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Domestic Abuse 13 / 04 / 2016

"Given our current knowledge of the levels of domestic abuse within society based upon both research and reported incidents, it is likely that domestic abuse is prevalent in every parish community."

These are the opening words of the Guidelines Supporting People who may be Experiencing Domestic Abuse.

To find out what you can do, and what you should not do, if you suspect domestic abuse or if it is is brought to your attention check the Guidelines. The Guidelines also include a list of support and emergency services with contact details.

Dr Christauria Welland has written a guide for clergy, religious and laity. Called 'How can we help to end violence in Catholic families?' it is available in many languages including English. Download your free copy at www.paxinfamilia.org.  

And here is an article on The impact of family violence:

Confronting Family Violence and its Spiritual Damage

by Nancy J. Ramsay

Harrison Ray Anderson Professor of Pastoral Theology, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary,

Fortunately, connecting images of family and violence is a jarring experience. The terms seem mutually exclusive. Sadly, they frequently arise together in the experience of families in this and every culture with potentially debilitating consequences for the emotional, spiritual, and relational well being of those affected.

While definitions of family vary, many presume that the concept of family includes the following characteristics: a group of persons connected by legal and relational commitments; a shared history; expectations of mutual care; temporary inequality in the mutuality of care due to developmental differences such as childhood and old age; affection and trust; possibly "blood" or kinship connection; relation over time or generations; a context of safe physical and emotional intimacy and vulnerability to each other; and varying structural forms of family.

Violence in the family refers to an abusive use of power or control to shame, humiliate, intimidate, injure, or destroy. It violates the integrity of another's person, well being, or rights. It is often in the form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse that occurs across the lifespan most often to children, women, and the frail elderly. Often these forms of violence occur together. It is important to note that while some may tend to minimize the consequences of emotional or psychological violence, research suggests it may have more profound consequences than physical violence alone (Gelles 1997).

Violence in the family is a major public health crisis in the United States that has been allowed to flourish because of a remarkable silence on the part of civic and religious leaders (Leehan 1993). The statistical evidence is startling and sobering. For example, 38 percent of girls and 17.3 percent of boys experience sexual abuse prior to the age of eighteen (Russell, 1986; Urquiza & Keating, 1990). Violent attacks by men constitute the greatest health risk to women in this country where an estimated 3 to 4 million women are battered each year by their husbands or partners (Fortune, 1991). Adult Protective Services' files suggest that family members perpetrate two thirds of elder abuse (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 1997).

These statistics testify to the fact that our public health crisis is also a crisis for communities of faith. There is a compelling need for religious leaders to make informed responses to family violence in congregations, where victims, perpetrators of violence, and bystanders worship side by side (McClure & Ramsay, 1998; Nason-Clark, 1996,1999). For too long family violence in faith communities has been subject to what Nancy Nason-Clark aptly describes as the "holy hush" (1999). Yet, healing is especially assisted by rightly naming abuse in it various forms, compassionately assisting those who are victimized, confronting those who perpetrate violence in behalf of their repentance and renewal, and educating all in the community.

There are ample resources in Christian tradition and scripture to support informed and faithful responses to violence in families. Central to this effort is the biblical assertion that human life is created in the image of God for life in communities of mutual care and respect.

Womanist theologian Toinette Eugene describes violence in the family as "a sacrilege of God's Spirit in us" (1995). Liturgically, baptismal vows and marriage vows also uphold biblical themes of loving care, safekeeping, and mutual respect for family members. The fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12) addresses the importance of honoring parents (our elders). Two lynchpins of the destructiveness of family violence are [1] fear, terror, and helplessness and [2] the betrayal of bonds of care with the accompanying loss of trust and safety (Herman, 1992). Many find Psalm 55 an apt description of one who has experienced family violence: (4) My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. (5) Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me... (12) It is not enemies who taunt me�I could bear that: it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me�I could hide from them. (13) But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. In these lines we hear well the themes of fear and terror as well as betrayal, the loss of trust, and the absence of safety that contemporary survivors of family violence in communities of faith would echo.

