Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners.
[Trigger warning: themes related to verbal and spiritual abuse]
I was full of fear, walking on eggshells around my partner, tied in knots of self-blame and false guilt, praying that if God was merciful, I would stop waking up in the mornings. And yet not a soul—not even my church that was supposedly committed to gender equity—identified my experience as abuse. Though I was a student of marriage and family therapy at a rigorous seminary program and an advocate for justice through my church ministry, never was I educated on the subtle forms of abuse that misogyny and gendered double standards can take. The relationship I had with my abuser, a member of the leadership team and long-time congregant, might have appeared very private, and I might have appeared at times to look unhappy. But overall we appeared average. This story is all too common.
I struggled in those two years of dating my now ex-partner to name what was hurting: Yes, he prohibited me from talking about physical boundaries and pressured me for more sexually, but my indignation was eclipsed by self-doubt. Yes, he blew up at strangers and pulled me by my hand or towered over me physically when upset, but he never yelled at me, right? His unforgiving double standard for me led to ever-increasing rules about what I could or couldn’t do, and yet, wasn’t I the troubled one because I was feeling so many negative emotions? Maybe I needed to “get a life, get a real job, get help for depression” just like he said, I thought.
Self-blame, endless introspection, and gendered self-help work are the methods by which a victim of gender-based abuse (domestic violence, sexual assault, workplace bullying, political sabotage, and more) is taught to quiet her pain and violation. Churches and poorly trained therapists recommend these strategies to women while offering exoneration, sympathy, and pity to agents of misogyny, such as male perpetrators and those of any gender who collude with abuse. I have come to see that, as a victim-advocate, helping professional, and researcher, liberating and empowering women to give voice to their gendered experience is the only way to challenge the worldview of misogyny.
Met with Silence
Any attempt to process our relationship with others in our close-knit church community resulted in steely silence, awkward interactions, or advice to “just” break up with him. Any attempt to talk to him resulted in a rotation of denial, counter blame, or partial and temporary concessions. Any attempt to break up with him resulted in being further controlled, coerced, stonewalled, or even physically intimidated. I felt like I was stuck on every side.
Ironically, I escaped the relationship only by holding my tongue: no longer reabsorbing with contrition his wrongs against me by apologizing to placate and absolve him. This caused his simmering resentment to boil. Eventually, his prayer partners began to see through the thin veneer of his excuses, but only after I pushed for many months for him to meet with others. When the issue of public accountability and behavior change emerged, his priorities shifted. Getting rid of me was a more alluring solution than continuing to control me and possess me as his girlfriend. Like many victims, I was quietly discarded, never having the ability to name the abuse. When I did escape, it was into yet another world of silence: the invisibility of victimhood in the church.
Emerging from Silence
Victims of abuse and assault in the church learn silence because this is often how churches respond to our pain. We keep quiet and keep the peace or face controlling behavior from both bystanders and the abuser. When others label our words as “gossip,” “slander,” “sin,” “vindictiveness,” and “bitterness,” we adapt to silence for survival. We want to go on believing, serving, ministering, and being supported by the last shreds of community we can enjoy. We know there is a steep price for breaking the silence even when it’s never directly said.
After a year of wordless suffering, in a moment of self-blame and agony, I poured out what had been happening to me those years to a former church member and a mutual friend of both my abuser and me. This friend finally labeled what I had experienced as “emotional abuse.” It would be months before I understood that I qualified for domestic violence aid, like the use of hotlines and support groups to talk to advocates, but it turns out this was exactly what had been happening. When bench ads and even grad programs only depict intimate partner abuse as bruises on skin and holes in the wall, most victims of coercive control and gender-based abuse will not be able to self-identify and seek help. This was my case, even though I was a student in a couples’ and family counseling program and attending a church superficially committed to gender equity by having women pastors on staff.
