By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
I’m taking a different approach to today’s blog post, in that I want to share some personal reflections on how my own faith has shaped my views about abuse and nonviolence. As a lifelong Christian (I’ve attended mostly Presbyterian churches throughout my life, and now attend a non-denominational church), it really pains me when I see or hear about situations where religion is used to justify abuse, and especially when it raises the risk for further abuse to victims. For some examples of this from our research, please see my post on March 11 on “The Stigma of Intimate Partner Violence in Churches: Part Three - How Religion Can Perpetuate Abuse.”
My own take on religion, including the Christian faith (which I’m most familiar with), is that loving-kindness, above all, is a reflection of God’s love for all us. I absolutely cannot see how any form of abuse--be it physical, sexual, or emotional--can be justified within relationships. The Biblical passage from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13, which is often read at weddings, provides a glimpse into what I believe is God’s vision for our relationships:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (NIV)
My takeaway from this passage is that love is embodied in relationships as patience, kindness, honor, peace, forgiveness, and trust. Of course, as humans, we can’t perfectly achieve these virtues every moment. However, abuse--characterized by dominance, power, control, rage, and torment--simply is not compatible with this view of loving relationships that we find in 1 Corinthians.
One of the Bible verses that is often used to justify abuse is from Ephesians 5:22-24:
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (NIV)
Taken out of context, this verse suggests that women are to submit to their husbands, regardless of the circumstances (i.e., “wives should submit to their husbands in everything”). Too often, I believe that this has been taken to mean that wives should submit to their husbands even within an abusive context. And yet, when we read on to the next verses in Ephesians 5:25-33, we see that submission is not a one-way street.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
The responsibility for husbands is to treat their wives in loving ways, even “to love their wives as their own bodies.” This means they “feed and care for” their wives in a loving way. Again, how can this love and care be compatible with abuse?
When I look at the full picture of these verses in Ephesians 5, I see a broader vision for how people should treat each other in any type of relationship, not just husband-wife relationships. My interpretation is that in relationships, all people should submit to one another by loving them, caring for them, actively working to meet their needs, and following the “golden rule” to treat them as they themselves would like to be treated.
Why Should People of Faith Care about Abuse?
Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” To me, this verse is a call to action to help others facing challenges that limit their power and ability to advocate for themselves, both within one’s own faith community and in the broader community.
People who are being abused often cannot speak for themselves. Their partners may have threatened to harm them if they tell anyone about their abuse. They may not feel they have options to leave an abusive relationship, especially if they are financially dependent on their abusers. In light of the abuse they experienced, their self-esteem may be hurting so much that they don’t believe that they deserve better. They may even believe they deserve to be abused after hearing that it’s their fault from their abuser and others. They also may be facing significant negative consequences from their abuse--such as physical injuries or mental health symptoms--that make it difficult for them to leave. These challenges can continue even after a person has left an abusive relationship.
All this month, we’ve focused on how faith communities can take action to challenge the stigma surrounding abuse and provide support to survivors. I believe that these actions are a significant way that churches can be a driving force in the movement to end intimate partner violence. Although our month-long focus on this topic is coming to an end, we hope you’ll continue to share ideas, resources, and creative ways that faith communities can speak up for survivors and play a key role in preventing further abuse!