Experiences of violation, domination, and betrayal clearly contradict any Judeo-Christian vision for life in families. Researchers have documented well the far-reaching emotional, physical, and relational consequences of family violence (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 1997; Gelles, 1997). These consequences predictably include distortions in self-esteem, anxiety, eating disorders, distortions of body image, sexual dysfunction, disrupted relationships, dysfunction in school and work, increased risk of suicide, etc. (Russell, 1986). The spiritual consequences of family violence arise in relation to emotional, physical, and relational effects of intimate violence such as those noted above.

Our experience of who God is and of God�s presence in our lives and world is especially vulnerable to early family experiences. Fewer researchers have ventured to explore the related spiritual consequences of victimization in the family, precisely that context where love, safety, trust, and respectful care are presumed (Cooper-White, 1995; Fortune, 1991; Pellauer, Chester, & Boyajian, 1987). The havoc wreaked by fear and betrayal in emotional, relational, and embodied spheres of life is at least as serious for spiritual experience. The following discussion will briefly explore predictable theological issues and distortions that arise in families and faith communities because of intimate violence and distortions in church and culture that contribute to difficulties in healing from such violence.

Theological Themes Distorted by Family Violence

Creation in the Image of God A primary distortion caused by family violence lies in its conflict with the central affirmation of Christian faith that all persons are created in the image of God for life in communities of mutual respect and care. Mutual love is the ethical context God intends for human experience. Closely related is the affirmation that we are created as embodied persons whose embodiment deserves tender care that always respects the integrity and inviolability of each person.

God�s choice to dwell with us as a human being further emphasizes that bodies matter to God, and they need to matter to us. God�s incarnation in Jesus highlights the centrality of embodiment in Christian tradition and rejects any dualism that would deny or trivialize the inextricable relation of embodiment and human experience. We bear witness to God�s image in us and others through our practice of love for one another that is life enhancing, healing, and encouraging.

Family violence, whether witnessed or actually experienced, repudiates these central affirmations. It demonstrates a betrayal of the bonds of care in marital vows, parental obligation, or familial ties. Violence that evokes experiences of terror, fear, and helplessness, or colluding in such violence by tolerating it, defies God's intention for life in communities of loving care. Family violence is dehumanizing violence. It rejects God�s intention for the integrity of embodied life and relational commitments. Experiences of betrayal and terror at the hands of those from whom persons expect care, safety, and love have far reaching spiritual as well as emotional and relational consequences. As psychologists have reminded us, the human capacity to trust and imagine God as trustworthy is born of early experiences of familial care (Erikson, 1963; Pruyser, 1974) . The ability to imagine oneself as worthy of care and love also arises from experiencing reliably loving care, especially in primary relationships.

Certainly family violence that distorts God's intention for loving relationships does not preclude persons from trusting God's love for them, but it surely makes that a far more difficult possibility. Fear and betrayal in the context of primary relationships damage the very intrapsychic and interpersonal structures that allow us as human beings to respond freely and lovingly toward God and others as well as ourselves (E. Farley, 1990; Ramsay, 1998b).

Fear and betrayal set in motion various defensive, debilitating responses such as alienation, isolation, distrust, self protectiveness, shame, and guilt that once in place may become self perpetuating. Children who experience family violence often take responsibility for this abuse in order to sustain the illusion that the security of their world and the adults entrusted with safekeeping it are trustworthy. But the emotional and spiritual cost is high, for these children then define themselves as bad, dirty, unworthy of love or care and often assume that their abuse was justified in God�s eyes.

When abuse includes the violation of a child physically and or sexually, such fearful alienation and shame in relation to God and others may be even more profound. They experience adult power exercised in cruel and arbitrary ways that disregard the integrity of their persons and wills. When home is not a safe place for a child, the world itself is hostile rather than a gift that discloses the abundance of God�s creative love. Often family violence scars the abused child�s still developing religious imagination so that it becomes difficult to trust that God�s power is exercised differently from their experience of supposedly trustworthy adults. Even more seriously, many presume God�s love does not include them. Children who are victims of sexual abuse often experience yet another level of alienation and shame that may best be described as defilement (Williams, 1993b). Tragically, the locus of embodiment God intends precisely for our most profound experiences of intimate communion becomes a source of isolating shame and fear spiritually and relationally for many survivors of child sexual abuse.

