Many have been understandably astonished and disturbed this week by the video of NFL player, Ray Rice, punching his fiancé in an elevator. As I was still processing this repulsive offense, I was came across dozens of heartbreaking tweets from abuse victims around the world using the #WhyIStayed, expressing why they had remained with the person who abused them. As I read these tweets, I began to realize how often I have heard abuse victims share that the Church was the reason #WhyIStayed. I began remembering how often I have heard of women who wearily return to those who hurt them time and time again, because that is what their church told them to do. Here are three common dynamics I have witnessed in churches that contribute to #WhyIStayed:
#WhyIStayed. Abuse is not abuse. Many churches have created a distorted understanding of physical abuse that occurs within homes. It is defined as a "relationship" matter that should be addressed within the “church family”, instead of a criminal matter that should be handled by the authorities. I recently listened to a well-known pastor answer a question about what to do if a wife is being physically abused by her husband. Not once during the pastor’s lengthy and seemingly empathetic response did he ever direct or even encourage the victim to contact the police. What this pastor probably doesn’t realize is that his silence about reporting this crime communicates that in fact this is not a criminal offense. Victims within these types of environments are often convinced by their abuser, or sometimes even by other church members, that being physically beaten is acceptable and sometimes even deserved. The police are seldom called.
Instead of helping vulnerable individuals understand the importance of reporting this criminal behavior, too many within churches prefer to push victims back into the arms of abusers as they congratulate themselves and praise God on another successful “reconciliation”. These victimized spouses stay with those who hurt them, resigned to the hopeless belief that is what God wants them to do.
Redefining physical abuse as being nothing more than a “relational issue” ignores the law, puts lives at risk, and tells abusers that their criminal behavior is acceptable as long as it takes place within the home.
#WhyIStayed. Women just aren’t that important. In my years of addressing abuse issues within faith communities, I have discovered that male dominated churches tend to be the ones that are most dismissive of women who report being abused by a man. This can happen in subtle and not so subtle ways. I was recently told about a wife whose husband would abuse her, and then blame it on an alleged sleep disorder. At some point, this woman said something to a friend who brought the matter to the attention of the male church leadership. The husband was friends with many of these leaders and used all the correct “repentance” language as he also minimized the abuse. Satisfied that their friend was sorry, the leaders directed the wife to remain in the home with her attacker. At no time did the leadership report the violence to the police, or even encourage the victim to do so. Fortunately, this woman listened to wiser counsel and moved out. The leadership eventually threatened to initiate disciplinary proceedings against her for ignoring their “Godly” directive to stay.
Does this make any sense? An abusive husband gets caught and says the “right” words to his friends and is quickly embraced, as the wife is disciplined by his friends for taking steps to protect her life. Too many wives within our churches are intimidated back into abusive homes by unsupportive male leaders, who exploit their authority and misuse scripture in directing them to “try harder” and “stop making him angry.” This is a form of spiritual abuse that re-victimizes the abused and grants permission to abusers to continue their violence against a child of God.
#WhyIStayed. Just don’t talk about it. In her book, This Little Light, Christa Brown recounts a time her father had violently attacked her sister and the pastor was called to the house. Instead of addressing the violent offense committed by her father, the pastor instructed the family not to talk about it, saying, “Think about others…think how they will feel if they learn that the police were called a family like yours.” Christa writes,
“A couple hours later, I left to go to the church for my piano lesson. We all acted as though nothing had happened. In my family, it just got lumped in with all the rest of the big pile stuff we never talked about.”
Appallingly, Christa’s childhood experience is not unique within many churches. Too many of us know abuse victims who have been instructed by a pastor or someone in their church to keep quiet about the abuse, and to stay with their abusive spouse in order to “work things out”. They convince these abused that doing anything otherwise is considered to be a “bad Christian witness”. The disgusting reality is that this has nothing to do with being a “bad Christian witness”, and everything to do with a church that worships itself as it sacrifices its vulnerable. The “bad Christian witness” is proclaiming to love Jesus as you silence victims and push them back into the fists of their abuser. This is an abomination to the very Gospel proclaimed by so many of these churches. Don’t they understand that Jesus gave his very life for the vulnerable and the abused? A church that silences abuse hasn’t encountered Jesus.
Any church that redefines abuse instead of stopping it, is not a safe place. Any church that devalues women instead of respecting them as equals to men, is not a safe place. Any church that silences the oppressed instead of protecting them, is not a safe place.
A safe church does not tolerate the abuse of women or anyone else for that matter. A safe church empowers and equips all victims to walk away from those who hurt them. A safe church is where the abused can leave the abuser being assured that is what God wants them to do.
It is time for those of us in the Church to turn our attention away from watching the Ray Rice video and to start focusing on how we may be contributing to #WhyIStayed?
We have much to confess and much to change.