Of the many new stories in the airwaves this past week, the Ray Rice video rose to the top. Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back, was suspended for two games at the end of July after a video showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, from an elevator. The incident occurred last February. Rice was arrested but his fiancée (now wife) did not press charges. Though the case was dropped, the NFL felt pressure to respond with some sort of discipline. So they did—the two game suspension. After a firestorm of public criticism that this fell far short of adequate, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a public apology and instituted a new and rather commendable policy on assault, battery, domestic violence, and sexual assault applicable to all NFL personnel (not just players).
A few days ago, the full video of the incident was leaked to the media. It shows Rice punching and knocking out Palmer and then dragging her from the elevator with obvious disregard. Again, public outcry intensified. Rice was let go from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
Much could be said about this incident as it has unfolded, but one question has stuck with me: “What did people think had gone on in the elevator before we saw him drag her out?” Marie Fortune, executive director of Faith Trust Institute, arguably the most influential organization in the United States dedicated to training clergy and theological educators about domestic violence, sexual abuse, and clergy misconduct, asked this precise question in her recent blog. While she didn’t reflect further on it, I can’t seem to let go of it.
Yes, the video is horrific. The fact that it has stirred moral outrage is good and right. But wasn’t her unconscious body enough? And, what if there hadn’t been a video but only a police report of an assault and a bruised, broken, aching body? Or, what if there had been a report and no bruises to see?
This is more often than not the case with domestic violence: unless we are the victim or perpetrator, we’re unlikely to witness its occurrence. Yet it is happening all around us. Consider these stats from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, posted by Faith Trust Institute:
- An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
- 85% of domestic violence victims are women.
- 1 out of 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
- Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.
- Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.
- Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.
- Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
- 30% to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household.
In spite of this reality, the church (at least in my overall experience) has been mostly silent when it comes to domestic violence. When was the last time you heard a sermon address this topic? I don’t recall ever hearing one, yet I could tell you many stories of people in pews who were being physically, emotionally, and physically abused by their partners. I could tell more than a few stories of pastors and other church leaders who physically or sexually assaulted their family members. And that’s saying nothing of the families whose relational patterns pointed toward the possibility of ongoing abuse.
As long as seeing is believing (and by seeing, I mean witnessing actual blows), the church will miss out on Christ’s ministry of healing and reconciliation for those experiencing the trauma of domestic violence. As long as seeing is believing, the church’s witness will be incomplete at best, false at worst. As long as seeing is believing, victims will be unlikely to share their stories with us.
Thankfully, there is a God who sees, hears, and knows intimately the suffering of the oppressed, abused, and abandoned and then acts with compassion to liberate them. “Then the Lord said, ‘I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them . . .” (Exodus 3:7-8a). The question is whether the church will participate in this ministry or not; whether it will point people toward this God or not. In fact, now that we even have seen the blows of domestic violence, will we speak a Gospel word about it on Sunday?