Adults who experience domestic violence or elder abuse are differently vulnerable than children. A child�s capacities for interpreting intimate violence are still evolving. Adults affected by intimate violence are rendered more vulnerable spiritually when their previous life experience leads them to imagine themselves as less valuable or worthy than others, such as those who have been victimized by sexism and classism. Vulnerability is intensified when their understanding of the relation of God�s power and love allows them to imagine that God is the source of their suffering and causing the abuse either to punish or prepare them vocationally. When any of these distortions is in place, family violence has more isolating and dehumanizing consequences.


Popularized interpretations of suffering in contemporary culture that do not differentiate suffering that arises as a consequence of sin from suffering that is undeserved undermine the capacities of survivors to resist the damaging effects of abuse and begin to heal from it. It is a form of revictimization for victims of family violence who find this explanation of suffering only deepens their pain, for it leads them to imagine God is the cause of their suffering that is somehow deserved or instructive (W. Farley, 1990).

On the other hand, confronting perpetrators of violence and bystanders who collude in such violence with the connection between suffering and sin as a corruption of human freedom may encourage their repentance and begin their healing. The failure to differentiate the source of suffering that arises from family violence deepens the consequences of such violence for victims, perpetrators, and the larger community that too often colludes with the violence through its silence.

When religious communities fail to name family violence rightly as an offense to God�s vision for human life and fail to insist on justice, their silence contributes to the perpetuation of violence. It also only worsens the burden of guilt and shame children who are victims and some adults wrongly bear. It intensifies the isolation and alienation from God that victims of family violence often experience. Tragically, it also prevents many survivors of abuse from drawing on the vast resources in scripture that bear witness to the power of God�s love actively to resist violence and seek justice for the vulnerable who are abused. Differentiating suffering allows survivors and the religious community better to recognize that God�s power is used in the service of God�s love and is inextricably related to justice.

In fact there is a fiercely tender quality to God�s compassion (Ramsay, 1998a). God�s compassion is a tender power that offers survivors of family violence a resounding validation of their worth and the integrity of their bodies and tender mercy in response to their suffering. As Psalm 23 suggests, God�s compassion is not mere consolation. It offers both spiritual and physical sustenance. It also fiercely resists those who would deform or destroy human life. It offers redemptive empowerment and courage to those who have experienced the dehumanizing effects of intimate violence. Just as God�s compassion encourages survivors of violence to resist the dehumanizing effects of abuse, it invites those in the religious community to respond with compassionate resistance rather than silence (W. Farley, 1990; Ramsay, 1998a).

When we in the religious community are able to incarnate for abused children and adults responses that offer tender yet empowering validation of their worth and insistence that such violence against them is offensive to God�s justice and love, they are better able to resist the dehumanizing effects of the fear and betrayal perpetrated against them. When we choose to incarnate God�s resistance to abuse, we bear witness to the healing power of God�s loving compassion. With children, whose religious imaginations are most vulnerable, bearing witness to God�s compassion and resistance is particularly important for the process of constructing a more life-giving image of God in their lives. For perpetrators of family violence, rightly naming the connection between suffering and sin creates the possibility for repentance and accountability that will allow them to seek God�s forgiveness and the renewal of their lives. Clearly there is deep spiritual alienation in the lives of those who choose to abuse children or other adults. The journey toward healing is arduous. Healing, whether for perpetrators, victims, or bystanders, cannot begin until the power of God�s love and commitment to justice are named rightly.


Suffering that arises from victimization or the sin of perpetrating such violence seriously inhibits the quality of hope and often the possibility of hope in the lives of victims and perpetrators. Hope rests on the capacity to imagine a future that is life enhancing and available. It presumes the narratival character of human life and especially the importance of the future tense to enliven the present and relativize the power of the past (Lester, 1995). Hope implies a sense of agency that allows persons to believe they can act in ways that will allow such positive change for their lives and trust that such change is possible. Christian hope transcends ordinary dreams for the future by placing particular human stories within the larger future story of the loving power and faithful promises of God.

