October is Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness month - sometimes called Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) to cover those relationships where the abused and abuser are not living together but are involved in an intimate relationship. It's a difficult topic and one the Church has a checkered history in addressing.
For too long the Church's leadership, dominated by men, often took the stance that violence in a marriage was because the woman was failing as a wife. She was often counseled to go back to her abuser and, in some way, be a "better" spouse. Of course that never worked. Deferring to the abuser just kept the cycle of abuse alive and well - no matter how deferential or demur the wife tried to be to please her husband.
Just in the past 30 years, with the rising number of ordained women in many denominations, the Church has begun to address this problem for what it is - an abuse of power by one spouse over the other. Yes, we also acknowledge that women can be abusers and men are much less likely to report due to culture norms about masculinity. We also know that DV/IPV can occur in same sex couples just as easily as in heterosexual ones.
Several of my Facebook postings this month have addressed abuse and violence. Too many people have misconceptions about how Christianity addresses DV/IPV. Admittedly, there are still corners where the pastor will uphold the position I previously described ... but this is not representative of all Christians! There are plenty of churches trying to address this issue and an excellent book on the subject is Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, Episcopal priest (and one of my mentors). She wrote the very first tract for Forward Publications on the issue of DV back in the early 1980's.
One area of serious confusion is over forgiveness and reconciliation when it comes to being abused. Often people think because Christ calls us to forgive those who abuse us (just as he did from the cross) and we are taught to follow St. Paul's instructions to "be reconciled with one another" it means that we must continue to remain in abusive relationships to be "good Christians." This is a misunderstanding and twisting of what forgiveness and reconciliation are about.
Forgiving your abuser is releasing the rancor, hurt and bitterness over what they have done. Ideally, you can do this face to face; however, this isn't always possible because of their abusive treatment of you. Forgiving doesn't require you to subject yourself to more violence. And forgiveness isn't really forgiveness when it comes with threats of more violence. When one is in an abusive relationship, the time to forgive is not while you are still involved with your abuser and still suffering attacks! True forgiveness can only come when the violence ends - whether due to your abuser getting help or you leaving the relationship.
In his book Forgive And Get Your Life Back, The Rev. Dennis Maynard explains that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or restoration - they are three distinct steps. Jesus taught us to forgive so we can let go of the anger, bitterness and resentment which hold us back. Reconciliation is the next step after forgiveness but due to our sinful nature it may never happen. Reconciliation can only happen when both parties turn away from the abusive cycle and seek to amend their lives and make the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse. For the abuser, this means counseling - deep therapeutic work to seek the self-understanding necessary to put a stop to their violent behavior. For the abused, it also involves deep therapeutic work to heal and to strengthen their sense of self-worth so that they do not seek out the same kind of abusive relationships again. If alcoholism or drug addiction are playing a role in the violence, seeking treatment for these conditions is also crucial as without it, the abuse will continue! Without substantive change on the part of both the abuser and the abused, there can be no meaningful reconciliation between them.
Reconciliation in the Church is a powerful sacrament which can be a means of grace to offer a way forward for one or both parties providing they are doing the necessary healing work to stop the abusive cycle. However, sacramental reconciliation does not promise that both parties will be reconciled to each other! It may be years after leaving an abusive relationship when one or both of the parties will seek the sacrament for healing and moving forward into the future. The sacrament isn't just about confession of sin and contrition over it. The sacrament calls us to change - to repentance and amendment of life because Christ calls us to be transformed people. Christ is always ready to meet us where we are but he is not content to leave us there!
Jesus suffered the abuse of the world when he died on the cross for you and me. He died on that cross at the hands of his abusers so that we would not have to. He came to bring us life. Abusive relationships are not life giving - they are death dealing. There is nothing in our Christian faith which condones abuse or violence at the hands of anyone.