General story Opinion

Last Sunday, domestic violence came to church

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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Nancy Nason-Clark

14 Comments

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  • Yawn……another attempt to disparage the church with more lies. It was not “family violence” that killed those members of the church who probably have never heard of the man who walked up and down the aisles, shooting off, I believe, 450 rounds of ammunition – knowing no one, yet murdering them because they were in a Christian church – no other reason. His mother in law was not there and wouldn’t have required 450 rounds of ammunition, with him wearing a body vest, but it didn’t cause him to turn around and decide not to kill the Christians or go elsewhere to look for family.
    The only person you fool, is yourself, as you try to use this horrific tragedy as an excuse to hurt even more Christians who are probably still hurting from this assault due to someone’s dislike of their diety to try to sell a book, who’s credibility I now suspect along with her respect for Christian pastors.
    As you proudly try to link this to your book, use a little common sense. The church gives lots of reasons to attack it these days. Find a credible one, instead of building your case on misinformation or lack of caring on your part.
    If I remember correctly, the domestic abuse was on the part of the guy who did the murders. Mom in law was not there to kill, and the only people there were in a “holy hush” were so in an attempt to not be murdered by someone they didn’t know. Bad introduction and it took from what may have been a good article. Perhaps you should have put a holy hush on it.
    The entire episode was anti-Christian hatred.

  • The author is calling upon Christian leaders to stop avoiding issues that have troubled the world for millennia, Christians turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the sufferings of their own and others. You know, the nasty underbelly of Christianity that get exposed almost daily. Ex.: Sioux Center Christian School

  • except the author is too self involved to realize she chose the wrong item for her introduction, causing her point to be moot, and hateful toward Christians.
    Secondly, Christianity does no more run a “blind eye” to difficulties than anyone else.
    It was an attack against Christians by someone who portrays herself as knowing nothing about them. Maybe she’ll put a Christian in her next selfie. She seems to value her opinion more than reality.

  • Now you’re just being petty. She addressed a valid point in the article regardless the image. You do recall that the killer was abused two women and a baby, right?

  • And the entire reason for the murder that she opens with had nothing to do with that. She has a problem with Christians and found the first opportunity she could to find fault. As I said, we have many places where we can be attacked, she doesn’t have to pick a colossal tragedy to impress herself with her opinions. (edit)
    Or, is she so sadistic that she wants to blame the church for this? Perhaps she should stick to selfies with Christians and pretend she respects them.
    Thanks for the opportunity to really vent, Navy. Blessings.

  • Actually she does know an awful lot about how many Christian churches/pastors respond to domestic violence in their midst. Her work and that of others has led to the creation of the RAVE project which also includes a Baptist Pastor as part of the team. The RAVE project supports clergy with resources, workshops etc (even sermons) to be more effective/proactive/comfortable in addressing abuse – both the abuser as well as the victims(s).. In other words, it offers a practical skill not likely covered in most Bible Colleges/schools of theology to deal with something they will encounter in their ministry..

    Given that the shooter in Texas is reported as having attended the church’s alternative to Halloween party the week before (and being weird enough that two people kept an eye on him the entire time he was there), he was not an unknown entity. This was not an instance of random persecution for being Christian.

  • Being persecuted and hated is a badge of honor for fundamentalist Christians. Jesus stated that True Christians© will be hated.

  • Well, there is never been a shortage of hatred in the world. If you go off the deep end with religion, you might not be hated, but it will keep more objective people at a distance.

  • I said “mentally deranged”! There is a big difference between “mentally ill” an “mentally deranged”

  • She still chose the wrong article.
    So you are suggesting that he went to an event at the church and there learned that he wanted to kill them because they are Christians? Interesting.

  • No – if that is what you thought I meant, my apology. He was there because he had a level of familiarity with what was happening event and perhaps expecting to act on the threats he had been making to his mother in law. And then went back. Form all accounts the intended target was the in-laws – why the threats escalated to a mass shooting may never be known other than also killing himself was possibly part of his plan.

  • Thank you Linda.
    My difficulty is, he went into a church possibly looking for his mother in law with a bullet proof vest, 450 rounds of ammunition and several guns. It only takes one bullet to kill a person. Particularly when one shoots the way he was killing the Christians.
    He went there to kill the people in the church. He didn’t walk out with his vest, 450 rounds of ammunition and the various weapons, when his mother in law was not there.
    I agree with the level of familiarity – they were Christian.

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