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Last Sunday, domestic violence came to church

There is a holy hush that permeates church life when it comes to thinking about domestic violence within and beyond congregational life, writes Nancy Nason-Clark.

Flags mark evidence on the lawn of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2017, a day after over 20 people died in a mass shooting. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

(RNS) — Domestic violence is very dangerous. Sometimes it is lethal.

Women, men and children suffer. And the impact is felt by young and old alike. So many lives are shattered by abuse, leaving in its trail broken hearts, broken promises and unrelenting fear.

Last Sunday, domestic violence came to church.

One angry man arrived at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5 and began shooting those assembled for worship. His private woes, his access to weapons, and his rage produced a tragedy that is almost unparalleled in terms of the magnitude of suffering that it spawned. This massacre changes forever the congregation and the community of which it is a part. So many grieving families. So much pain. So much heartache. They will never forget. And neither should we.

However, there is a holy hush that permeates church life when it comes to thinking about domestic violence within and beyond congregational life.

Holy hush silences pastors and church leaders. Far too often, they fail to speak out against abuse in intimate relationships, or to highlight the vulnerability of children who witness or experience violence at home. Sometimes they lead themselves or others to believe they do, when they don’t.

When was the last time you heard a sermon condemning wife abuse or child abuse? In all likelihood, you have never heard a religious leader refer to intimate partner violence. Yet, our research reveals that approximately one in three pastors say they have preached such a message sometime in their career.

Holy hush creates a chasm between the celebration of weddings and the reluctance to raise awareness about the potential of harm that permeates many families. Most religious leaders do not discuss abuse in their premarital counseling classes and, indeed, fewer pastors do so now than 25 years ago.

Holy hush disguises manipulative, hurtful, fear-inducing, controlling behavior on the part of an angry partner as communication problems or adjustment issues. It does not name abuse for what it is: totally unacceptable acts — outside of God’s plan for relationships, or peaceful family living.

Holy hush plays a part in the refusal of congregations and their leaders to talk to church youth about unhealthy dating relationships. It also plays a part in minimizing or ignoring the role of financial and emotional abuse among the elderly.

The presence of a holy hush robs any opportunity for the office of a religious leader to become a safe place to discuss the fear and the vulnerability of all family members — victim and abuser alike — when domestic violence strikes the home of the faithful.

But, little by little, that hush is being shattered. It is shattered when there is a poster in the church washroom that says “Christian Love Should Not Hurt.” It is shattered when there is an opportunity during the yearly calendar of congregational life for domestic violence advocates to present the work they do within the community. It is shattered when a women’s Bible study class takes bedding or toiletries or food to the transition house, or a men’s group offers their trucks on a Saturday to help women move from the shelter to an apartment.

Last week, I was invited to present a workshop on abuse to pastors and students in the Boston area at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Together we considered the prevalence and severity of abuse in families of faith and strategies for working with abusers and the abused. Workshops are one small initiative to help religious leaders harness the opportunities they have to help bring healing and wholeness to women who are victims and to bring those who act abusively to justice, accountability and change.

The tragedy last Sunday should prompt us all to think about what measures we can take as individuals, as congregations, as communities and as a nation to ensure the safety of all women, men and children. Abuse prevention requires that we all work together.

(Nancy Nason-Clark is a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the co-author of “Men Who Batter” and “Religion and Intimate Partner Violence.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

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