Thursday, March 19, 2009

Violence in the House of God

When was the last time your parish talked about family violence?

I suspect it never has.

My education on the subject began in my early 20s. I was a very young reporter when I met the person who opened my eyes to that grim reality.

She was my age -- 22 -- and every part of her body that was visible was black and blue. Three of her teeth had been knocked out. Part of her ear had been bitten off. Her right arm was broken as were three ribs. She didn't know yet if the doctors had been able to save the vision in her left eye, which was still covered with heavy bandages.

Who had beaten this woman so horribly?

It was her husband of six months, the man who said he loved her. After her husband had slapped her the first time, she had gone for help and advice to the minister who had married them. He told her to "examine her conscience" to see if she was being "properly submissive" to her husband. When she went back after the third beating, he scolded her for not trying hard enough to please her husband. When she got out of the hospital after this last beating, she didn't bother to call her minister. Nor did she ever go back to church. When I saw her a few years ago, she was still angry and bitter at "Christians."

My friend who introduced me to this woman had said only that I needed to hear her story, because she was only one of the hundreds of battered women each year who came into the emergency room where my friend worked.

Battered women? I had never heard that term before, but as I encountered this incarnation of the term I was shocked into speechlessness.

To my shame, the first question I managed to ask her was, 'What did you do to make him so angry?"

Essentially I was asking what she had done to deserve such a beating.

The truth is, of course, that she had nothing to "deserve" that beating. She had just been a convenient target for her husband's frustration, anger and control issues.

My encounter with her began my education into the dark and secret world of family violence, a world in which women are targets of abuse ranging from verbal slurs and threats to slaps to a brutality so horrible that veteran police officers often throw up at the sight of the victims.

Battering is the single largest cause of injury to women, more than muggings, rapes and car wrecks. Domestic violence is the largest cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44. Women are more often the victims of domestic violence than victims of burglary, muggings, or other physical crimes combined. Forty-two percent of murdered women are killed by their intimate male partners.

When I began my education, these women were often abandoned by their families [you made your bed, you lie in it], by law enforcement [what did you do to make him so mad?], by the court system [DAs routinely refused to prosecute the man unless the woman agreed to divorce him], and perhaps most painfully, by their churches. Pastors, priests, rabbis and ministers usually counseled these women to "forgive" their husbands, and urged them to continue to "submit" to the very men who were beating them.

Since that encounter in the early 1970s, the treatment of victims of family violence has vastly improved, largely due to the efforts of women's groups. Shelters now exist where women can find safety for themselves and their children while they put their lives back together. Police officers are trained in the realities of domestic violence. Laws have been improved and prosecutors and the courts have vastly the changed the way these women are treated.

Men have begun to realize their responsibilities in combating family violence. And slowly, much too slowly, the mainstream media has begun to deal with the issue.

The one place that's been the slowest to deal with this issue? That would be the religious community.

We saw how things had improved in the media when rapper Chris Brown severely beat up his girlfriend, singer Rihanna. It was reported as a crime, not as a lover's spat among celebrities. And when Rihanna decided to continue the relationship, many stars, including Oprah, cautioned her that "he will beat you again." Many talk shows discussed the issues of family violence in depth.

How many sermons did you hear about it? How many adult forums were held at churches on the issue of family violence? How many youth groups discussed it?

Why should churches be concerned? Because real life ordinary women and way too many teen-aged girls -- part of the Body of Christ -- are being beaten up in increasing numbers by men who say they love them. And way too often these men use the Bible as justification for their violence.

And as the economy worsens, family violence is on the rise.

Our local paper reported that area shelters and family violence hot lines have seen demand rise significantly in recent months.

"I don't know that I've ever seen a spike like this, " the Star-Telegram quoted Mary Lee Hafley, CEO of SafeHaven of Tarrant County. Of the 29 shelters the paper surveyed statewide, 83 percent reported an increase in hot line calls and admittance to shelters. The survey was funded by the Allstate Foundation.

"Our emergency rooms, our shelters, our hot lines and our law enforcement folks started seeing a higher number of incidents of domestic violence," the paper quoted Jane-marie Clark of the Foundation as saying. She also said that abusers are becoming more violent and that fatalities are increasing.

In all of last year, only seven of the county's 50 homicides involved domestic violence, the paper reported. So far this year, of the 11 homicides in Tarrant County, six have involved domestic violence.

And this is in a state that hasn't been as hard hit by the recession as have others.

This increase is also coming at a time when shelters and hot lines have seen significant drops in donations. Many are having to reduce staff at shelters, which reduces the number of women they can house. And hot lines are cutting staff as well.

When a woman is turned away from a shelter, or can't get through to a hot line, it isn't just an inconvenience. It can be a matter of life and death.

The most dangerous time for a girl or a woman in an abusive relationship is when she tries to leave it.

