Moving Toward an End: The Role of the Faith Community in the Struggle to End Domestic Violence by Katie M. Deaver

I have used my last few posts here on Feminism and Religion to begin unpacking the three primary understandings of atonement theology, the feminist critiques of these understandings, and how the relationship between power and violence influences how Christian women view the atonement.  This post will consider the role that faith communities are called to play in situations of domestic violence.

Personal faith often has a huge impact on the lives of survivors of violence.  This impact, unfortunately, as can be seen in the other posts as well as in the comments on those posts, is not always a positive one.  In her book, Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation, Flora A. Keshgegian envisions communities of faith as communities of remembrance.  A community of remembrance does not ignore or suppress the negative experiences of its members but strives to  enable us to embrace personal identity, form our faith, and to nurture hope in order to heal and transform after such experiences.

One question that my dissertation set out to answer was how we might begin the difficult work of moving our communities of faith in this direction.  Sadly, the biggest difficulty seems to be the lack of awareness, or the downright denial, that domestic violence is an issue for the average faith community.  So many congregation members assume that if their pastor is not talking about an issue then it must not be a problem in their particular community.

I would assume that most United States, mainstream, present-day Christians and church leaders would agree that domestic violence is unacceptable in all forms… but how often do we actually profess this belief out loud?  How often do we preach about this belief, or lead Bible studies that affirm it, or hold support groups for those struggling with these realities in our own congregations?  Based on my interviews with survivors, as well as my own experience, it seems only very rarely.

One potential roadmap for finding new ways of doing ministry in our faith communities might include some of the following efforts:

Educating about Domestic Violence – All faith communities contain individuals that have previously, or are currently dealing with the reality of domestic violence.  Obviously, due to various intersectionalities such as race, class, geographic location and gender, some communities of faith may have higher rates of violence than others.  Faith communities that are already aware of a high instance of domestic violence might be able to move more quickly on educating about violence than a community that does not recognize the experiences of domestic violence within their midst.  It may sound silly but when educating our faith communities we must fully define and explain what domestic violence truly entails.  So many of the people I have interviewed and worked with believe that physical abuse is the only “real” form of domestic violence when in reality it is so much more complex than that.  Situations of violence are never simple, and each survivor’s journey and experience is different.

New Understandings of Family and Gendered Roles – For many communities of faith the family has long been considered one of the most sacred aspects of human life.  However, in many cases the family or the home is one of the most unsafe places an individual can be.  Faith communities must acknowledge that not all homes are safe, not all families are safe and recognize that to pretend or teach that they are is not helpful to those who are dealing with violence in their homes.  Moreover, the more rigidly that gender identity and gendered roles are defined, the easier it becomes to use these roles as a justification for domestic violence.  If a faith community professes the belief that men are to be completely in control of women, then we profess a situation which takes away the agency and the authority of women. This makes it very easy to argue that male use of violence against females is acceptable.

Re-Imagining God – Faith communities must also be aware of the ways in which we talk about God when doing ministry with victims and survivors of domestic violence.  Often our liturgies, prayers, and hymns use language that support a primarily male God.  If God is primarily understood as a male being how can he understand the plight of a woman suffering from the experience of domestic violence?  For those of us who have experienced violent worldly fathers how can we possibly assume that a heavenly father would function differently?  Just as a primarily male/father God is problematic, so too can a female/mother God be a source of separation and concern for those who have experience domestic violence from their mother and/or female partner.  Our attempts to explain God have always fallen short, but we must continue to re-imagine and re-envision God in new ways, especially when we are doing ministry with survivors of domestic violence.

I believe that my faith calls me to “respons-ible” action in the world, to action that truly and full responds by striving every day to do God’s work in the world.  For me that means our congregations have to do better.  We must find new ways of doing ministry, ways that genuinely acknowledge and lift up the lived experience of victims and survivors of domestic violence.

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, Christology, Church Doctrine, Domestic Violence, Faith, Family, General, Redemptive Suffering, Theology, trauma, Violence, Violence Against Women

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4 replies

  1. To what you say here, I would add that images of a male God using violent punishment in order to achieve His will also create a climate in which male violence used to discipline wives or children is viewed as acceptable. And this is not only an “Old Testament” problem. In the Old Testament, God usually relents from His violent behavior. In Christianity on the other hand, the punishments of hell are understood to be eternal and the doctrine of universal salvation is considered to be a heresy.

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  2. “So many of the people I have interviewed and worked with believe that physical abuse is the only “real” form of domestic violence when in reality it is so much more complex than that. Situations of violence are never simple, and each survivor’s journey and experience is different.”

    Such an excellent beginning point… But education is not enough – and in my experience as a psychologist I see denial in every corner – No one wants to admit that abuse has so many disguises… and is endemic to the culture of violence that we live in.

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  3. I agree it is incumbent on faith communities to bring Domestic Abuse front and centre. I’ve been involved in awareness raising for many years, and I’m always struck by the many confused faces I meet. They have no direct experience of DA and can judge the victim as feckless. One of the biggest hurdles in recovering from DA is the continued victimisation by those who do not understand. Victimisation affect children of abuse too, particularly when young men enter into intimate relationships for themselves. They fear becoming like their fathers, and others expect them to become like their fathers. Girls are also vulnerable because they have not had a healthy male role model, which can lead them into abusive relationships too.

    My strongest impression about this issue of male violence in particular, is that we must help young men deal with their emotions in a healthy way, and make this the standard for manhood, leaving behind the tradition of young men being beaten up by their peers in an attempt by their peers to show who is dominant. In our faith communities, adolescents are frequently ignored, and when they are given attention it is to demand high moral standards, which in themselves are not wrong, but explaining how to achieve this is usually missing.

    Overall, we need a humane approach to DA, and the fall out from it; we need to understand ourselves as human beings, and be prepared to walk a mile in the shoes of the other. To achieve this, communication is vital – especially listening.

    Liked by 1 person

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