As we near the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I can’t help thinking about a bit of a sermon I heard recently, when a pastor advised survivors of domestic violence to “Pray your spouse stops abusing you.”
My mother heard such instruction and spent 10 years praying at the altar, hoping to fix her marriage and stop my father’s emotional abuse. After hearing this, I wondered how many other women in the church that evening were like my mom, living in a violent home because they believe one day prayer will stop the abuse.
According to a recently released report from the Violence Policy Center, North Carolina ranks 22nd in the country in the number of women murdered by men in victim-single offender homicides. In 2011, the latest year for which numbers are available, 61 women died at the hands of men in our state.
I mentioned to a fellow church member that this kind of thinking is dangerous to women. He derailed my comments and offered no solution, reminding me that “Men are abused too!”
It’s a subject that many church members are loathe to talk about. Earlier this year, I attended a sexual assault and domestic violence seminar for faith leaders. Many pastors were in attendance, and as allies in the movement against domestic violence, some have tried to implement programs in their church to confront violence; but at the seminar few people got on board, and they were hesitant to embrace the topic.
Silence and ignorance breed a disdain for victims among fellow congregants who don’t understand how women allow men “to do that to them.” In the absence of meaningful conversations, those who have never experienced domestic violence don’t know that a domestic violence survivor tries to leave a relationship an average of seven times before she actually does. For many, leaving is the most dangerous time, when they are most likely to be seriously injured or killed.
When survivors of abuse hear their religious leaders tell them to pray for help rather than encourage them to empower themselves, it makes it hard for them to turn to their faith community for support. It is often the only place they know to turn.
According to Interact of Wake County, some abused partners with strong religious faith believe they must keep the family together for the children’s sake. Many people of faith believe divorce is not an option, and that family must stick together no matter what. They cannot reconcile their disdain for violence with their fierce belief in the sanctity of the traditional family, so they fall silent and leave abused women on their own.
Religious leaders must let their flocks know that their faith does not require them to remain in dangerous circumstances. We can wait no longer to have the conversations that could help those who sing and pray alongside us. In addition, domestic violence can be a topic in Bible study or Sunday School, much like poverty, gang violence, and health disparities are discussed. Using facts and anecdotes in Christian education circles can get your church talking about domestic violence and avoiding survivor blaming. North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence is a great resource to help debunk myths about domestic violence.
Pastors are trusted members of the community and thought leaders who can make domestic violence everyone’s business.