What can the church do about domestic violence?
Tonight my friend will be on TV. Her name will be read out – along with that of every other woman killed by a male partner or ex during 2013 – in 'Love you to death', a BBC2 documentary cataloguing the lives (and deaths) behind the statistics. The figure of two women a week killed through male violence is widely quoted. What often goes unnoticed is who exactly those women are. It's easy to 'other' them, assume they're nothing like me, that they may even be complicit in their own deaths. How often do we ask "Why didn't she leave?" rather than "Why does he think it's OK to act like that?" I may have thought that way before someone I knew was killed. In truth, I hadn't had to think about it at all.
My friend was called Linah. She was still in her twenties when her life was taken and her child left motherless. I've written about her in depth, and about how her death has moved me to try and help other women. Linah did leave her violent, controlling partner. She did everything 'right' and she is still dead, because her actions were not the ones that mattered. Her ex-partner, a man who was always friendly and charming to me, decided she was not allowed to live without him – the ultimate control. He broke into their former home and killed her in front of their child. After a traumatic month-long trial, during which he denied responsibility and attempted to blame her, he was convicted of murder and is now serving a life sentence. Her shattered family and friends continue to try and find a way through.
I became friends with Linah in a church, and since her murder I've become aware of how many relationships that seem happy and healthy on a Sunday mask terror and pain the rest of the week. There's something about hearing someone else's story that makes those who are suffering dare to speak out. I, and many who work with women abused by partners, discovered that quickly. I wonder how many churches are ready for that. Society tends to stand back, bought into the myth of the 'abusive relationship' that holds both parties responsible for the dynamic, rather than the reality that one person chooses to abuse the other. There are no excuses for this – though it is frighteningly common to try to apply flawed reasoning, such as the impact of an abuser's own childhood, to let them off the hook. Women don't want to be treated with violence and bullying, though they may have started to believe they deserve or cause it.
What can the church do better to help women being abused, and in fact, save lives?
Believe and support her. If a woman tells you she feels unsafe or her partner is hurting her, please don't tell her she must live with it. Don't tell her God wants them to stay together. Don't make her responsible for his behaviour in any way – either the abuse he's chosen to inflict or in staying around to help him change. If she is able to end the relationship, it will be because she sees light at the end of a dark time. She may have been controlled through children, through finances, through on-going emotional undermining as well as physical violence. Please don't add any pressure for her to stay in that environment any longer by claiming it's where God wants her to be.
Assume it's happening in your community, even your church. Since Linah was murdered my eyes have been opened to how horribly common this kind of violence is and how surprising it is that the nice guy we know could behave like that. Churches often default to seeing the best in people, and that can mean abusers hiding in plain sight, even using church as a cover. From the passionate preacher to the charming businessman, there is no abuser uniform. Foster an open-eyed culture that accepts that we are all flawed and appearances can be deceptive. Understand that what goes on in homes will not be the same as what is seen in public. Create space for safe disclosures.
Seek knowledge and resources ahead of time. Don't be taken by surprise if a woman opens up about what is being done to her. Don't create a culture where the prospect of speaking out and breaking the image of Christian perfection is too painful to contemplate. Culture change and education are vital. Seek training to ensure the church is ready. Contact the Day Programme, Restored or look at resources from Refuge. Read Elaine Storkey's new book looking at the global epidemic of violence against women. Realise that nowhere is exempt from the possibility of abuse perpetrated in its community.
Examine your theology and views of women. Certain theologies create a wide open space for abuse to flourish and, thankfully, these are being brought into the light. The extremes of Christian patriarchy see a woman's sole purpose as wife and mother, their humanity less than their husband's. Ask yourself if anything in how you understand the role of women could be adding to an environment where abuse could be overlooked or excused.
While abuse flourishes in the world, churches can become safe havens for the abused, and an important voice for changing the culture that sees domestic violence as inevitable. Lives may depend on whether they do.
For UK readers:
The National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247) is a 24-hour freephone service for women experiencing or concerned about domestic violence, their family, friends, colleagues or others calling on their behalf. nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk
Respect works with domestic violence perpetrators, male victims and young people. If you are concerned about your own behaviour, or the behaviour of someone you know, it can be contacted on 0808 802 40400808 802 4040 FREE, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, or through its website, respect.uk.net