Family violence: a Christian response

How to combine courage and compassion in dealing with family violence

Karen and Ron Flowers are directors of family ministries at the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

You've met her. She's visited your office, with bruises care fully camouflaged beneath makeup and a turtleneck.

You've seen her lower her eyes and study the floor when abuse and family violence were addressed openly, unable to disclose her pain.

She is among the one in four murder victims in England and Wales, killed by their husbands. She is one of the three to four million women battered every year in the United States by their husbands or partners. She is part of the staggering statistic in Papua New Guinea where 67 percent of wives suffer marital violence. Her injuries are charted in emergency rooms and police records from Scotland to Poland to Vanuatu to Columbia. Her story is transcribed in divorce court proceedings in Egypt, Jamaica, or Greece, where as many as one in five divorces is granted on the grounds of cruelty. As a child, she had a one-in-three chance of being sexually abused. In old age she will again be highly vulnerable to assault.1

Abuse and family violence represent a significant threat to the well-being of individuals and societies worldwide. Abuse is blind to age, social status, color, culture, and creed. There is no typical victim of abuse and no typical perpetrator, except insofar as the victim is, overwhelmingly, female (95 percent) and the perpetrator male.

Abuse in the Adventist community

The Seventh-day Adventist faith community is not immune. Significant levels of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse were reported by the nearly 8,000 randomly selected respondents to the Adventist Family Study initiated in 1994 by the General Conference Department of Family Ministries, now completed in parts of seven world divisions. In the division reporting the highest incidence, 18 percent of female respondents reported sexual abuse. As many as 43 percent of women responding in one division reported physical abuse. Among the divisions participating, a high of 69 percent of women reporting said they have experienced emotional abuse. Incidence of abuse perpetrated against males among divisions participating were 12 percent, 37 percent, and 55 percent for sexual, emotional, and physical abuse respectively.2

Last year the Southeastern California Conference family ministry committee conducted a study on family abuse among Adventists. The study elicited a response rate of 35 percent from a randomly selected population of Adventist members in the conference, covering all ethnic groups. Forty percent of the respondents said yes to the question, "Were you ever the victim of physical abuse in your home up to age 18?" Forty-three percent "re ported verbal abuse in the homes in which they were reared up to the age of 18." Other findings include: "Females were three times more likely to suffer abuse than males. And children were more likely to be victimized than adults. Fifty-six per cent of the respondents said that physical abuse had been directed toward them or their siblings in the home in which they were reared."3

Certainly these wounded individuals and families deserve a compassionate response from the church. To respond with acceptance, understanding, comfort, and practical help is the moral responsibility of Christians and tangible evidence of the presence of Christ in our midst.

A practical approach

There is often, however, a gulf be tween belief and practice, between conscience and duty. So what constitutes a practical and appropriate church response to abuse and family violence? How can pastors prepare themselves and their congregations in facing abuse and family violence in their midst?

We believe the gospel calls the church to:

Affirm the dignity and worth of each human being and decry all forms of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and family violence. In too many circles a woman's value is still based upon her marriageability and fertility. Christians affirm that the Creator and the Redeemer has placed inestimable worth on every individual not on the basis of who we are or anything we have or have not done, but on the basis of who Jesus is and what He has done. Seventh-day Adventists, fulfilling their call to herald the message of the three angels of Revelation, cannot call the world to worship Jesus as Creator and Redeemer without striking this higher note for women and children, who count for little in the societies around them, but are precious in His sight.

Identify abuse and violent behaviors for what they are. The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, an interfaith organization, identifies four basic types of abuse and family violence: physical, sexual, and psychological, assault and attacks against pets and property.4 Pastors will need to educate many members regarding the kinds of specific behaviors and attitudes that constitute abuse, particularly when these behaviors and attitudes are commonly accepted or culturally prevalent.

Recognize the global extent of this problem and the serious, long-term effects upon the lives of all involved. The pain experienced by persons who are deceived, exploited, and betrayed by someone they should have been able to trust for love and nurturance defies expression.

Without doubt, surviving family abuse is a costly phenomena. It consumes a significant amount of energy on the part of individuals in Adventist pews and in the communities around as they attempt to deal with the issue. This energy is needed to enjoy fully relation ships among family members and friends. It is energy no longer available for service in the name of Christ.

Break the silence and create an atmosphere in which secrets can be told and help can be found. The first step in both prevention and intervention is for your local church to acknowledge the hard facts. Churches in which abuse and family violence are addressed openly— in sermons, seminars, in the newsletter, on the bulletin board, through cooperative community efforts to protect survivors and strengthen families in a preventive mode, etc.—are churches in which abusive families can find the courage to tell someone about their situations and find help.

Identify the full range of resources available and assist victims, abusers, and their families in accessing these resources. To deal effectively with abuse and domestic violence requires the utilization of the full range of services available through preventive education, the professional services provided by mental health specialists and social agencies, and support net works. While the pastor and the church play an important support role in assisting abuse victims and their families, unless pastors are licensed as mental health professionals he or she is ill-equipped to deal with the treatment needs. Referral is the only responsible course of action.

Pastors should acquaint themselves with the network of services available within the congregation and the surrounding community. Professionals in your congregation may be able to help locate such resources. Talk to pastors of other churches in your community to find out to whom they refer and the services they have found helpful to their members.

Making your parishioners aware of these services helps abusive families with information as to where to seek help. Many will also need your help to access these services. Some need courage to face what for them is an intimidating situation. Others will need your help to verbalize their situation to a stranger. Still others will need very practical help, such as child care, transportation, etc.

Hold abusers accountable for their actions. A pastor's first responsibility is to protect the victim and her children from further abuse and violence. Making a re port to law enforcement is, in many places, the legal responsibility of the pastor. Professionals who treat abuse and family violence, even abusers who have been successfully rehabilitated, strongly advise that pastors and church communities resist the temptation to move too quickly in urging forgiveness and reconciliation in abusive families. Abusers must be led to take full responsibility for what they have done, to make restitution in every way possible for the damage they have created, and to seek treatment that can result in changed attitudes and behavior. Only after this step has been taken, is it safe to open the possibilities for forgiveness and new beginnings.

Address the spiritual questions confronting abused persons. It is common for victims of abuse and family violence to feel that God has abandoned them, to blame themselves for creating the situation in which they find themselves, and to wonder if God can ever forgive them for the disruption in their families. Pas tors can do much to change the perception that victims are to blame for their circumstances. Caring church members can provide reassurance, encouragement, and practical help at this time of deep distress.

Strengthen families. Pastors can do much to slow the forces of abuse and family violence by becoming intentional about strengthening families through marriage enrichment, parent education, and the development of a broad spectrum of relational skills.

1 See Violence Against Women in the Family
(United Nations, 1989).

2 From a preliminary report of the Adventist
Family Study made to the Spring Meeting of the
General Conference Committee, April 1995.

3 See Fred Kasischke and Audray Johnson,
"Adventists and Family Crises: Getting the
Facts," Adventist Review, August 18, 1994,
pp. 15-17.

4 Excellent resources are available for pastors
from the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and
Domestic Violence, 936 North 34th St., Suite
200, Seattle, Washington 98103.

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Karen and Ron Flowers are directors of family ministries at the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

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