The Church and Domestic Violence – by Angela Smith

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This is the transcript of Angela’s address, given at the Marrickville Multi-Faith Roundtable gathering, held on the topic of Domestic Violence, on October 20th 2007, at Petersham Town Hall.


I wish firstly to commend the Marrickville Council for taking this initiative to help bring together the various faith communities of our municipality to explore the issues of domestic violence.

I am particularly pleased to see that the church is willing to explore and consider the ways in which she does and can respond to this issue. While the Government can research and make decisions on Social Policy to prevent further domestic violence through education and better target services to the victims, ministers of the faith and their churches (as with leaders of other faith communities) are in a privileged and unique position within the community, at the coalface, where they are often the first point of contact with these issues.

The church is in the industry of building communities under the banner of God’s love and is responsible for the nurturing of relationships within them. Who better to enlist, I say, than the support of our local faith communities and their leaders to assist our community in addressing the issue? So what’s got in the way of that?

 

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE – THE CHURCH’S RESPONSE.

My first experience of the church’s response to domestic violence issues, was personal, and I am sad to report was emotionally and spiritually damaging. You see, my mother was a divorcee who had escaped with her son from a violent marriage to an alcoholic husband. After remarrying and having another child, we were sent to a religious school where my mother explored her desire for a more intimate relationship with God for the first time. Unfortunately for her, her history of divorce prevented her from being eligible for communion in that church, resulting in the whole family giving up on going to church all-together. The rejection was heartbreaking for my mother, who was first and foremost a victim, yet actively responsible for ending a damaging relationship ultimately to protect her child. Needless to say, it took a lot to regain our trust in the church.

Fortunately, her desire for God inspired her to continue her search for a faith based community she felt was more in line with the gospel. If it were not for her persistence, I would not be standing here today representing our local parish of Dulwich Hill as a member of it. The church’s recent experience in facing up to sexual abuse charges within it’s ranks that has been recently played out in the media would support this assertion that the church has not had a good record, in the past of owning and wrestling with issues of abuse and violence. Rather, there is now an embarrassing record of denial and cover-up and great personal and emotional cost for many individuals.

However, as you might expect, I am not here to bag out religion and the established church. Rather, along with my broader community, I am greatly concerned with how the church has gone wrong and am interested in exploring a way forward. This is important not only for the sake of the victims but for the simple fact that I fear churches may have somehow got lost along the way from the path laid out in the gospel as I see it. I mean, we deal in relationship building. Through our example of Jesus, we understand unconditional love. In our parishes, we are busy building communities based on trust and modelling relationships on God’s love for us. We are also in the practice of repentance and forgiveness. These should all be good ingredients for dealing with abuse. So where have we gone wrong?

I’d like to explore just a couple of ideas that are by no means exhaustive:

 

DENIAL: ‘WE DON’T DO THAT SORT OF THING AROUND HERE’ .

Where church has become a white middle-class gathering of seemingly nice respectable people who follow the rules for good moral conduct, there is a great injustice to both the gospel and the community of that church.

In an environment that is intolerant of ‘things going astray’ and that potentially favours simple rules as solutions to life’s complexities, cover-up becomes essential. A man by the name of Dallas Willard who writes extensively on the spiritual life of churches has commented: “What sometimes goes on in all sorts of Christian institutions is not formation of people in the character of Christ; it’s teaching of outward conformity”.

If we don’t check ourselves and our behaviour, we churches can be complicit in the creation of a false perfection that cannot be maintained. It can be no surprise then, that when faced with issues of domestic violence within our parishes we (the church, broadly speaking) have at times been dismissive of the issue or unprepared to respond effectively to it.

Knowing someone who is amicable and reliable in their duties at the prayer desk or working bee roster, for example, does not mean they aren’t keeping up appearances in fear of the repercussions. If, within our church communities, no-one feels safe enough to admit that all is not well, then we are forcing our parishioners to struggle on in silence. We must be willing to accept and admit that as Christians, we have not got relationships and their complexities sorted simply because we have allowed God into the relationship. The whole basis of our understanding of the need for redemption is built on the acceptance that we are fallible, is it not?

 

OFFERING SIMPLE SOLUTIONS: THE TENDANCY TO JUSTIFY ACTIONS WITH SCRIPTURE

In other instances the church has not responded well to domestic violence issues by finding and offering simplistic answers in scripture and using them to ill effect.

“Wives submit to your husbands” has often become a sticking point in the traditional church in the past. Quoting this in isolation, firstly does injustice to the larger message, which implores husbands to ‘love their wives as Christ loved the church’ and it fails to take into account considerations such as the age the scripture was written in and the audience it was originally written for.

Further, it suggests, that despite the person’s suffering, if it is based on scripture, the interpretation cannot be challenged. Likewise, getting caught up in the do’s and don’ts like “don’t get divorced” ,“don’t be unfaithful” can, at times, cloud the church’s compassion for the victim and the desire to address the social issue behind the action result.

In some cases, victims are even allowed to feel guilt over a failed marriage that ‘no man shall bring asunder’. You see, often the appeal of a faith structure, is in fact the simple guidelines which help us make sense of a confused and chaotic life that we can feel lost in. However, as many have experienced, a desire for boxes and labels that allow simplistic categorizing of people and responses can lead to damaging judging, labelling or dismissal of the suffering connected with the issue. Inappropriate use of scripture can only serve to isolate and hurt both victim and perpetrator. None of which helps address their need or deal with the problem.