Victims of family violence know intimately the terror of helplessness and the betrayal and violation of their bodies by persons whose love and care they believed they could trust. Such experiences of domination seriously undermine any adequate sense of agency. Often these experiences of domination include no intervention by others to offer help or protection. Fear, a pervasive sense of vulnerability to danger, and defensive efforts to exercise vigilant control often shape a subsequent life posture. In such a context the compassionate resistance that characterizes God�s love for the vulnerable offers survivors of violence a way to reimagine the possibility of hope for their futures.

Hope as resistance to the dehumanizing effects of violence is rooted in God�s fierce �no� to violence against the vulnerable that is recorded again and again in scripture. Such hope depends, of course, on the willingness of others to bear witness to this dimension of God�s love and embody that resistance in their presence with survivors. Hope as resistance is not experienced as a simple progression toward liberation from the fearful and guarded postures of survivors. Rather it is well described in the fugue-like relation of survival and liberation that is imaged in Psalm 23 (Ramsay, 1998a; Williams, 1993a). Here the first three verses describe an idyllic safety, but the next verses describe the continuing reality of danger; however, resistance emerges as redemptive hope when the Psalm pictures God as not only powerfully present but setting a table in the presence of our enemies. This image of hope provides both a sense of freedom and peace and sustains and protects when survival is all that is possible. It helpfully describes the way in which God�s compassionate resistance defies the finality of evil and restores a life giving future story (Lester, 1995) to survivors of family violence.


Family violence not only reflects a distortion in understanding the redemptive power of God�s love. It also perpetuates corresponding distortions about love as it is experienced in human life. Christianity is guided by a three-fold love command recorded in the gospels: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27-28) Interpretation of this passage has been shaped by the importance that is also given to sacrificial love through interpretations of Jesus� death, especially in Paul�s letters. The norm of mutuality found in the love command was eclipsed by the ideal of sacrificial love and the valorization of suffering rooted in these interpretations of Jesus� crucifixion.

Until recent years interpreters of the love command have emphasized the importance of love of God and neighbor as if love of self were to be assumed and needed to be overcome as prideful or at least restrained in order to assure adequate love for God and others. Women who have been battered frequently describe the way these two interpretations together complicated their ability to believe their safety could justify leaving an abusive context. �Did I love him enough? Good Christians are willing to suffer in behalf of love. Shouldn�t I go back?� Given the history of interpretation in Christian tradition, such women have few resources for considering how too little regard for self may be as serious as pride or too much concern for self. Similarly, they have little assistance in discerning the importance of discriminating between Jesus� voluntary suffering and their oppression, or the value of temporary sacrificial suffering as a means toward mutuality in relationships.

If we turn to the earlier affirmation of humanity�s creation in the image of God and use this doctrine as the interpretive lens about love, we recover the importance of each person�s identity and the norm of mutuality because God�s creative love is the source of each and all life equally (Ramsay, 1998b). Adequate self regard is not equated with self-gratification at the expense of others. Recovering clarity about mutuality of care and respect as the norm for life in community allows survivors of abuse to hear rightly God�s value for their well being and confronts perpetrators who would abuse their power in relationships with the sin inherent in their disregard for the other. As Daniel Day Williams wrote, �Love is that expression of Spirit that has communion in freedom as its goal� (1968).

When Jesus� crucifixion is interpreted within the broader context of the breadth of God�s creative love for each and all, it becomes more apparent that Jesus� choice to die on the cross does not idealize enduring suffering for its own sake. Rather, it reminds us that this death came because the whole course of Jesus� ministry demonstrated a commitment to mutuality in love that retrieved God�s vision for the inextricable relation of love and justice. Jesus particularly modeled mutual regard with the marginalized of his time, seeking to empower them and restore to them a sense of their value in God�s sight. He chose the sacrificial love of the cross rather than deny this radically mutual image of God�s love for each and all. Particularly problematic for survivors of domestic violence is the way the image of Jesus� death on the cross has been misinterpreted to idealize suffering without differentiating suffering temporarily chosen from suffering that is oppressively imposed.

