Sometimes keeping family secrets is to participate in a grave – and potentially lethal – injustice.
As Janice E. Ranch wrote more than 25 years ago, “Family violence is a crime committed in secrecy, in the home, against someone who the abuser feels will always keep the secret. That is the abuser’s power” (Family Violence: How to Recognize and Survive It).
Like families, churches can be very good at keeping secrets. But some secrets must come to light to save persons who live in the dark silence caused by violence in families.
“Now that’s not the church’s business,” some might insist. “What goes on in a person’s home is private.”
That kind of thinking contributes to the violence that devastates a home and leaves its residents hopeless and emotionally spent — and in lethal danger. Domestic violence advocates and law enforcement agencies regularly conduct lethality assessments on domestic violence cases in an effort to determine how the violence happened, escalated and became chronic. One of their findings is that the families had minimal support from extended family, friends, neighbors and — get ready for it — churches.
As people of faith, we must confess our reluctance to minister to persons suffering the effects of family violence. We must look at our failure to act as an injustice that results in intense and lasting harm. We must acknowledge that family violence is more than spousal abuse. It is sibling abuse. It is child abuse that breeds hopelessness and numbing in children who are programmed to view the violence as normal. It is elder abuse that locks the most vulnerable victims in prisons of fear.
“Fifty percent of the pastors said women should be willing to ‘tolerate some level of violence’ because it is better than divorce.”
Consider the following:
- In any church, one of every four persons is suffering or has suffered the devastation of domestic violence. Yet, many people in the church persist in thinking, “It doesn’t happen here.”
- A study titled “I Believe You: Sexual Violence and the Church” conducted by Sojourners found that 65 percent of pastors have spoken only once or not at all about domestic and sexual violence. Twenty-two percent indicated they addressed the topic annually, while 33 percent mentioned it “rarely.” Ten percent of pastors said they had never taught on the subject.
- Denise George, in What Women Wish Pastors Knew, writes, “We just cannot believe that a church deacon or member goes home after worship . . . and beats his wife.” George cites a survey of nearly 6,000 pastors who were asked how they would counsel women who came to them for help with domestic violence. Twenty-six percent would counsel them to continue to “submit” to their husbands. Twenty-five percent would tell wives the abuse was their own fault – for failing to submit in the first place. Astonishingly, 50 percent of the pastors said women should be willing to “tolerate some level of violence” because it is better than divorce.
- 30-60 percent of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household.
- The Center for Family Justice cites a study in the Journal of Family Psychology that reports that more than 15 million children witness domestic violence each year in the United States.
- Elder abuse, including neglect and exploitation, is experienced by 1 out of every 10 people, age 60 and older, who live at home. This figure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is likely an underestimate because many victims are unable or afraid to disclose or report the violence.
- A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that 47 percent of participants with dementia had been mistreated by their caregivers. Of them, 88.5 percent experienced psychological abuse, 19.7 percent experienced physical abuse, and 29.5 percent experienced neglect. A 2015 study published in the same journal found emotional abuse to be the most prevalent type of elder abuse followed closely by physical abuse and neglect.
One assumes that faith communities care deeply about persons who endure violence and abuse. To live out that caring, churches can play a critical role in their local community’s response to family violence in various ways, including: encouraging important conversations with local family violence advocates; working to develop collaborative community relationships with shelter personnel; offering spiritual care by through participation in annual memorial services planned by local domestic violence organizations; and by joining volunteer efforts that support the work of victim advocates. Most importantly, faith communities should assure family violence advocates, victims and persons struggling to survive that they are concerned about the far-reaching impact of family violence and that their concern compels them to address the misunderstood religious beliefs that may bind a victim to the violence.
“Elder abuse, including neglect and exploitation, is experienced by 1 out of every 10 people, age 60 and older, who live at home.”
Family violence is usually not just one isolated, violent incident. It is a chronic and persistent attack on physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It is a terrifying situation of entrapment, secrecy and isolation. Abusive power is used to wrap the abuse itself in secrecy. It is an oppression that shackles victims in chains that seem unbreakable.
The prophet Isaiah speaks strongly about doing justice. While not explicitly referring to family violence, Isaiah voices God’s call for justice: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6, NIV).
One of the ways people of faith must do justice is by being healers of the wounds that happen in the prisons of family secrecy. This means:
- refusing to be complicit in the secrecy that gives power to abusers;
- refusing to make excuses for an abuser;
- hearing and believing a survivor who discloses abuse;
- finding gentle and healing ways to give voice to a family’s secrets and silences;
- being ever a kind listener and never a judgmental voice;
- making sure that church is a safe and sacred space;
- keeping a watchful eye, always, over children, teaching them to be safe, not only from strangers, but from people they know and trust; and
- being aware of the invisible wounds that others carry, and reaching out with the kind of tenderness that brings healing.
If Jesus were among us today, I imagine him speaking justice to the unconscionable abuse of power that causes violence. He would call out husbands who abuse their wives, brothers who hurt their sisters, parents who harm their children, children who abuse their elderly parents. Jesus might peer into homes and cry out, “Woe to you!” And then, in his gentle, loving way, Jesus might reach out to those who suffer violence, take their hands and speak hope to despair.
“Family violence is usually not just one isolated, violent incident. It is a chronic and persistent attack on physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.”
When we fail to seek justice wherever abuse happens, we confine Jesus. In the final lines of The Church in the Thought of Jesus, author Joseph B. Clower Jr. writes: “If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with his compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among [people].”
Let us seize this holy commission, covering survivors of family violence with the compassionate cloak of justice, confronting violence wherever it casts its shadow and following God into every place where oppression must be overcome by justice.
Note: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The annual emphasis began in 1981 with a “Day of Unity” that focused on mourning the death of victims and celebrating the survivors.