Domestic violence in churches: what does it look like? How Can Pastors Help?


They looked like the Faith and Family poster couple. He was an accomplished professional who provided for his wife and children and guided them in prayer. She was a stay-at-home mom with a leadership position in their religious community. They seemed to illustrate how great a life rooted in belief can be.

But behind closed doors, Amy, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, endured years of spiritual abuse as her husband turned aspects of his faith against her.

Soon after their wedding, Amy says, her husband became obsessed with the idea that she wasn’t telling him the truth about her past. He forced her to pray with him about it. Constantly. He insisted that she share all the details of her single life with him.

After these discussions, he manipulated and coerced his physically and emotionally exhausted wife into having sex. It wasn’t until later that she realized the role model amounted to sexual abuse, although he claimed he was driven by love and the desire to make their relationship perfect and everlasting.

“I feared him and loved him,” Amy said. “He convinced me that he was this very fair guy.”

Amy’s abuser tried to use her faith to hurt her, but faith also played a role in her healing. Amy, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now helps others in her community understand and respond to domestic violence.

Experts say Amy’s story shares a lot in common with the experiences of other people of faith who are being abused. While religion can be militarized and used against those in pain, it can also be a powerful tool that helps survivors come out of abusive relationships, they say.

Unclear religious messages

While there are universal elements in the experience of domestic violence, the abuse is usually about the victim’s understanding of the world and their place in it, said Keshet Starr, CEO of the Organization for the Resolution. of Agunot. In other words, domestic violence takes on the characteristics of the community in which it occurs.

“If you are an Orthodox Jew, then a large part of your identity is shaped by Orthodox Judaism…” For the abuse to really undermine your identity, this is where it has to go. “

Sometimes religious texts will be willfully misinterpreted and deployed against the victims. For example, in some Christian communities, the Biblical story that Eve was created from Adam’s rib will serve as a justification for requiring a wife to submit to the dictates of an abusive husband.

In the Jewish community, the to have – a religious divorce document – can become the site of an assailant’s attempt to control his victim. Jewish men who refuse to grant divorce to their ex-wives turn them into agunot, literally “women in chains”. According to religious law, these women are still married and therefore unable to live their lives, sometimes for years (Starr’s organization exists to help these women).

In many Muslim communities, there is a widespread – but incorrect – belief that Islam sanctions both male domination and physical violence against women. “This is a misuse of our sacred texts,” says Denise Ziya Berte, executive director of the Peaceful Families Project, an organization that focuses on research, programs and resources to address domestic violence in Muslim communities.

“Our job now is to go back to those original texts, to go back to our tradition” and to point out the Koran as a text that really demands women’s equality and human rights for all, she said.

According to the Quran, men and women were created from the same soul and have equal status. This message has been scrambled by cultural practices that have been falsely confused with Islam, Berte says.

Teaching the clergy about abuse

For religious communities to help counter these dangerous narratives and abusive behavior, they must be informed. This is why many faith-based organizations focus their efforts on educating religious leaders and their congregations about domestic violence.

Believers who are victims of abuse often turn to religious leaders first. Without training, many pastors, rabbis and imams are urging victims to stay and work things out, experts say.

Additionally, sometimes religious leaders, in an attempt to help, ask victims if they want to come with their partner to talk, despite the fact that counseling for couples can be detrimental in domestic violence situations, says Deborah Rosenbloom, responsible for the program. of the International of Jewish Women.

If a religious leader doesn’t know, they’ll end up saying things like, “You can go to a couple’s counselor and fix it,”… instead of saying, “Are you safe? I’m worried about you. Here are some resources and, by the way, our religion does not tolerate this: you have the right to live a life free from violence anywhere and especially in your home and among your loved ones, ”said Rosenbloom.

Whether confiding in a layman or a spiritual leader, victims of domestic violence are often greeted with disbelief. It was Amy’s experience when she first shared her secret with a church elder.

“The male leader didn’t believe me. He said I was stressed out and just had to endure, ”Amy says. “Yet when I went to see women leaders, I was greeted with empathy and compassion. ”

She believes the male leader’s reaction is due to a lack of training – an issue that she and experts believe needs to be addressed in every religious community.

According to Amy, religious leaders should learn how to refer victims of domestic violence to professionals. “If not a counselor, then a victim advocate.”

It is problematic that religious leaders do not receive training to deal with this important issue while they are in seminary, experts say.

They add that in the absence of training, religious leaders sometimes base their responses not on official doctrine but on their beliefs about what their faith teaches. Lauri Przybysz, co-founder of Catholics for Family Peace, offers the example of priests who remind victims of domestic violence that marriage is a holy sacrament and that they must therefore remain in their union.

“If the clergy are not educated about domestic violence and if they don’t know what the church teaches about it, they may give inappropriate and harmful advice to go back and accept it,” says Przybysz .

This actually goes against the teachings of the church, argues Przybysz, because Catholicism emphasizes “the dignity of every human person.”

“Because you got married, that doesn’t mean people can treat you like a slave. It’s an aberration of marriage to have that happen in a relationship, ”she said. “It is a sign that the abusive spouse did not enter the marriage with the good intention of making a sacramental marriage.”

Przybysz adds that it is equally important that parishioners be educated on the issue, as the faithful sometimes contact each other before going to see a priest. Anyone who confides in a victim of domestic violence becomes a “first responder”, so to speak.

Educate religious communities

The common misconception that domestic violence is only physical must also change, experts say, and people must understand the myriad ways that abuse can manifest itself in relationships. They also need to be able to spot red flags that arise in children who come from homes where a spouse is mistreated by their partner.

To this end, Jewish Women International is partnering with a number of Jewish community centers to educate those working in the centers’ preschools, security staff and camp staff about domestic violence. Such initiatives have a ripple effect in the community, said Rosenbloom.

Camp leaders, she explains, are “young and, if you think about it, then you start relationships.” Not only will the training allow them to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, but they will also be “better counselors for children who experience (domestic violence) at home,” says Rosenbloom.

The project will start with five Jewish community centers and will expand over time to nearly 100 nationwide.

The Peaceful Families Project provides instruction on domestic violence not only to religious leaders, but to the Muslim community in general, including middle school, high school and college-aged Muslims. It offers a variety of resources, including a Muslim version of the Wheel of Power and Control – a tool commonly used by counselors and advocates to help victims and others recognize abusive behavior – so Muslims can understand the form these behaviors will take in their own community.

The organization also aims to help the culprits, says Berte, noting that the Prophet Muhammad said we must help both the oppressor and the underdog.

“What are we doing for the oppressor? ” she says. “We draw their attention to the oppressors; we make it impossible for them to continue in the sin of oppression.

Berte and others agree that it is not enough to tackle the problem of domestic violence in religious communities. Only a broad cultural shift in the way we understand and deal with violence will bring about meaningful change.

“Education is so important not only for the victims, but also because there is a huge community aspect,” says Starr. “You will never stop abuse from happening. It is a human pathology that we see everywhere through time and history. But we can change the air abusers breathe.


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