This distortion, joined with the false subordination sexism imposes, renders women particularly vulnerable to accepting violence in their relationships. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson suggests: Structurally subordinated within patriarchy, women are maintained in this position, not liberated, by the image of a God who suffers in utter powerlessness because of love. The ideal of the helpless divine victim serves only to strengthen women�s dependency and potential for victimization, and to subvert initiatives for freedom, when what is needed is growth in relational autonomy and self-affirmation. The image of a powerless, suffering God is dangerous to women�s genuine humanity, and must be resisted. (Johnson, 1993.) If we attend to the violence that was done to Jesus, we realize this is �a story that teaches its readers how to work to struggle against suffering, not to glorify it� (Placher, 1994).

Marriage and Divorce

Another prominent distortion in popular interpretations of Christian theology that significantly jeopardizes those who find their spouses are violent is their certainty that divorce is a sin, and that leaving a violent marriage under any circumstances would alienate them from God�s love. This misconception presumes that maintaining the form of the family is more important than protecting the well being of individuals within it. It is true that Jesus spoke against divorce, but he also condemned the men who were calculating how to break their promises of care for their wives, who would have been without any resources as divorced women. (Matthew 5:27-32; 19:3-9)

In Christian and Jewish traditions marriages are understood as covenants rather than simply contractual arrangements. The distinction lies in the expectation of trust and care that profoundly deepens the quid pro quo character of a contract�s more limited reciprocity. As marriage vows in Jewish and Christian services suggest, the covenant of marriage describes a context of love and honor or cherishing of the other. These vows speak of the expectation of care that is not limited to careful calculation but is guided by generosity. Yet, these vows also situate marriage in a normative context of mutual care so that the equality of both partners is assumed. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, covenants between persons are reciprocal arrangements of care presuming mutually trustworthy commitments to particular obligations and responsibilities. There are consequences for not keeping faith with a covenant, and repentance is necessary to restore the integrity of such agreements. Such vows make it clear that the spouse who abuses their partner is the one who breaks the covenant, not the one who leaves to assure self-protection and the protection of children (Eilts, 1991). It is also significant that these vows are made publicly which underscores that the role of the community lies in helping to assure the integrity of the marriage vows. In some Christian communions marriage is a sacrament which elevates the significance of maintaining the marriage, but the witness of Jewish and Christian scriptures leaves no doubt that God�s love always intends protection of the vulnerable so that divorce is preferable to continuing life threatening and dehumanizing suffering for family members.

Forgiveness and Repentance

Issues of forgiveness and repentance are particularly complicated for survivors of family violence, for subsequent family relationships, and for congregations affected by such violence. Confusion around popular misunderstandings of the nature and dynamics of forgiveness often deepen further the painful isolation and alienation of abuse. Forgiveness is popularly understood by many Christians and the culture at large as an obligation of an injured party that immediately restores the integrity of the relationship and avoids any necessity for attending to accountability for change on the part of those who have caused harm.

In many families and religious communities one may hear the question, �Why can�t you just forgive and forget so the family can move on?� Such questions disclose several important misconceptions about the biblical injunction to forgive that can increase the pain of survivors of violence and inhibit not only their healing but also that of perpetrators and others who may be affected (Fortune, 1991). First, it presumes that forgiveness is an isolated, singular act rather than part of a larger process of accountability and justice. Second, it makes the victim of violence responsible for healing the family rather than addressing the perpetrator�s and community�s accountability. Third, it avoids any attention to the imbalance of power that violence discloses, again allowing the perpetrator and community to avoid accountability. Fourth, it suggests forgiveness is a quick if not immediate event rather like an eraser that �wipes the slate of memory (and obligation for repentance) clean.�

Biblically, forgiveness is located within a process of reconciliation that begins with the perpetrator�s admission of wrongdoing and willingness to engage in the work of repentance or fundamental change (Fortune, 1991). It begins with calling the perpetrator to account and only moves to forgiveness if, in fact, repentance occurs. When forgiveness is forced as the first and perhaps only step in a process of reconciliation, the only result is a form of �cheap grace� that in fact revictimizes survivors who may now feel guilt that they don�t want to forgive or who feel inauthentic for saying what they do not truly feel. Premature forgiveness also robs perpetrators of the opportunity truly to heal through the process of accountability justice requires.

