Domestic Abuse: Theological Analysis

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Table of contents

  1. What is domestic abuse? (Experience).
  2. Analysis of Domestic Abuse.
  3. Attitudes in Biblical texts “Texts of terror”
  4. Theology of Suffering.
  5. Theologically women are inferior to men.
  6. Theology help reconciling women in the presence of God (Pastoral care).
  7. Action (How the church needs to act).

What is domestic abuse? (Experience).

Using the term “domestic violence” has caused difficulties in what the term exactly entails; due to it being interchangeable with phrases such as “wife battering”, this often relegates abuse to sometimes stereotypical terms i.e. only women can become victims of abuse. Other studies have broadened the term to look at the impact of the family unit, such as violence being aimed at other members of the family such as children. Even, the term “violence” carries different connotations, some scholars have placed an emphasis on the use of physical force, others look at the motivations behind the physical act. To explain this further, Conway (1998, pp.5-6) argues that domestic violence has been closely linked to control and manipulation, there are ways of accomplishing this without resorting to physical assault she uses this example; one victim said that her husband used to click a pen off and on as a sign when he became angry. Furthermore, verbal abuse of the victims is extremely common this lowers the victim’s self-esteem which serves to control the victim and often accompany the actions of physical violence (Conway, 1998, pp.-5-6).

Analysis of Domestic Abuse.

A survey was carried out on a sample of 1,007 married women who had experienced violence in their marriages; 46% had been threatened by their spouse and 59% of the women had been hit by their husbands. The British Crime Survey in 1992 estimated that half of the violence against women had involved domestic abuse. Only 1/8 of those were reported to the police. In addition, these figures are often difficult to estimate due to victims of abuse not reporting incidents of abuse to the police. Every year, Women’s Aid England provides help for around 30,000 women and children who are escaping domestic violence. And a further, 100,000 are given help and support (Conway,1998, p.10). Furthermore, although Conway says that she has not managed to discover a study of incidences of domestic violence among church members. The Church of England in 2017, issued a report by the Reverend Peter Hancock, the Bishop of Bath and Wells who is also the lead on safeguarding for the Church of England published a paper called “Responding Well to Domestic Abuse” - this paper describes the urgent need for the church to react well to more cases of domestic abuse, it also shows ways of how the clergy can help those in desperate need without needing to force the victim and perpetrator into marriage counselling (Hancock, 2017, p.14)

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Conway (1998, pp.19-20) explains that there seems to be a myth that is perpetuated by society that only low - income women are abused and that it happens across the social spectrum. Furthermore, Conway cites Leonora Walker who has become an authority on “Battered Woman Syndrome” who conducted interviews with 120 battered women which found that they had lacked self – esteem and that they understood the perpetrator's actions. This can be seen as indicative of the traditional views about the home and family as some victims of abuse believe that no-one can resolve the predicament except themselves. Furthermore, Conway (1998, p.21) also goes on to note that it is a societal myth that men earning a low income or men that are not in professions are abusers or that domestic violence is caused by the abusers being under the influence of alcohol. A British study published in the British Medical Journal found that 74% of abusive husbands had a drinking problem. Conway (1998, p.21) points out that although this could be a contributing factor, drinking itself may itself be a symptom of an underlying problem. Furthermore, Conway (1998, p.21) argues that due to society frequently accepting men and women to drink to excess and not be in control of their actions, this is a way for the abuser to deflect responsibility for their actions.

Attitudes in Biblical texts “Texts of terror”

The cause of domestic violence is seen as a sin which is wrongdoing against God, although the Bible does not give a comprehensive list of sinful actions, however, violence itself is condemned in the Bible as a product of sin, God himself makes it clear that violence was contrary to his plan for the world. The Old Testament, in contrast, depicts God as violent and vindictive especially when ordering the destruction of the Canaanites and other tribes seen in Deuteronomy 20:17. However, there have been incidences where the God of the Old Testament has condemned violence especially pictured in the book of Obadiah, which deals with the violence in the family unit between Esau and Jacob this is also dealt with in Malachi 2:16. Although these verses refer to some form of physical violence the Bible also condemns mental violence as shown in Proverbs 10:6-11, which condemns violent action coming from a person’s mouth, (Conway, 1998, p.43).

