It is hard to be a pastor this week and not comment on the spouse abuse case of Ray Rice. Pastors are told to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We have a special relationship with abused women through our work with Kit and the wonder staff at Winnie's Place. When I arrived back in 2006, people in the community were not yet really aware of the problem of abused women in the QCA. Kit was finalizing her ministry, and a few important men in the community (in the sense that they had some financial resources to help) checked in to see if I thought it was a problem. Those convinced that there was no real problem in the QCA thought that resources did not need to be wasted on a dedicated shelter for them. I remember one guy in particular telling me there was no way that it filled up in under five years, and it would then only if Kit was soft on freeloaders. Those of you who work for the shelter or the store which supports it or one of the boards which financially support it know just how important a role it serves. As for me, my role is limited to women picking up televisions, receiving certain donations, convinced that Ephesians 5:22 justifies their husbands/boyfriends beating them, and some of you.
I bring up that last group because I am convinced one of the ways in which the Ray Rice case can be applicable to us and be redeemed by God would be for us to realize that the Church is often complicit in abuse. A couple years after I arrived, and after a few lengthy discussions about the clause after the semicolon that exists in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, I found a book that I thought met my needs to be a more effective pastor among you. It was a book that was entitled “What Women Wish Their Pastors Knew,” or something to that effect. It has since disappeared from my bookshelves, maybe into one of your hands. I thought it perfect because a number of the women at St. Alban's had a fabulous relationship with Kathleen. As a woman, she obviously understood things about women and their lives that I have had to, and continue to, learn. As the father of three daughters and husband of a wife, I would like to think I pay attention to women's issues. But, some of the ladies around here were not as comfortable discussing certain issues as they were with Kathleen. I was certain the book would help me understand things that some women were reticent to tell me. I was right.
I was stunned during the course of reading that book to discover that ¼ of women active in the Church had suffered abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend. I was disgusted that 26% of pastors surveyed around 2006 if memory serves, not the dark ages by any stretch of the imagination, would still counsel a women to submit better to avoid a beating rather than seek counseling or law enforcement or divorce. Unfortunately, life seems to have anecdotally verified what the book claimed from a study. Physical abuse is simply too common among people who claim Jesus as Lord.
By Wednesday of last week, I was sick and tired of the piling on of Ray Rice. What he did was horrible. The press conference announcing their “reconciliation” disturbs me even more now than it did at the time. I am used to hearing women explain to me that had they obeyed their husband or boyfriend better, he would never have felt the need to beat them. Those who suffer abuse often blame themselves for the abuse they suffer. Seeing that punch and hearing the words coming out of her mouth simply leaves me groping for words. I do hope he is getting help. I do hope it was the alcohol and her pushing the right buttons. My experience, though, reminds me that my hope in those things might be in vain.
What made me sick and tired of the rhetoric surround the Rice case, though, was the casting of stones and judgment. The NFL is not the Church. Though the NFL has replaced the church in the lives of many on Sundays and though Roger Goodell has replaced the Pope or pastor in the eyes of many, the NFL is simply a business. Its job is to make money for the owners and, to the extent that they have to pay their employees, those who work for them. If the Church has 26% of its leaders, male and female by the way, counseling abused women to do a better job of submitting to avoid beatings, we need to get rid of our log before we worry about the mote in the eyes of the NFL. If ¼ of our membership has suffered abuse, it is likely that some of us are the ones abusing. Rather than making us feel better by preaching at the NFL, we need to begin to look internally and digest what God has to say about abuse.
What provoked me to this post about my Facebook post was that the first seven private messages about the Church's complicity was from women who have suffered physical abuse. Women were writing me to make sure that I was not going to share their experiences and to remind me that those details had been shared in confidence. Not all the women were active members of this church. In truth, depending on how we define active members, active members might be in the minority of those reaching out to make sure I kept their confidence and their secret. Truthfully, when I made the post on FB, I was thinking only of ladies at Winnie's over the years who thought it was their Christian duty to submit to beatings by their husbands. I wanted to call attention to the fact that we have much work today for women and men in our own ranks before we ever expect the right to be heard in situations outside the church, but I was not thinking of specific cases that some of our sisters had survived. We can be appalled at the punch of Ray Rice and we can worry whether his then-girlfriend made the right choice to marry him, but we cannot judge the actions of the NFL or the prosecutor unless we first address our own complicity in this abomination that occurs within our ranks.