The denomination my church belonged to had an advocacy program for victims of domestic abuse, but they were never called because my pastor refused to believe I was being abused. Though she had been supplied with the definition and signs of emotional abuse after the church mishandled a previous case, I never benefited from this learning. I realize now that as I sat on her sofa one night next to my abuser, telling her I was worried what I would do to myself because of his behavior, she was quietly guarding the lifeline I desperately needed. In the end she told me I had no rights because I was not married. She depicted me as high-maintenance and controlling without ever separating us, listening to what was happening, assessing our situation for abuse, or even handing out a suicide crisis number.
While many churches can respond to a victim’s disclosure in helpful ways, it is most often only when the perpetrator of abuse is outside the church and the victim appears to be leaving him. While searching for a new, pro-feminist church that would handle abuse in safer ways, I interviewed local church leaders on how they have responded to disclosures about men mistreating women in intimate relationships. Sadly, there were two common responses: the church claimed they had never had cases of abuse in their congregation, or they emphasized that they would “walk with” the victim long enough to know if she was lying. All too often victims of gender-based abuse are erased and silenced in exactly this way: they simply don’t exist.
A Symphony of the Silent
I am still in recovery in many ways. I don’t minister with or attend my former church. I am still looking for some alternative sacred place to live out my conviction for urban community development whether that is a small informal gathering or organized body of churchgoers. I reckon daily with the practical and theological implications of justice denied. I work hard (and often fail) to have hope and trust. While my story is not over, undeniable good has come from sharing it.
In churches where I have been invited to speak publicly about abuse, the once nameless victims emerge and tell their stories. So many have suffered, been displaced, and later shamed for the abuse and assault inflicted on them in their faith communities. When a victim names these evils, every woman in the room will either share that they too were controlled and over-powered by an intimate partner or leader, they know someone who has been, or they are worried for a friend and want to know how to help.
In my work as a marriage and family therapist supporting victims from various faith traditions, I am able to discuss the mental health outcomes inflicted upon survivors who either witnessed or experienced oppressive gender roles, violence, intimidation, and nonphysical abuse. Though victims are, understandably, hard to organize as a group because of the trauma responses they embody and the ongoing silencing of feminine anger, the quiet notes are beginning to form an ever-louder chorus. Together we are challenging the incomplete lessons we received as Christians, women, victim-advocates, girlfriends, wives, mothers, and witnesses. We are raising our voices as theologians, priests, and powerful protectors despite the costs.
Practical Tips for Churches
I hope my story and my perspective helps you see where your church could grow in how it educates its members about gender-based abuse and responds to victims. The following list has been composed by victims for churches wanting to elevate and nuance the issues of gender equality. No doubt as your church places safety and awareness at the forefront, victims and survivors will have increased generativity and creative bandwidth to add more to these suggestions.
- Make sure every member and visitor to your church receives the opportunity to learn about power and control tactics, coercive control, and intimate partner abuse beyond the common depiction of physical battery. Avoid relegating these important topics to women’s ministries or victim support groups only.
- Ensure resources like the domestic violence hotline are posted in restrooms and other public spaces where a victim could have access. Normalize that every congregation has abusers and victims and policies are in place for when (not if) a victim comes forward.
- Caution your congregation against compassion-shift and blame-shift because Christians can feel especially righteous in extending premature forgiveness to an alleged perpetrator and feel holier than a victim who holds firmly to their testimony.
- Know that every woman and every couple who comes to you for support is affected by gender inequality and that abuse stems from this in sometimes subtle ways. You may in fact be the first person to name what is happening as “abuse.”
- Victims of intimate partner abuse have moral questions. They have been taught that their gender role is to do “right” by their man and can therefore become locked into cycles of abuse. As a spiritual companion, be ready to discuss and allay the self-blame that emerges from gender-based abuse and gender-role socialization.
- Encourage women and victims of abuse to create theology and reimagine liturgy in ways that are oppression-informed and trauma-informed. Put these into practice!
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash