Domestic violence: The hidden crime

The dimensions and characteristics of violence in the home and what a pastor can do

T. Patrick Bradley is a hospital chaplain at the United Medical Center, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

As we look at various societies and the moral guidance that these societies live by, we sometimes find a certain acceptance of domestic violence as a way of life, an expected part of relating within marriage. This may even be true in societies where violence, especially violence against an individual, is prohibited and where legal punishment for violence against a stranger is severe.

What makes domestic violence acceptable? And, most importantly, what can we do about the rampant domestic violence in so many of our communities?

A few facts

Over the years we have heard:

  • That 20-25 percent of all marriages have domestic violence as a component
  • That one woman in five in our American congregations is a victim of domestic violence
  • That most women who leave a domestically violent relationship and divorce the abuser, remarry abusers
  • That women who go to shelters for abused women normally return to the abusive relationship.

What are the facts? Are these statistics accurate and if so, how significant are they?

It is sad for me to confess that every congregation I have ever worked with has had some victims of domestic violence in its midst. As a hospital chaplain I frequently see victims of domestic violence. As the chaplain for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program I see even more.

Nature of abuse

Before we accept that abuse is a part of life, we must understand what abuse is about. Abuse is about power. It is the misuse of power by the perpetrator that results in fear on the part of the victim.

There is a story that makes the rounds in domestic violence workshops about a woman who, shortly after her wedding, declined to have sex with her husband. He went into the dining room and began smashing her heir loom china which had belonged to her grandmother. The message the woman got from this was "If you don't do what I want, I can destroy you just like I am destroying your prized possessions."

Another cadre of stories tells of abusers who kill the pet dogs or cats belonging to the abused person. The message here is "I killed your pet, I can kill your children, I can kill you!" Most times the message is subtle but understood. "I am in control. You must submit to me."

Religious underpinnings

Many times the perpetrator takes a fundamentalist religious stance on the roles of men and women in marriage. Here I purposely refer to "men and women," not "husband and wife," because men and women is interpreted to be a ruler-chattel relationship, while husband and wife has to do with a partnership of equals.

The fundamentalist religious stance taken by abusers involves "prooftexting." That is, finding a verse or even just part of a verse that can be made to justify a twisted authoritarian gender relationship.

A commonly used example of this is found in Ephesians 5:21-33. The abuser will put pieces of this passage together in such a way as to claim that it says, "Wives, be subject to your husbands for the husband is the head of the wife, so wives ought to be subject in everything to their husbands." Abusers never include the parts that say, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies, or in the same way Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.

A complete reading of such a passage is important in working with groups of men who are or might be abusers, and in connection with court-ordered treatment. In group settings a pastor can remind men that they are to love their wives as they do their own bodies and that if a husband gives his wife a broken nose he really should consider giving himself a broken nose.

Some abusers also quote the pas sage "You must forgive and forget," as if it were Scripture (in reality the actual quote is from Shakespeare's King Lear). Of course, forgiveness is scripturally supported. However, a victim who merely "forgives and forgets" will just be a victim again.

The victim must remember the violence in order to avoid any recurrence of it in the future. Further, forgiveness is not to be almost flippantly claimed as a kind of right to be granted without thoroughgoing confession and a complete turning away from the behavior that is being con fessed because it is completely unacceptable.

Perpetrators must take responsibility for their crime

Often an abusive husband will attempt to blame his wife for his abuse of her. He claims that some thing she has done or habitually does causes him to behave toward her as he does. There is an interesting parallel to this kind of blaming in the Bible. In Genesis 3 God asks, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate" (Gen. 3:11-14, NRSV).

The fact is that a case can be made for the man failing to be the protector of the woman. The man should have been present to drive away the serpent. Instead he blamed the woman for his sin and, of course, the woman blamed the serpent. The truth is that God held Adam, Eve, and the serpent responsible for their action in this situation (Genesis 3:14-24).

It is clear that abusers must be led to understand that they are responsible for their own actions. It is only when they admit to the wrongness of their behavior and acknowledge their personal responsibility for their actions that they begin to find any real basis for inner and outer reform.

The victim's problems in leaving the relationship

In practically every domestic violence situation the only safe course of action for the victim is to leave. Clergy involved with a couple where abuse is present realize that separation is the logical course of action for the victim. We may advise the victim to get out for her own protection. Yet she returns, why?

Domestic violence has a component similar to situations of "brain washing." In the case of brainwashing the victim is put in a situation where they are in isolation from all sources of help or separation from alternate viewpoints. In most domestic violence situations the abuser has started out by telling the victim that he will take care of her. That she doesn't need to worry about money because he will earn enough. She does not have to work. He will take care of her.

Later when she wants to leave she finds that just as he has pointed out all along, she has no experience and so she is convinced that she is incapable of finding gainful employment, and her only obvious option is to go back into the abusive situation.

In many abusive situations, she doesn't need a car because he takes her everywhere. She doesn't need to be on the bank account because he takes care of all the bills. Her credit cards have only his name on them. Nothing is in joint ownership much less in her name alone. She goes to church only with him and cannot develop her own friends because he disapproves of them or he is not available to take her to visit.

Then of course, if there are children, in leaving she would have to leave her children because, and as such a husband tells her, the court would prefer to leave the children with him rather than place them with a destitute woman who has no job, no house, no car, and no income. And in many abuse situations it is not only the wife who is abused, but the children also.


In such situations, we must not simply try to wrest such a woman from her situation without careful planning. One of the worst things one can do is to tear her away from the abuser. It will only anger him, and when she does return, and she will, he will beat her even more severely.

We cannot simply confront the abuser in front of the congregation or others. He may repent in church and punish her for telling about the abuse when he gets her alone.

We must not think that a protection order, restraining order, or peace bond will actually protect her. Their value varies from one judicial jurisdicion to another and from one police department to another. (Such protective laws differ widely from one country to another.) If you have a battered women's shelter in your community, you can contact them to find out the content and effectiveness of local policies covering spousal abuse.

We cannot expect most women to simply leave their husbands and never return. Enlarging on what is said above, statistics show that women go to shelters an average of seven times before they finally leave the abuser.

We cannot simply accept a husband's repentance without his participation in a counseling program with professionals trained in counseling domestic abusers.

We can't force an abused wife to do anything. The abuser has been making all of her decisions for her.

We cannot, as it were, simply take over from him the role of being the decision maker in her life, and expect to be truly helpful to her. We must instead find ways of empowering her to make her own decisions. This is true even when the decision is to return to the relationship. She must make her own decision. It is the first step to healing.

What can we do?

1. We must begin by ensuring that we have people in our church who are prepared to provide the assistance that the victim will need when she finally escapes the violence.

2. We can support safe houses for domestic violence victims and their children.

3. We can, yes, we must, find the time to become educated on this problem.

Who will the people be who are prepared to assist the pastor with such victims? We, as ministers, must ensure that these particular people have the appropriate gifts and the appropriate training to be of real assistance to spousal abuse victims.

One of the best places to go your self, or to which to send your team to learn about domestic violence, is the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, 936 N. 34th Street, Suite 200, Seattle, WA 98103; phone (206 )634-1903; fax (206) 634- 0115. That center provides training, study materials, and videos to assist you in training your staff to identify and assist victims of domestic violence.

But while we concentrate on the abused spouse, we must also be prepared, at the same time, to work with the abuser. The sad truth is that when the victim does leave the marriage the perpetrator will find another woman to abuse. We must be God's instrument to end the violence.

After we have resources, we must let it be known in the congregation that we have resources with which to help them; not just for a day or so but for the long haul.

One of the worst things a church can do is to advise a woman to go back to the abusive man and pray that she will be appropriately submissive and that the violence will simply end. In such a situation, when the woman finds little relief, she will not only end up leaving her marriage, but also the church.

Worse still, she may come to the place where she is convinced that the only way out of the violence is death.

This may be her death at the hand of her husband or suicide, or even the death of her husband by her hand. In all this, if physical death is not the result, then there will surely be spiritual death.

In all of this, pastors often feel a pressing need for more resources. Where may pastors go to find the kind of help they are seeking? The following box lists some community resources which a pastor may be able to use.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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T. Patrick Bradley is a hospital chaplain at the United Medical Center, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

November 2003

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