studies.  It suggests that physical violence is worse than emotional manipulation and other forms of abuse, or that threats of violence are somehow not damaging to the person being threatened.)  This is often the point at which law enforcement may be called and tends to involve physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and in many cases a combination of all three.

Finally, the Reconciliation or Honeymoon phase beings after the violent explosion and continues the cycle back into the tension phase.  During this phase the abuser may be genuinely sorry for the violence, or they may ignore or deny it completely.  The abuser may try and “fix” the problem of violence by buying gifts or taking the victim on a romantic vacation.  The abuser may also try to seek pity from the victim.  Each of these responses and actions are attempts to pull the victim back into the cycle of violence and assure that the damaged relationship continues.

The Power and Control Wheel is much more prevalent in current domestic violence studies… but a bit more difficult to unpack in a blog post!

After realizing the very tangible way that the relationship between power and violence related to domestic violence I began to wonder what that connection might mean for Christian women who believe in and cherish traditional understandings of the atonement.  The majority of the women that I have worked with are deeply connected with the Christian cross event and as a result it isn’t possible to completely remove it from their understanding of their faith.  Rather, I attempted to understand the cross event as a violent act on the part of humanity against God, and that through this act of human violence God takes action and uses God’s power to interrupt the cycle of violence by changing the “expected” ending of the cross event.

Through the use of power, God changes death into life and crucifixion into resurrection.  God demonstrates for us a benign use of power by using power to bring about peace, as well as to be a source of life in our difficult world.  This benign use of power is what people of faith are called to practice in order to do God’s work in the world.  The cross and resurrection events then, become an interruption to the cycle of violence and therefore cannot be used to justify or perpetuate domestic violence, but rather must move us toward the elimination of such violence, the cross and resurrection of Christ are the interruption of the cycle of violence.

While this approach certainly isn’t a perfect “fix” or an understanding that will work for all survivors of violence it does strive to take into account the lived experience and beliefs of Christian women as well as encourage them to understand their faith as something active that we do, not just something we witness.


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, Christianity, Christology, Domestic Violence, Faith, Gender and Power, power, Power relations, Redemptive Suffering, Resurrection, trauma, Violence, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Excusing violence in the name of ‘atonement’ or any other religious concept tends to get the woman killed.


    • You’re right excusing violence for any reason is unacceptable and that of course isn’t what I’m trying to do. The survivors that I work with have already lost so much of themselves and their “regular” lives by leaving the violent situations they were in. Most of these women can’t possibly imagine also removing a piece of their Christian faith that have clung to in order to get them through their experience of violence in order to become survivors. This format absolutely doesn’t work for everyone, but for women who are not ready or able to let go of the cross its an approach at focusing on the resurrection as an end to all violence.


  2. Excusing violence in any way perpetuates more violence. And the concept of the crucifixion is the most violent an image I can think of. This idea of shifting crucifixion/ violence/abuse into something else in the name of Christianity is an abomination from my non – christian point of view, although for many years as a abused woman I actually took comfort from this Christian idea of the suffering Jesus.

    As a former Women’s Studies professor I used the power and control wheel to demonstrate just how insidious this cycle of violence is and how efficiently it works to perpetuate the cycle of violence in families (I still give women a copy of this wheel whenever I suspect abuse of some kind – simply saying that they might find it illuminating or not) Over the many years I taught I came to understand that I had a large number of students each semester who were in violent relationships and who always blamed themselves…. all of whom were starving for ways to understand what had happened to them and why they were so “defective.”

    Until I understood the dynamics of this system I wasn’t able to see that I had been born into this cycle, developed into an adolescent in it, married and was beaten up by my children’s father and years later witness my very adult children demonstrate the same behavior towards their mother, and no doubt against their partners both of which “support these men” as I once did.


    • I completely agree with you Sara. There are plenty of problems with attempting to reclaim the violent event of the cross the way that I do, but as you say in your comment it is easy for suffering women to connect with the suffering of Christ and I think its important to make that connection as positive and helpful for those women as possible. The majority of women I work with are from traditions that are so rooted in the cross that to eliminate it tends to eliminate their faith completely, at least as they continue to wrestle with these topics, and while that certainly isn’t always a bad thing for women who have recently left violent relationships and are trying to establish a new normal it seems that beginning with a reclaiming of the cross (rather than just eliminating it) helps them on their journey to becoming and staying a survivor.

      I come out of the Lutheran tradition and as a survivor of violence I really struggle with how to understand the cross. I’m not comfortable completely getting rid of it because so many of the people I do ministry with are too connected to it for ignoring or eliminating it to be truly helpful for them. It may be a bit of a cop out but I really do continue to go back to the belief that different understandings work for different people depending on their context and lived experience and if looking at things in many different ways can help even one survivor of violence than it was worth it.


      • Ah, I do agree with you that anything that helps one survivor is worth the trouble… The image of Jesus on the cross, does, I know bring comfort to many – it did for me surely, at least for a time – but moving beyond this image is critically important too – and yet different ways do work for different people so it’s important to stay open…Thank you for reminding me of that.


  3. Do you think the Trump administration–which we can see is grabbing for power (and money)–is also leading to more violence in the U.S.?


    • That’s a great question Barbara! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately especially because of how it all overlaps with Arendt’s book and I think we are definitely going to see connections that suggest that trend.

      I’ve been noticing more mainstream articles about “traditional” gendered roles and expectations for men and women lately and I can’t help but wonder how the resurgence of those ideas will effect domestic violence stats.

      I also worry that the current administration may normalize certain forms of violence without a majority of the U.S. citizens even noticing. For example, the very public way that deportations have been happening/being covered by the press, or the failure of high ranking individuals to claim their actions and take responsibility for their choices.

      I think it will be very interesting(and likely somewhat terrifying) to watch what happens to violence statistics over the next few years!


  4. I’ve removed any idea of “atonement” from the crucifixion of Jesus, seeing that, not as “God’s will”, but as another expression of state violence to protect power and control. What follows, and is integral to the crucifixion of Jesus, is the “Easter Event”. The two actions, integrated, say to me that violence happens, but is not the final word. The One we call “God” wills that we thrive and have peace, and gives us courage, community, and strength to live. I’ve know women who were told by their families to suffer, even die, at the hands of violent spouses and they would “be like Jesus”. I find it an obscene mis-use of the Scriptures and religion, and more the opinion of violent men than of a loving Creator.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This seems especially apropos in our current political realm in the US.


  6. can you Compare Arendt’s understanding of violence and power?


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