Forgiveness is not the first or the only act needed for reconciliation. It is inextricably tied to the restoration of justice in the relationship that depends first on the one who violated the trust of the victim and the family. This initial responsibility of the perpetrator of violence to tell the truth and initiate a process of repentance reflects the need to rebalance the relationship by acknowledging how violence robs the victim of her or his rightful dignity. Indeed, New Testament language for forgiveness draws from a financial context in which forgiveness by the debtor would be impossible (Keene, 1995). It must begin by the wealthy one yielding his or her power. This financial imagery makes it obvious that the �poorer� victim of violence cannot be responsible for the �wealthy� perpetrator�s process of change.

Scripture also gives more attention to the importance of the community�s participation in seeking justice for the injured party. In Matthew�s gospel for example, members of the congregation and then the congregation as a whole may be expected to join with the injured party to seek justice (Matthew 18: 15-20). In the context of family violence it is in fact a source of great support when survivors of violence feel the congregation�s support not only as compassion that validates their loss and pain as wrong, but as encouragement to resist the dehumanizing effects of such violence, and as support to seek healing and justice. When congregations incarnate in this way God�s fierce tenderness, survivors of violence will suffer far less spiritual and emotional damage, for they will benefit from the redemptive witness of the faith community. The congregation also will benefit from taking responsibility clearly to embody God�s compassionate resistance to the dehumanizing effects of intimate violence. When congregations maintain a �holy hush,� (Nason-Clark, 1999) the spiritual consequences of abuse for them and the victims of violence are heightened by their failure to witness faithfully.

Finally, it is also important to note that while scripture clearly enjoins persons to forgive those who truly repent, it does not suggest that forgiveness is easy or quick. True repentance is itself an arduous process that unfolds, often haltingly, over time. Similarly, forgiveness often also requires a long process that is equally challenging. Even when it does occur, it does not presume restoration of the relationship as it once was intended to be. In many situations of family violence that would be unwise or impossible. The trust that was betrayed may not be reparable. Forgiveness does not mean that a survivor forgets what occurred. It simply means the survivor finds release from the immediacy of the traumatic memories, and the perpetrator receives the gracious opportunity to experience release from guilt.


We have explored some of the terrible consequences of intimate violence for the spiritual well being of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders who collude with the violence in silence or denial. Even this brief review quickly discloses the insidious effects of violence in homes that undermine those very possibilities God intends for human and spiritual fulfillment such as love, joyful embodiment, hope, and trust. Instead persons struggle with guarded isolation, physical, emotional, and spiritual alienation, and fear that often blocks their ability to feel the empowering tenderness of God�s compassion or the redemptive hope of God�s fierce resistance to the violence they experienced. Perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their sin against their children, spouses, or elders so that their bondage only grows more complete. Congregations often unwittingly collude in perpetuating intimate violence when they choose not to work proactively as well as responsively regarding abuse that affects conservatively 50 percent of the members either through past violence or current abuse.

Fortunately the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle and many denominational offices offer educational resources that can help congregations begin to witness far more effectively and faithfully against intimate violence. Resources for preaching truthfully and skillfully about family violence are also beginning to emerge (McClure & Ramsay, 1998). The �holy hush� that has plagued religious leaders and congregations must give way to a resounding holy �no� to the dehumanizing effects of sexual and domestic violence. Only then will our witness incarnate the life giving power of God�s compassionate resistance to all that deforms and destroys human life.

Nancy J. Ramsay is Harrison Ray Anderson Professor of Pastoral Theology,

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary,

1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Phone: (502) 895-3411.

Email: nramsay@lpts.edu.


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