The Spiritual Aspect of Domestic Violence and Abuse
In My Humble Opinion: The Spiritual Aspect of Domestic Violence and Abuse
By John Castle, RN, PA-C, MS
International terrorism has taken many of us back to the books to learn about Islam and its role and involvement in propelling some of its adherents to bring destruction and death to those with whom it disagrees. Another terrorism, universally prevalent, should also inspire us to study the Judeo-Christian roots of our own society. Due to their religious orientation, many homes are experiencing verbal and physical terrorism on a recurring basis, and the perpetrators excuse their behavior due to an erroneous interpretation of the Bible.
I am an Evangelical Biblical Believer. I believe that the Book is the voice of God to mankind. I also believe that it’s a book that teaches marital equality and mutuality with no “top dog.” But many in America have a different perspective on Scriptural teaching.
Domestic violence and abuse are often neglected by medical professionals. The health care provider who might find himself or herself confronted by a case of domestic violence and abuse doesn’t have to agree with my religious perspective. But an ignorance of the spiritual atmosphere in the abusive home, and that religious teaching’s effects on both victim and perpetrator, can result in dire consequences for the victim.
Paul, in writing his New Testament letter to Titus, a missive of pastoral counsel, advised his protégé to teach the Biblical believers in Crete “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Titus 3:2 RSV). This teaching has practicality for many of life’s situations, and the Biblical home should be the primary repository of the behavior found in this teaching. But is it?
Men and Women in Scripture
There are several Biblical passages, both in the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures, that are used to emphasize male superiority in a hierarchical family paradigm. For Christians the most used and abused is Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands.”
The problem with this convenient plucking of verses out of the Bible to support a position is that the first lesson taught in the Jewish and Christian seminary is that the Scriptural interpretation must be done within the context of the entire passage and Bible, the culture, the language and the time. And the clergy that emphasize the previous citation forget to mention the introductory verse just before it in Ephesians 5:21 that says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The continuing verses in Ephesians 5:25-32 spend much more time telling the husband what his relational responsibilities are:
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
And this section is summarized by the neglected but logical viewpoint that marriage is mutual, for in Ephesians 5:33, the couple are counseled, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Hmmm. Sounds like good psychology to me. Respect and love. Mutuality. Wow, what a concept!
Statistics from many studies, both secular and religious, show that on any sabbath approximately 25% percent of the women sitting in the pews are victims of domestic abuse. That behavior can range from verbal and economic abuse to sexual and physical violence. These statistics do not reflect husband and child abuse, which are also acknowledged.
Until recently, the faith community has lived in denial that domestic crime and brutality could be present in their congregations. After all, we have been taught from the pages of Holy Writ that if a woman submits to her husband, or a man sacrificially loves his wife, all will be well in Domestic Tranquility Baptist Church. But this Pollyanna perspective forgets another Biblical doctrine, the existence of evil. Evil doesn’t reside just in the heart of a drooling rapist lurking on a dark street corner, but it’s also resident in the homes of some of our most respected church members and leaders.
What is domestic abuse and violence? Don’t we all have fights and arguments with our spouses? Where is the delineation between normal marital discord and abuse?
Abuse involves denigrating the value of the partner, either physically, verbally or with body language, social isolation, rape and other sexual violations, and economic marginalization. It can involve name-calling. It accuses the spouse of activities, sins and omissions that are in no way true, like accusing the partner of adultery without substantiating evidence. This cruelty sinks below the discussion of ideas and opinions and desires and calls into question the nature of the person. It doesn’t recognize the personhood of the spouse. The victim is treated like an enemy that must be conquered rather than a partner who is loved and valued.
Simply put, abuse is any action that violates a line that the victim has asked the abuser not to cross—or a limit that any normal human being should know that crossing it gives entrance into abusive territory, such as smashing a wife’s face into the refrigerator.
The term, “You’re too sensitive,” is verbal abuse. Why? Because we all have our secret closets where we hide our pain. We marry looking for a lifelong partner who will be the one person on the face of God’s creation who should care about what causes us pain. When that spouse refuses to recognize those areas where we hurt, reminds us of our weaknesses, and even uses that sensitivity to cause us more pain, he or she is abusing.
Domestic abuse and violence are dangerous. Approximately 10% of verbal abuse will progress to physical violence. Many abused spouses will die at the hand of their significant other at all levels of society, in the church or synagogue, and out.
What Can PAs Do?
The first and absolutely most important action toward the victim is to believe her. The act of “coming out of the closet” took great courage on the part of the victim, and no matter how shocked you might be that this crime has been simmering behind the scenes, the victim must be heard.
