Can you imagine how people feel when wounded — physically, verbally, or emotionally — by those they should be able to depend on for love, care, and protection? A statement posted on the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society website reports, “One in three women will experience some level of violence in their lives — half of them from intimate partners….According to the latest report from UNICEF, nearly 275,000,000 children worldwide are witnessing abuse in their everyday life….” Tragically, the church sometimes encourages people to stay in abusive relationships, instead of offering resources and alternatives that could help break the cycle of violence. The GBCS statement, encouraging pastors and church leaders to preach and teach about domestic violence, provides links to helpful resources Visit http://main.umc-gbcs.org and enter “domestic violence” on the search bar to find resources on partner, child, and elder abuse and adolescent bullying. A list of other relevant resources follows this article.
The church, through its teaching and preaching, can indeed raise awareness of domestic violence, equip people to recognize and protect against it, and refer people to effective counselors and programs for prevention and intervention.
The church, through its teaching and preaching, can indeed raise awareness of domestic violence, equip people to recognize and protect against it, and refer people to effective counselors and programs for prevention and intervention. It may also be helpful to provide a theological understanding of covenant and to educate our congregations and communities about issues and attitudes that fuel and sanction abusive behavior. Some domestic violence prevention and intervention programs attempt to change attitudes and behaviors by shaming the abusers. This approach may seem to work in some cases, but it fails to address the underlying anger, inability to communicate, sense of powerlessness, and low self-esteem that can lead to verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.
Churches can teach about covenantal relationships, founded on mutual love and care, through sermons, premarital counseling, marriage education and enrichment, and relationship education for children, youth, and young adults. In covenant, people agree to nurture and protect each other and to be held accountable for their words and actions. When one or both partners violate the covenant, reconciliation depends on the willingness of both people to own their contributions to the relationship breakdown and to do what is necessary to renew their covenant. Violence and abuse break the covenant and should never be tolerated. If unchecked, violence and abuse will likely escalate over time and can ultimately destroy people and families.
Beliefs about gender may feed domestic violence. Boys exposed to male role models of dominance and control will likely grow up exhibiting such attitudes and behaviors themselves. Women who have not learned to speak up for themselves assertively may resort to aggression to meet their needs. The church can encourage mutual respect and empowerment by emphasizing the first story of creation (Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”), instead of the Adam’s rib version in Genesis 2:4-25. We can respond to those who take verses from Ephesians 5 out of context to justify male dominance, by focusing on Ephesians 5:21: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Churches can challenge tendencies toward gender role stereotyping in leadership assignments by inviting women to serve as trustees and men to teach church school. Consistent use of non-sexist language may help establish an expectation of equal rights and equal responsibility that might carry over into homes. We can address gender role stereotyping and chauvinistic attitudes in church school classes, youth programs, marriage preparation counseling, ongoing marriage education classes, and support groups.
Anger, which alerts us that something needs attention, is usually a secondary emotion, masking guilt, fear, or feelings of inadequacy.
Preaching and teaching can also illuminate the function of anger. Psalm 4:4 admonishes, “Don’t sin by letting anger control you” (New Living Translation), indicating that anger itself is not a problem, but that the way it is expressed in words and actions can cause great harm. Anger, which alerts us that something needs attention, is usually a secondary emotion, masking guilt, fear, or feelings of inadequacy. Children, youth, and adults can be taught to recognize anger arising in themselves or others and to seek understanding of the underlying feelings and needs, rather than reacting by lashing out. In addition to sermons on this subject, the church can offer classes and small-group studies that focus on self-awareness, communication, and conflict management. Such experiences help people learn how to resist being provoked by anger into acting against their own values, which deeply diminishes self-esteem and often creates a vicious cycle of increasing shame and escalating abuse.
Youth and others who are dating benefit from learning how to assess the character and potential compatibility of their dating partners and to date long enough and in a variety of settings in order to get a true picture of someone’s attitudes and behavior before making a commitment. Those already married benefit from healthy relationship programs. See the following resource list and the document “Marriage and Family Ministry Resources Recommended by United Methodists” for study books and DVD-based curriculum kits that that can be taught by local people who have some group leadership training and experience. Seminars and programs that require trained and certified leaders list upcoming events on their websites along with information about how to bring leaders to the community. Churches, alone or in cooperation with other churches and organizations, can sponsor and/or provide scholarship and childcare assistance for these opportunities, which are well worth the investment of time and money.
The church can also provide support for people in stressful situations: new parents, parents of teens, caregivers, and those facing other challenging situations. Practical supports such as food pantries and thrift shops, when administered with compassionate, non-judgmental acceptance, protect the dignity and self-esteem of their clients. Classes and support groups for parents of children at different ages and stages, for caregivers, and for those who are unemployed and/or in recovery from addictions can help individuals and families cope successfully with these challenges, instead of falling apart. Smaller churches can join with other congregations to provide these ministries for a community or reasonable geographic area. Churches can also advocate for fair wages, affordable health care, and adequate funding for education and other vital services. We must, of course, still hold people accountable for their behavior and provide safety nets for those in danger, but compassionate and justice-seeking ministries can reduce stress and perhaps prevent potential abuse.
Posters, bulletin inserts, displays of educational brochures, and books in the church library can reinforce the church’s preaching and teaching about attitudes and behaviors. Since some women tend to assume they deserve to be beaten, the church needs to state clearly that abuse is never deserved and violence is never acceptable. A safe, compassionate, and caring church climate, in which people feel loved as they are — yet encouraged to grow spiritually, emotionally, and in their relationships — may increase the probability that people will ask for help when they need it. While such efforts will not prevent all instances of domestic abuse, they may create an environment in which such violence is less likely. And hopefully, when domestic violence does occur, it will be recognized and dealt with effectively.
By shedding light on the traumatic impact and surprising extent of domestic violence, churches can help bring it out into the open where prevention, intervention, and healing can take place. We need to equip people to recognize the signs of abuse and to know where they can find help for those caught in such devastating situations. At a deeper level, we need to shine light on underlying issues that may lead to abusive behavior, providing experiences that help people grow in self-awareness, self-control, and self-esteem, and in the ability to communicate effectively. The church is in an excellent position to shed light on the subject of domestic violence, both by increasing awareness and by deepening understanding of the dynamics of abusive behavior. See Resources listed below.
Jane P. Ives is a United Methodist Marriage and Family Ministries Consultant from Portland, ME