Jesus is seen in the New Testament too often contradict what the Old Testament has written in regards of scripture, especially in the Sermon on the Mount where he tells those gathered to “turn the other cheek” in response to violence which is seen in Matthew 5:38-42. However, righteous violence was also used by Jesus himself when he cleared the temple area of merchants, condemnation of violence occurs where the violence is not in accordance with a divine purpose. (Conway, 1998, p.43). However, Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan has also been a text that has been used as a model for responding to victims of sexualized violence. However, this can also be insufficient as there needs to be a connection as to who the person is. In addition, we need to know the extent of the violation and how the person responding can help without making a situation worse (Leslie, 2003, p.9).

The Bible itself may be a hindrance for those who are trying to escape domestic abuse. As Leslie (2003, p.8) calls these texts, “texts of terror” the two prominent cases of this is the rape of Tamar and the story of Dinah. Schroeder (2007, p.11) argues that Genesis 34 was frequently used as an example of a sinful soul i.e. Dinah who strayed beyond proper boundaries of society, this story was sometimes was used to educate monks and nuns as a warning to avoid sin. Historically, Christian interpreters inherited from the Roman tradition the idea that women desired sexual relations, this was a result of Middle Age concept of it being virtually impossible to rape a godly woman and therefore the rape of Dinah suggests to interpreters that she was a young woman of questionable character (Schroeder, 2007, p.13). In addition, St. Jerome in the 4th century used the story of Dinah to warn young women to remain at home, unconcerned with worldly matters, in the following centuries according to Schroeder, Genesis 34 has been linked to the oppression of women and enclosure of female members in religious orders, as to not tempt men into sin (Schroeder, 2007 p.15). Texts such as the story of Dinah have not only distorted scripture but ignored the violence that has been done to women and other oppressed groups. Leslie (2003, p.9) cites Cooper – White who argues that we must do two things; that we must listen to those who have been violated and call into question all forms of authority that collude with abuse and this should also mean certain texts of the Bible.

Theology of Suffering.

One of the main problems surrounding theology is that it has not evolved, a common misconception is that suffering is sent by God which has an apparent reason i.e. for the greater good. According to Nienhuis (2015, p.112), any theology that encourages us to view suffering as a part of God’s plan is a dangerous theology. If we encourage the belief that suffering should be accepted as a means to become more “Christ-like”, we seem to be endorsing violence as a means for character development. As Christians, Nienhuis (2015, P.113) argues that we continually confuse violence for love, a theology that interprets a loving God’s motivations by allowing and sending suffering is guilty of the same. We should, therefore, understand the suffering we experience not as suffering but rather an indication of God’s love.

Historically, the theology of suffering began with the early Christians who were trying to make sense of Christ’s death on the cross. The theological standpoint for this is that Christ’s death was a necessary measure to enact God’s plan of salvation. Furthermore, if we continue to adopt the common approaches to atonement such as Christus Victor which is central to Christian thought, then martyrdom and victimization will be encouraged. Others such as Barth and Cone argue for the “Suffering God” who suffers when we suffer. Although this stance by Barth changed the face of suffering it does not eradicate the problem that victims of abuse still endure the treatment, they are exposed. An example of this, which is commonly seen by the early martyrs that to die for the faith was imitate Christ and to suffer greatly in death meant a reward in heaven, furthermore, in the medieval period monks believed that they could get closer to God through mortification of the flesh and by denying physical needs. If these figures in Christianity remain to be depictions of what it is to be a good Christian, then attitudes to domestic abuse will not change as the suffering of victims may be considered a sign of greater reward in heaven (Nienhuis, 2015, P.113).

