I still remember the first victim I counseled. She sat across from my desk with her eyes looking down at her hands in her lap. Her face was flat with no expression. Sitting on the edge of her seat, she was poised and prepared to leave. If it weren’t for the fact that we were in a secret location, unknown to the public, I’m sure she would have hidden from the set of windows on the wall behind her. I looked over the pictures the staff had taken the night before of her battered body and listened as she shared the story that brought her into the shelter. She talked about the years of abuse, of her constant fear, and of the panic attacks that just wouldn’t go away.
During the time I worked at that domestic violence shelter, I heard many frightening and heartbreaking stories of women abused and battered by the people who are supposed to love them most. Such stories often remain hidden behind closed doors. Like the makeup that covers bruises and the long sleeves that hide wounds on the arms, these stories lie hidden inside a woman’s heart for fear of what will happen should they be revealed. But occasionally, when high profile stories of domestic violence are splashed across the headlines, victims come forward to tell their stories.
You may wonder, why and I am writing about this and what does it have to do you? Statistics show that about a quarter of all women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. (Though there are men who are abused, the majority of victims are women so for the sake of brevity, this article will focus on the abuse of women). This includes women in the church. Women that you and I sit next to on Sunday mornings have witnessed and experienced such violence in their family of origin. Some are even right now being abused by their spouses or boyfriends.
Friends, here’s the truth, the horrors of domestic violence are felt all across our world. It is no respecter of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or culture. Violence in the home is a serious problem that not only affects women but their children as well. As the Church, the Body of Christ, we should be especially aware of the problem of domestic violence. Not only should we care about the problem at large but we should also be sensitive and alert to those in our Body who have been or who are being hurt and abused. For as Paul said, we are all members of one Body and if one member hurts, we all hurt (1 Corinthians 12:26). The church should be a place of help and healing. We should reach out to those who are wounded. We should stand up for and defend those who are abused.
This means that the church needs to be prepared to hear and handle stories of domestic violence. Sometimes we can create a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment where people don’t feel like they have the freedom to share what is happening behind the closed doors of their home. Perhaps we don’t want to get into other people’s personal business. Perhaps we are afraid of getting messy. But being a follower of Christ doesn’t allow us to ignore or pretend or deny that such things happen. Our Savior got right into the midst of all the muck and mire of people’s lives. He touched the untouchables. He dined with the outcast. He welcomed with open arms women and their children. In the greatest act of entering the mess of our lives, he took on all our sin and shame at the cross, enduring the punishment we deserved to free us from our prison of sin. When it comes to entering the stories of the abused and helping abused women and their children, we can do no less than our Savior did for us.
Here’s the question that we all need to ask ourselves, how do we in the Church handle it when someone speaks up about violence in their home? Is our Church approachable? Will the victim be abused twice over when church leaders disbelieve her? Will she be blamed? Or will she be supported? And further, is the church prepared to help her and her children?
If someone in your church shared with you her story of abuse, would you know what to say or what to do?
First, it is helpful to know a few things about domestic violence. There are certain common characteristics that are often found in abusive relationships:
1. Here’s a definition of domestic violence taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: “Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically.”
2. The abuser uses threats, manipulation, intimidation, and force to maintain control over his victim. If emotional and psychological abuse is effective, he might not use actual physical force. But once she resists or stands up for herself, the physical abuse is certain to begin. The abuser will also breaks things, punch his fist into the wall, and do other intimidating actions to show her that he can and will do the same to her. He will threaten to leave her or take the children or whatever she fears most to keep her in line. She lives her days walking on egg shells, never knowing how he will respond.
3. The abuser tries to control all areas of the victims life. He keeps her isolated from others and monitors everything she does and everywhere she goes. She is financially dependent on him. She might not be permitted to work and he might not even allow her to have access to the family income.
4. She is constantly belittled, put-down, and humiliated. He makes her feel stupid, inferior, and worthless. She doubts herself and over time may even think there is something wrong with her, she wonders if perhaps she is crazy. She could be educated and skilled in many things but she grows to believe that what her abuser tells her is true: she is worthless.
5. The abuser often appears to be different in public than he is at home. He may be a fine upstanding citizen. He may hold positions of respect in the community. This makes it hard for people to believe that he would hurt the people in his home. People often tend to believe him over the victim. People may even tell her that she must have brought it on herself in some way. What did she do to make him so angry? They may encourage her to change and be a better wife and everything will be okay.
If you know someone who is in such a relationship, how can you help?
First, validate for her that what is happening to her is wrong. It doesn’t matter what she may or may not have done, no one has the right to abuse another person. Wielding power and control over her, belittling and cursing her, intimidating and manipulating her, abusing her sexually and physically–none of these things are acts of love. Also, it is important that you believe her. It takes great courage to share what is going on in the home. If no one believes her, she may not reach out again.
Because such violence often escalates over time, she and her children are not safe. However, serious precautions should be taken because the danger for a battered woman and her children increases if the abuser knows she has told someone or is about to leave. The danger is also great after she leaves. Above all, safety is key for a woman and her children. Many communities have shelters that will take her and her children in for an extended period of time. You can contact your local law enforcement to find out what they recommend victims to do in your area. It’s important for the victim to report the abuse to law enforcement. They may also recommend that she get a restraining order.
Before a victim leaves her home, she should develop a safety plan for herself and her children. When the abuser is being physically abusive, she should never go somewhere in the home where there are potential weapons (such as the kitchen) or into a room where there is no exit. She should also keep a bag packed and store it in a hidden and safe place where he cannot find it. In that bag, she needs to have all her and her children’s important papers and documents as well as clothing, medications, and other necessities should she need to leave suddenly.
Because we are all part of one Body, a victim’s story becomes our story; her pain our pain. Just as Jesus entered our story, we must enter hers. If someone speaks up about violence, we should make every effort to help and support them, never downplaying a victim’s story or blaming her. As the Church, let’s be a place of safety for the wounded and may we “speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8).