Without wanting to enter into a theological debate, let me say that Christian institutions must be aware of the important role they play in serving their community as ambassadors of Christ’s love – a reflection of God’s love for us.

 

SO, WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING?

I wish to preface my suggestions with the assertion that I believe churches are gradually recovering from mistakes of their past and are doing a great deal to address the issues of domestic violence through their various welfare arms.

I also want to state that there is no Christian institution that I know of that actually intentionally condones or accepts domestic violence. Most Christian institutions have a very active welfare system which illustrates broadly a very basic belief that the gospel and helping the poor and oppressed are closely related.

The Anglican Church has it’s own welfare arm, ”Anglicare”, which very firmly acknowledges and addresses the needs of victims of domestic violence through their Family Support Programmes, run; here in Marrickville, Bondi, Liverpool and Rooty Hill. The Marrickville co-ordinator, Lucy Naughton, informs me that over 50% of the cases they deal with have experienced domestic violence. They offer emotional support, assist with the finding of alternate accommodation and offer support in court for their clients. There are also programmes run to address the needs of perpetrators. Anglicare’s programmes are particularly concerned with the affects of domestic violence on the children who are often involved and try to address this area by relieving the pressure for them.

Doing what we are doing here today is a great first step for all faith institutions. Displaying the openness to explore the issue and how we address it alongside other community organisations and other faith institutions can only lead to good things. Because what we are doing is accepting primarily that violence is the sign of a social issue which effects all segments of society, and that our desire to address it stems from a common social justice concern. At that level, we ought all to be concerned, equally, for change. That’s the first thing we must acknowledge. And we need to recognize one another for that.

Within our parishes, we need to have communities that recognize their vulnerability and offers support to it’s members. We need to take advantage of our already established relationships to challenge injustice and offer support. We can relieve the pressure for affected families by sharing the responsibilities of that family amongst other members of the congregation and we can get to know what the welfare arms of our own and other faith institutions are offering so that we know where to send people when their needs exceed our expertise.

On this point I also want to mention that Anglicare has acknowledged the unique position parishes have in with their front line ministries within the community by making efforts to work more closely with the their local parishes in areas like this. Further to this, we must also be prepared to speak out if it is our own religious institution that is going astray any unhelpful responses to the victim and perpetrator alike.

In our Christian institutions we need to be able to look beyond, how the issue conflicts with our moral guidelines, to what type of world out faith leads us to desire and decide what we want to see happen at a social and communal level to move closer to that.

A Christian seeks the world order as displayed in the coming Kingdom of God, where all things return to their originally designed perfection. Where God stood back and saw that it was “good”, pleasing if you like. Where all things live and work together in harmony.

In this vision there is no place for pain and oppression. Jesus introduces the Kingdom concept to us through his love and serves and displays compassion for those who haven’t got it right. He said“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I desire mercy not sacrifice”. He was also unafraid to attack his own religious institutions if they were caught up in the law and were missing the point by doing so.

We are also told that there is no greater commandment than to “love God and love your neighbour as yourself”. Our connection with God and his love for the oppressed should be compelling us to action to end domestic violence.

As an example, I was impressed in my research to discover that Anglicare are making a bold move of formalizing their position of the issue of domestic violence and divorce. They are willing to state that they do not support victims staying in a relationship that is abusive just to avoid a divorce. This is an impressive step in the right direction for a Christian institution. They are willing to say that their desire to serve the needs of the suffering is primary to their interpretation of the gospel and that their service to the community will not be inhibited by religious laws if they counter-act the service they offer and their reason for doing it.

If then we, as a church, accept that domestic violence is a social justice issue, first and foremost then we must not tolerate any domestic violence. It cannot be gender specific, or judged on what laws of the church broken by their present circumstances.

This must include an acknowledgement of the abuse of men in relationships. Statistics show that in most cases of physical violence women are the victims. We must be careful not to conclude that that is just because men can cause the most damage. Domestic violence attacks the self esteem of an individual, creates co-dependency and can take the form of constant verbal attacks and put downs as well as physical violence. It is the constancy of abuse and the debilitation nature of it that should be considered.

While men are not presenting with as many physical wounds, there are plenty of victims. We need to be aware that this does not suggest there aren’t as many male victims. When a judicial system (which I am glad to see is changing) favours mothers over fathers in custody battles for example we must question the greater social statement we are making and speak out if we are opposed to it. There are currently countless men feeling manipulated and abused by both their ex-partner and a judicial system that is geared negatively against them. Abuse is abuse – whether physical or emotional. If domestic violence is socially unacceptable, it is unacceptable for all and in all it’s forms.

 

OUR MORAL PILLAR: LOVE.

In closing, the religious “law” should never enable us to be uncompassionate and should never allow us to tolerate injustice.

As the church, our faith is built on a Triune God – a God of relationships, founded on love. We recognize that we are designed for relationship, with God and with each other. Our models of relationships are sacrificially serving, unconditional, honouring and respectful. A love where provocation, neglect and manipulative control is unacceptable.

As a church, this is the foundation from which we ought to respond to domestic violence. Our moral pillar is love. Love of God and love of our neighbour. On this, all other things should rest.

Angela Smith
Assistant Pastor,
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill,
Web designer, marketer,
Campsite Manager,
Mother of three
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