Theologically women are inferior to men.

According to Rosemary Radford Reuther, religious beliefs are patriarchal because they developed in cultures where men were more privileged therefore this must reflect the nature of God. Furthermore, Fiorenza argues that a dualistic approach to the issues between gender is not enough. Unless we see the patriarchy as a culmination of power systems such as race, class and other systems of oppression, (Nienhuis, 2015, P.115).

There also has been according to Reuther the view that women’s bodies should be equated with sin as this provides a way for abuse. Within Christianity particularly, the creation stories in Genesis has provided a source for gender inequality, various interpretations of the creation accounts show that women are weaker and less spiritual then men it also perceives women as a threat to men e.g. Eve seducing Adam into disobedience, this belief of original sin as being perpetrated by a woman has been influenced by the early church fathers such as St. Augustine (Nienhuis, 2015, P.115). This foundation has also given men social and theological approval to correct/chastise a woman to keep their “deviant” natures in check. In addition, it was only until recently that the civil law changed, before that, women were counted as a man’s property and not a person in their own right. St. Thomas Aquinas who is important in Catholic thought, argued that women are rationally inferior to men, he interpreted scripture by suggesting that women were valuable regarding their reproductive capabilities (Nienhuis, 2015, PP.116-117).

Theology help reconciling women in the presence of God (Pastoral care).

Survivors of abuse speak about the presence of God or lack of when traumatic events occur. Shooter (2012, PP.53-54), argues that there needs to be an acknowledgement of being in God’s presence even when the person themselves is unaware of it e.g. some abuse victims have been able to come to terms with specific instances of abuse knowing that they are now in the presence of God. This is due to God healing the abandonment and fear as he experiences with the survivor, which is also like Barth’s example of God suffering when we suffer. The word “timeless” being used to describe God is helpful for some victims of abuse as it means that God can access events that have happened in the past, present and future which can be a good context for healing. Furthermore, Leslie (2003, P.10), the metaphor of the wounded healer has become a useful resource in empowering caregivers. However, there can be disadvantages for this type of theology e.g. a victim once was told by a vicar to go back to a traumatic event and imagine that Jesus was holding their hand. A problem with this is that it is paramount to saying that God refused to intervene in instances of abuse or was unwilling to due to what was discussed earlier about suffering serving a purpose. In pastoral care, Shooter suggests that the reasons for God’s inactivity are becoming more prominent when talking to survivors of abuse, (Shooter, 2012, PP.54-55).

Action (How the church needs to act).

In the Roman Catholic Church, they have been reluctant to modernise the concept of the sanctity of marriage. This is now an issue especially with women feeling trapped within their own marriages especially with an abusive partner. Conway (1998, P. 45) who argues that the Bible is clear that the sacrament of marriage is divinely ordained by God is a good thing, this is shown in Genesis that it was part of God’s plan that man should be with a woman. However, Domestic violence is a destruction of the relationship planned and desired by God. The consequences of this are that it also destroys a safe environment for children, the view in some churches is that parents are meant to mirror God caring for his people. These effects are then incompatible with the biblical teaching of family life.

According to Glasson (2009, P.129), the Church in the 21st century is known for its lack of motivation and the steady decline in attendance. Although this would be an accurate picture of how the church has been shown the church has taken action due to the Church’s published report on responding to domestic violence argues that through Christ and his relationship with others, abuse of any kind is contrary to the will of God and a slight on human dignity (Hancock, 2017, P.8). There is also much more an awareness through the report on how to handle disclosures of this kind, especially by not making the victim act of any kind and being able to keep a record of the disclosure as a safeguarding issue (Hancock, 2017, P.14) The Church itself should become a place of sanctuary where those who are being abused are allowed to come to a ‘safe space’ and work out there options with the support of God and those who have struggled with the same issues.

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