The first step on this arduous journey, of course, is education. Look around the next time you are in church. If St. Alban's is representative of the public at large, ¼ of the women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend, either now or in their past. You want to know what the face of an abused wife looks life? She is in your midst. Unfortunately, it is also very possible that an abuser is in our midst, too. We as Christ's Body on earth need to do a better job of empowering those who suffer in our midst. We need to be a place for healing and a place that allows women to remember in Whose image they were created. We need to be a sanctuary, a place of safety, that reminds our abused sisters that they have been bought for a price and deserve a man who would love them like Christ loves the Church. Can you imagine Jesus ever beating His Bride out of “love”? Finally, we need to be a place that empowers those who have survived to begin share their experiences. If we are ever to break the cycle of abuse, survivors, and those of us whom they call brothers and sisters, must begin to speak out against such violence. By sharing what they experienced, those who follow may hope to avoid the same mistakes. By sharing what they experienced and warning those generations that follow, we can hope that they will experience not only healing but full redemption. If a lady of the next generation avoids a relationship because of what she has learned from such education, then it is a redemption of sort. If a young man chooses another path, to perhaps step outside of the cycle of violence known within his family, that is truly grasping life from death!
The second step is simply part of what we do around here. We are pretty good at reminding people they were created in God’s image and redeemed by Him at cost of His life. We live that understanding out in our ministry to reach those enslaved, we live that understanding out in our Community Meal where we serve the hungry food right off our tables, we live that understanding out in our attentions to small details like underwear or socks or prosthetic bras, we live that understanding out in most of all we do. Reminding those who are or were abused and those who do the abusing should take little effort on our part.
Another step we will likely have to take is to remind people domestic violence is serious. Again, we do this with respect to other ministries. We have been, for several years now, working hard to educate the public, law makers, and law enforcement of the psyche of those enslaved and those who enslave. Our laws in Iowa have been strengthened, even if they need more work. We have fought city hall over the years, whenever it has sought to take away meal sites like the Community Meal or Kings Harvest because “nobody wants those people” downtown. Of all that has come out so far in this case, I am most disturbed that a prosecutor has seen this video and seemingly chosen to ignore it. Yes, the NFL should have seen it. But the prosecutor in the case is specifically charged with protecting the victim. The prosecutor ought to be well-enough versed in the psyche of those abused, and the likely outcomes of repeated abuse, to understand the seriousness of what the video shows. Perhaps this really was a one-time drunk rage on the part of Mr. Rice. Maybe the now-Mrs. Rice really pushed buttons with her slaps and words. We can only hope so, and God only knows, absent any further justification by the prosecutor.
The most difficult step I think we will have to take as a body is to make abuse a subject that needs not to be whispered. One of our functions is to proclaim from the rooftops those things whispered in corners and darkness. When we fail to acknowledge the hurt and pain of abuse, we encourage whispers and silence. What concerned me about my FB post was that several women, strong active Christians by my estimation, were worried how people would judge them were their stories to come out. Why? We have a couple women who are quite willing to share their experiences and discuss their abuse matter-of-factly, but why are not all or most willing to share? Other than God and maybe their families, they should feel most loved by us, their brothers and sisters in Christ, their parish family. What does it say about the support and shame they feel around us, if they are unable to give voice to their experience?
Another tough step will be working with abusers. While we like to believe that most of us are not abusers, the sad truth is that someone must be doing the beating. We need to have ears to hear when it comes to “jokes” or comments that make light of abuse. We need to be intolerant when those around us try to justify the actions of public abusers. We need to remind (mostly male) abusers that they are called to love their wives just as Christ loved the Church. Most importantly, we need to be willing to speak with a pastor about our suspicions (and continue to follow up with the pastor to make sure our concerns are not ignored), and with law enforcement when we have confirmation, that those abused in our midst will be protected against violence.
Finally, as we have learned in our efforts with survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence is full of sexism. There is always an assumption by the public that only women can be victimized. Men can suffer from abuse as well. And while most sufferers are certainly female, we need to be able to minister to abused men as well as we do to abused women. We must be able to be every bit the safe have and place of support for abused me that we strive to be for abused women.
In our determination to live in silence, in our desire to pretend that abuse occurs out there in the wider world, we are complicit in the plague of abuse. It might be nice to hurl stones at Ray Rice, at Roger Gooddell, at the prosecutors, at the casino/hotels and their staffs, at TMZ, and any other where we would like to throw. But we would be doing the world far better good, I think, if we began to address abuse within our own ranks and within the ranks of the Church at large. Perhaps, when we have cleansed ourself of such behavior, when we have experienced mercy and forgiveness and empowerment, then we will, indeed, be in a position not only to comment on such behaviors, but to lead them to the light that is found only in Christ!