Be patient. Listen—that means don’t talk. Ask simple questions for clarification, but the less said the better. The victim must be allowed to share with you the pain that’s probably been ongoing for years. Never minimize their story. If the victim perceives that you are not supportive, she may fade back into her house of horrors, and the next time you hear from her, it may be in your newspaper’s obituary page.
Don’t ask the abuser to come and sit down with the victim in counseling so “to find out truth.” This action can place the health care provider, as well as the victim, in danger. Instead of addressing the abuser at this point, suggest to the victim that she obtain a temporary restraining order. Take her to the family court and support her in the process. In many states it’s free and there are attorneys available who will advise her of her rights. The restraining order can give the victim a measure of security from which basis she can then make other arrangements, both long and short-term, for herself and the children.
Don’t ask inane questions like, “What did you do or say to provoke him?” That question is neither Scripturally or scientifically accurate. The Bible tells us that we’re all responsible for our own sins. None of us is ever perfect enough. At what point in my growth toward perfection and maturation will I recognize I’m good enough not to be battered? If my behavior can cause my spouse to abuse me, then I’m not only all-powerful, but I’ve relieved my tormentor from any responsibility for his or her choices.
Don’t ask, “Why do you stay?” Leaving a violent situation is one of the most complicated actions that must be pondered by the victim. Research by social scientists shows that it involves support systems, children, economics and for the Biblical believer it means violating years of religious indoctrination of the sacredness of marriage.
The victim must be assured that she didn’t deserve the abuse, and the violence was not her fault. Any other response is simply a legalistic re-victimization of the abused, and teeters on spiritual abuse in addition to all the other pain that the victim is already experiencing.
Research shows that violence and substance abuse are separate issues. Though both dysfunctions are commonly present in the abusive home, one doesn’t cause the other, and the abuser will need treatment for both problems.
Don’t advise the victim to return to a violent relationship. Protect the victim. Take her to a shelter or some other hiding place. The most dangerous time for the victim is when the abuser perceives that he is in danger of losing control over the victim. Abuse is all about power and control, nothing else. The rages and abuse are a result of a deep need on the part of the perpetrator for some control in his own life. The abuser may also be considered a victim, because most abusers were either victimized as children or watched one of their parents victimized.
Don’t Get Fooled
Commonly, after the dirty little secret is out from “behind closed doors,” abusers will have “a spiritual experience,” and promise that they will never abuse their partner again. He may be repentant and ask forgiveness. Affirm these feelings, but remain suspicious. If he is truly desirous of change and reconciliation, he will do the hard work of entering into spiritual counseling, therapeutic counseling and group therapy. If he doesn’t agree to enroll in these therapies or remain consistent in treatment, the prognosis isn’t promising.
Conjoint marriage counseling shouldn’t be considered until all parties feel that the abuser is making progress in therapy. Evaluate his dedication to supporting his family. Is he paying child and spousal support? Is he faithful in continuing in fellowship with the congregation? Does he obey all court orders? Is he consistent in attending therapy sessions? Until the abuser shows progress in working on the abuse, no other marital problems can be solved. Abuse is a cloud that obscures all other behaviors and communication problems. As long as abuse is an issue, the victim can’t realistically be expected to face any other marital issues, even those where she must make changes in her own poor interactions.
Don’t spiritualize the situation or the process. The most spiritual action you can perform is to listen and exhibit compassion for the victim. The victim is usually a “whipped dog,” without confidence or self-esteem. Even at the point that she’s shared this evil with you, she’s probably still thinking that it’s her fault and she could have been a better and more submissive wife. She needs affirmation and a listening ear. Let her know she has your continuing support.
Keep it confidential. This is a painful, sensitive matter that’s bedded in confusion for the victim. She needs to know she can trust someone, and for the moment that confidant is you. Don’t confront the perpetrator without the victim’s permission, and even then it’s probably not wise until the victim is safely “stashed” in a safe place and she has counseled with domestic violence and legal experts.
The victim may surprise you and return to the abuser on her own volition. Sometimes the victim will leave and return many times before making a complete break, or before a safe reconciliation can be arranged. The victim needs your support for her bad decisions as well as her good ones. Ask questions, and ask them in a nonjudgmental manner, but don’t condemn her decisions. Let her know that you’re still there for her if she needs you.
Don’t forget the children. Remember, as a health care provider, you have a legal responsibility to report the circumstances to Child Protective Services if there’s any suspicion the children are in danger. Usually, the presence of spousal abuse is sufficient suspicion to make that report. Domestic violence is a learned behavior. The children in that abusive environment are learning to abuse their own children and spouses. It must be stopped now.
Copyright © 2009 by John P. Castle