Domestic-Violence Intervention and Prevention

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Illustration by Paul Lachine

A Challenge for Male Christians

By Al Miles

"What about all the men?" Like clockwork, this question is posed by Christian male attendees at nearly every domestic violence awareness conference at which I speak throughout the United States. Men of God are living in utter hell, we are told, and their pain is caused by "inappropriate behavior on the part of Christian women."

National statistics do indicate that some men are being victimized by their female intimate partners. And violence, whether perpetrated by females or males, is always inexcusable. But here's my challenge to Christian males: Focus your attention and energy on the preponderance of abuse and violence that men and boys perpetrate against women, children, and each other.

While a small percentage of men are violated in both heterosexual and homosexual intimate partnerships, the American Medical Association estimates that 2 million women in this country are assaulted by an intimate partner every year. The actual numbers are probably much higher, because victims often do not report attacks, fearing both the stigma associated with abuse and the threat of reprisal from their perpetrators.

Domestic violence is the number-one public health problem for women in the United States. According to the United States surgeon general, domestic violence is the greatest single cause of injury among American women, accounting for more emergency-room visits than traffic accidents, muggings, and rape combined.

What's more, abused church-going wives are likely to be told by clergy and congregation members to stay with, pray for, and obey the very spouses who are violating them. If they follow this alleged "divine" counsel, the women are told, God will be pleased and everything will be okay.

In reality, this type of advice is not only inappropriate but dangerous.As a result,women of faith have continued to suffer at the hands of their self-proclaimed "men of God," a suffering that is further exacerbated by the sense of isolation from the Body of Christ that they experience. Tragically, some of these women have even been murdered.

When male Christians spend too much time discussing "all the men" who are supposedly abused by wives and girlfriends, we remove ourselves from being helpful in any way to the scores of victimized women living within our communities
and worshiping among us. I contend that we use the alleged female-perpetrated violence as a diversion, to take the focus off the fact that we are not addressing the well-documented cases of men's abuse of women and children.

This point is vividly illustrated by an encounter I once had with 32 male evangelical pastors. The men, along with nine of their female colleagues, had invited me to lead a three-day seminar on domestic-violence awareness at a retreat center.

"Women never cause the abuse and violence that men perpetrate against them," I announced at the beginning of one session, which focused on holding Christian men accountable for their abuse of women.

But many of the male pastors in the room balked at the statement. They insisted that women who are abused and battered emotionally, physically, psychologically, sexually, and spiritually had to have done something to cause their husbands or boyfriends to attack them.

One pastor, whom we'll call Ralph,was especially hostile in his response. "Women have razor-sharp tongues which castrate and tear down men emotionally," he protested. "Women also deplete men's God-given authority with their constant nagging and disobedience.And women fail to carry out their duty to provide for their husbands' sexual needs."

I was struck both by Ralph's blatant misogyny and the fact that none of his male colleagues rebuked him for his bigoted attitude. They all sat in silence.

At the conclusion of the session, I confronted Ralph. I told him I was deeply offended by his stark disrespect and hatred of women. I expressed further concern for all females in his congregation, due to his lack of understanding regarding the dynamics associated with domestic violence.

Since he seemed so troubled by all the abuse women were perpetrating against men, I asked Ralph to tell me how he was caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of these battered males. But the pastor could not name a single action step he was following. (I've met with this same lack of response each time I've asked Christian male leaders and laity to provide details of the care they provide to "all the men" they claim are abused by intimate female partners.)

Christian males who seek to prevent the further spread of men's violence against women have challenges and responsibilities which reach beyond those required of other followers of Christ.

First and foremost,we must be willing to recognize situations of domestic violence as the vast majority of cases are: crimes men perpetrate against women.

Second, we must make the safety of abused women and their children a top priority. There are still far too many male Christian clergy and parishioners who view the sanctity of the marriage covenant as more sacred than the safety of women and children. This is clearly seen in the often recited phrase, "A marriage and family must be saved at all costs." But there are times when physical separation is absolutely necessary if the well-being of spouses and children is to be maintained.

Third, if we are to partner effectively with the hosts of other women and men who have already committed themselves to working towards ending men's violence against women, Christian men need to examine their own actions, assumptions, and attitudes toward women. This step is essential—and one that most male Christians have a difficult time taking.

Having been indoctrinated (often from infancy) by church, family, and society to adhere to patriarchal principles, many Christian men enter adulthood with an inordinate cadre of undue rights and privileges.We also bring with us the stench of sexist teachings that have been programmed deep inside.

Ultimately, this false indoctrination works against us men. We may not be perpetrators of any overt acts of violence against women. In fact, we might even label the emotional, physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual tactics of terrorism other males use to control women as criminal and immoral. However, when we are willing to hold up a mirror in front of ourselves and study carefully our own heart and soul, most Christian men soon discover that we, too, harbor some of the same bigoted beliefs to which many abusive Christian men subscribe. For example, a number of non-abusive Christian men still believe that males, simply because of gender, have "God-given" authority over their wives, girlfriends, and all other females. In order for Christian men to join the work of violence prevention, we have to be willing to seek proper help in changing any beliefs we were taught that devalue or rob females of the equality to which all humans are intrinsically entitled.

Fourth, after working on our own sexist attitudes and behavior, it is essential that Christian men speak out at every level—both inside and outside the church—against patriarchal beliefs, teachings, and traditions which help male perpetrators feel justified in their abuse of women. These have degraded women (and elevated men) since the beginning of recorded history. Although in reality this is a task for the entire church, Christian men have a special responsibility to confront this issue because it is rooted in patriarchal practices.

Christian men cannot be allies of justice if we continue to support male hierarchical doctrine and practices. For example, a careful reading of Ephesians 5:21-33 shows that the writer of these verses is calling not for male dominance and female subjugation in marriage but for a bond characterized by mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual responsibility. The concept of male headship and female submission sets up an imbalance of power in a marriage or other intimate partnerships, making it much easier for men to abuse women and then to claim divine privilege. Also, Christian men need to adopt the use of inclusive versions of the Bible. The more we espouse egalitarian constructs, the better chance we have truly to live out the ideal of equality and mutuality between women and men.

Last, Christian males cannot be reliable allies in the struggle to prevent or intervene in acts of violence men perpetrate against women if we continue to follow the path most men of faith have historically walked: namely, to excuse, ignore, and offer justifications for the criminal and sinful behavior of Christian male batterers.

When we pledge allegiance to an abuser (which Christian men unwittingly do when we either remain silent after becoming aware of a perpetrator's criminal activity against his wife or girlfriend or offer excuses and justifications for him), we render ourselves unworthy of trust. Our acts of collusion disqualify us from being considered as partners with those women and men who have made the commitment  to work against all forms of male violence.

Christian males who truly desire to partner with others to help prevent—and bring an end to—men's violence against women must demonstrate by both actions and words their willingness to do so for the rest of their lives.Without this lifetime commitment, we will be helpful neither to abused women nor to the men who violate them. ■

Rev. Al Miles serves as coordinator of hospital ministry for Pacific Health Ministry at the Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is the author of Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know (2000) and Violence in Families: What Every Christian Needs to Know (2002), both published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Miles is also a member of the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women, which is co-chaired by the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services.

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