If she can't get into a safe place where he can't find her, she will almost certainly end up dead.

How many times have you read a variation on this headline -- "Man Kills Estranged Wife [or Girlfriend]"? We all read story after story of dead women and girls, killed by the men who were abusing them.

What can your church do?

-- Make sure your clergy have received training in how to spot signs of family violence. Local shelters can help arrange such training. This training will also help clergy deal pastorally with the victims AND the abusers. And just because the abuser is one of the big donors to the parish is NOT a reason to turn a blind eye.

-- Have adult forums on family violence. It happens in the "best" and most prosperous families as well as the poorest, so don't think your parish is immune just because your congregation is well-off.

-- Have counselors in to talk with the youth of the parish about date rape and other forms of violence. Why should you do this? Read Ten Facts About Teen Dating Violence here. Here are some of the shocking facts they report:

* Each year approximately one in four adolescents reports verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
* Approximately one in five high school girls has been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner.
* Nearly 80% of girls who have been victims of physical abuse in their dating relationships continue to date the abuser. [Shades of Rihanna and Chris Brown.]
* Nearly 20% of teen girls who have been in a relationship said that their boyfriend had threatened violence or self-harm in the event of a break-up.

* Nearly 70% of young women who have been raped knew their rapist; the perpetrator was or had been a boyfriend, friend, or casual acquaintance.
* The majority of teen dating abuse occurs in the home of one of the partners.
* Dating violence among their peers is reported by 54% of high school students.

Have the girls meet separately from the boys. And have some much-admired men in to talk to the boys about how real men don't beat up women.

-- Preach and teach about this. The Bible has been used for centuries to oppress women and still is being used today to teach women that "good" women submit to their husbands -- even if those husbands are beating them.

-- Adopt a local shelter as one of your outreach ministries. Now more than ever, they need our money and time.

The Church has great deal of women's blood on its hands.

It's time for the Church to help change this.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

Katie, thanks for this--it's very timely. I will be doing a sex education class for high schoolers at church in 2 weeks, and I had already made a note to talk about partner violence--this gives me some important information and talking points.


Leonard said...

Yes, the lies won´t work anymore...REALITY needs to be dealt with...the economy may bring out the ¨worst¨ in many...but, it may bring out some all time BESTS too.

EHC said...

Dear Abby, Ann Landers, or both have published a list of warning signs of a potentially abusive partner. It's worth memorizing. Good people are out there, and it's important to know how to weed out the ones "Mama warned us about."

LKT said...

There's a curriculum called "Love-all that and more" published by the Faith Trust Institute (, a "Six-session curriculum (50 minutes each) with lesson plans, including background materials on healthy and abusive relationships; suggestions for the facilitator; discussion questions; and dynamic, interactive follow-up activities."

I've worked with some of the people who developed this curriculum and they do super work. You might want to check it out.

Cany said...

I would add that many will not leave the situation until their animals are out for they KNOW they will be harmed if not killed.

There are groups that will take the animals in (regardless of species) to keep them safe, AND, if needed, to place them properly and get them out of harm's way.

Hannah said...

I hope people listen to you about this. Sadly, the church is still making excuses for themselves instead. "If people would just right with God we wouldn't have these issues!" "Its such a small of people within the church that deal with this, and yet people want to make it bigger!"

Denial is strong, but it shows strength of character when they do decide to deal with this straight on!


safehaven said...

Thank you so much for writing about this, and for quoting Mary Lee! I work for SafeHaven and we are so appreciative of all you've done for the domestic violence intervention and prevention movement. We would love to have you guest post or cross post on our blog, which is at Thanks again,

Sarah McClellan-Brandt
smbrandt at safehaventc dot org
Community relations coordinator
SafeHaven of Tarrant County

safehaven said...

Thank you so much for writing about this, and for quoting Mary Lee! I work for SafeHaven and we are so appreciative of all you've done for the domestic violence intervention and prevention movement. We would love to have you guest post or cross post on our blog, which is at Thanks again,

Sarah McClellan-Brandt
smbrandt at safehaventc dot org
Community relations coordinator
SafeHaven of Tarrant County

Mary Lee Hafley said...

Katie --

My pastor recently asked me to co-present the Sunday morning worship services with him on domestic violence. I spoke on the realities of domestic abuse, how it intersects our lives and my journey in this field. We showed the latest SafeHaven DVD that tells women's stories and our story as well. He spoke from a biblical perspective, clarifying and correctly interpreting misused text regarding intimate relationships. It was a transformational experience for our congregation. His powerful words left no question as to how the Church should view domestic violence or how God defines healthy initmate relationships. I'm sure he would share his sermon notes if you would like to see them.

Thank you for continuing your advocacy for victims and challengin churches to address this issue.

Mary Lee Hafley
SafeHaven of Tarrant County