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I don’t remember her name but her silhouette is imprinted on my memory. I met her when I was a teenager. She was a member of the church that my family attended. She had a diminutive build and was prematurely hunched over. I knew instinctively, though I lacked the words to articulate it, that her bent frame reflected another kind of bending, one violently imposed upon her body and mind.
She was the mother of a small boy and the wife of a man who was nearly as small emotionally. He had little respect in the community and, in turn, demanded it from her at every turn. He barked and swaggered. She whimpered and cowered. I wonder what became of their young boy, who today is a man.
This unnamed woman wasn’t the only victim of domestic violence in that congregation. There also was the youth minister who beat his wife and God only knows how many others who smiled in worship and ducked blows at home.
Domestic violence has many faces: physical assault, intimidation, coercion, threats, isolation, emotional abuse, economic abuse, manipulation of children, and leveraging of male privilege. It is shrouded by minimization (“I didn’t hit her that hard”), denial (“She accidentally fell down the stairs”), and misplaced blame (“She provoked me”). Wielding power and maintaining control of others: this is the intent of each expression of domestic violence. Domestic violence, in whatever form it takes, is a powerful kind of negation that seeks to undo God’s good creation (including victims and perpetrators alike).
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. It has been observed in the United States since 1987. Which means that it could have been celebrated in my home church when I was teenager. It could have been a sermon topic in one of the many congregations I’ve participated in since then. Yet I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon on or participating in a liturgy that takes domestic violence to God in prayer. That’s not to say that churches and leaders whom I’ve known and respected haven’t cared about domestic violence. Some of them have been victims’ advocates—offering resources, recommending safe houses, and providing spiritual care.
But what about the larger public witness of the church in light of the ongoing problem of domestic violence in the United States and abroad? Statistics alone suggest the need for a prophetic voice:
- 1 in 3 women in the United States have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.
- 1 in 10 men in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- Worldwide anywhere from 29-62 percent of women have experienced sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. (See Pamela Cooper White’s, The Cry of Tamar)
Domestic Violence Awareness Month may be coming to an end, but the abuse endured by so many in our communities isn’t. Participation in God’s ministry of healing, justice, and reconciliation includes ministry to both victims and perpetrators. Too often we forgot that crying out with and on behalf of those whose voices have been muted and bodies have been beat down is an integral part of this ministry. And so I leave us with a portion of a liturgy from Abigail Rian Evans’ Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life (a resource that I highly recommend). Hear it in the vein of those imprecatory psalms in which the oppressed rage against violence into the ear of the One who redeems lives from the pit:
The blood that flows cries for revenge
Cursed be the violence of the strong
The child howls in the lonely night
Cursed be the hand that bruised
The woman/man lies sobbing on the floor
Cursed be the hard eyes and the unyielding stone
The body that trust lies in rigid shock
Cursed be the relinquishing of pain
The weak are intimidated and afraid
Cursed be the arrogance and lust for power
The abused shrink away in silent shame
Cursed be the evil power of secrecy
The abusers protest their innocence
Cursed be those who deny their responsibility
The comfortable turn away, refusing to see
Cursed be our collusion and cowardice
Just and holy God, receive our fear and shame, our grief and anger, and channel these strong energies in the service of truth and healing.