The Culpability of the Church—When Silence is not "Golden"

by Anne O. Weatherholt | October 26, 2011
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One out of every three persons sitting in the pews or chairs in your church on Sunday morning is or has been a victim of domestic violence or knows someone who is currently facing violence. But despite this, domestic violence is one of the greatest sins we never talk about in church. Those who are being abused or have been abused hear a great deal about forgiveness and the redemptive suffering of Christ. They also hear Scriptures that are presumed to teach male authority and female submission. They return home, full of the false hope that by being faithful and submissive, they can turn the hearts of their abusers. And then, many of them die—at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, ex's, or partners. According to Bureau of Justice data, on average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in the United States every day. Intimate partner homicides accounted for 30% of the murders of women and 5% percent of the murders of men. Even if they do not die, they wonder if God loves them, and why going home hurts so much.

There is a pervasive and dangerous silence in our churches about domestic abuse. Perhaps because we want to be positive and uplifting, or because we want to support and preserve the sacrament of marriage and build strong families, we think that strong religious belief and practice will prevent domestic abuse. Often, we do not want to expose young people to stories of abuse and deceit, in order to protect them. But just like Amnon isolated Tamar, sending away the servants so he could rape her (2 Sam. 13:1-22); and just like the unnamed concubine was taken away from the protection of her father, only to be offered as sport to the men who raped her in the streets of Bethlehem (Judg. 19:1-30); so Christian women are abandoned each day by the very people who should protect them. These women are abandoned by silence, abandoned by the complicity of ignorance and by the well-meaning neglect of religious leaders and friends who do not want to hear, let alone recognize, the possibility that the woman sitting just a few feet away from them is afraid to go home.

Silence is not "golden" when it comes to domestic violence. There are all kinds of barriers—barriers of well-meaning privacy, of systemic denial, of ignorance, and of a deep misuse of God's Word—that operate in local congregations. The abused feel shame and a lack of control. The cycle of abuse spins on the dangerous denial, which sees any "improvement" on the part of the abuser as a step forward, without knowing the fact that remorse of the abuser is so often not true, but only another stage in the ever-increasing cycle of danger. Professionals who counsel and shelter the abused, as well as women in recovery, know this proven fact. Those who study the totality of Scripture recognize that forgiveness must have an element of justice attached to it, as well as a link to the responsibility of the people who are citizens of God's kingdom, to promote justice, mercy, and safety for all. It is the church who should be begging the forgiveness of the women and men who have been sent back into destructive, abusive, and deadly relationships. The church has been silent too long.

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