Domestic abuse and theologies of control and submission

This week, ABC television screened a two-part documentary by Sarah Ferguson, Hitting Home, available via catch up on ABC I view. The documentary tells the stories – and shows the bruised faces and bodies – of beaten up women, and then takes the viewer along their journey with police and the court system, through to the courageous rebuilding of life after they managed to escape their abusers. The film is difficult but necessary viewing, and it made me angry and sad. Above all,  it was a wake-up call – challenging us to face up to the crisis of domestic abuse.

The magnitude of the problem beggars imagination. According to Ferguson, there are more than 650  domestic violence events every day in Australia, and more than one hundred thousand apprehended violence orders (AVO’s) are taken out annually. And these statistics catalogue only reported instances of abuse, which far too often goes on behind  closed doors.

Usually an unspoken scourge, domestic violence has been at the centre of public conversation in Australia in 2015 after the indomitable Rosie Batty was named as Australian of the year. Batty’s honour followed the death of her son, Luke, at the hands of her husband (so far in 2015,  more than 78 women have lost their life to violent partners), and her subsequent public advocacy in defence of the victims of domestic violence; predominately women and children at the hands (and tongues) of abusive husbands and fathers. In her acceptance speech she declared:

Whilst we celebrate the wonderful country that we live in today, there remains a serious epidemic across our nation. No matter where you live, family violence exists in every pocket of every neighbourhood. It does not discriminate and it is across all sections of our society. Family violence may happen behind closed doors but it needs to be brought out from these shadows and into broad daylight. One in six women has experienced physical or sexual abuse by a current or former partner including some of those celebrating with us today. One in four children and at least one woman a week is killed. …
To the Australian people, look around. Do not ignore what you see and what you know is wrong. Call out sexist attitudes and speak up when violence against women is trivialised.

As Batty asserts, domestic violence has its sustaining power in sexist attitudes and values. In the Hitting Home documentary, Ferguson observes that “what starts as efforts to control a partner’s behaviour and life, leads to the gradual undermining of her self-worth, and then to violence.”

What was especially harrowing was watching abused women judge themselves for the abuse that they suffered.  They struggled  to explain to themselves why they  submitted to the violence for as long as they did. Mostly, they persevered for the sake of the kids, because they didn’t want their children to grow up in a single-parent family. And when, in fear  for their life, they eventually fled, they chastised themselves for not doing so earlier. One woman told the camera, “I’m an idiot. I’m so embarrassed. I’m worthless.”

Ferguson also made the attempt to understand the perspective of the perpetrators, interviewing men who were participating in a 10 week jail program intending to  provide them with strategies to prevent them abusing  in the future. What stood out, though, was that while the victims of abuse chastised themselves, the perpetrators deflected blame,  either denying the abuse altogether, blaming the victims for provoking them, or passing off their own violent behaviour as a mental illness, something out of their control.

But while I despair about these pathetic men, it was also apparent that the women we met on screen were much more than just victims. These were people who had the courage to leave violent men (and leaving is when things really get dangerous), and the determination to start their lives over, often with very little resources, and rebuild a home for themselves and their children.

The film leaves one with the burning question, what can be done – what can I do? And there are no easy answers. There is the obvious need to bring the topic of domestic violence out of the secrecy of the bedroom and into the public conversation, since it only as we face up to the problem that anything will change. Ferguson hopes that if we speak plainly to our children, boys and girls, then the next generation might not suffer the abuse that is too common in contemporary family life.

The overriding argument was that we need to learn a different approach to relationships,  rejecting the all too common idea that masculinity is about power and control, and femininity is about submission.

Here resides the challenge for the church. In Christian tradition and practice, male control is especially connected to theologies of female submission to male authority, to symbols of feminity that idealise a woman’s modesty and passivity, and to liturgical practices that normalise female silence. As Julia Beard reminded us earlier in the  year (see here), the sad fact is that, “Far from ending abuse in the home, organised religion may be legitimising it.”

Domestic violence is grounded in and justified by distorted constructions of masculine power. Abusers are enabled to act as they do because they believe in the abhorrent logic that men have the divine right (nay obligation) to exercise authority over women whose role it is to submit. This attitude is too often reinforced by church teaching. And Christian women are too readily pressured to internalise their own submissive inferiority to authoritative men. The results are as inevitable as they are tragic.

Now I know that complementarian Christians, whose theology  teaches that male authority and its complementary female submission are a part of the natural created order, will feel hard done by at this point. True authority, they will say, is found in servant leadership, and true submission, they will insist, is to men who model their authority on the headship of Christ. From this perspective, domestic abuse is a sinful distortion of ‘true’ complementarity. And no doubt there are a good many men who exercise their headship benevolently.

But that such benevolence is possible doesn’t override the fact that violence has its origin in unequal power, and the solution to violence is not merely a kinder exercise of power, but the overturning of such power. That is precisely what Jesus models when he tells us that he came not to be served, but to serve – and it is what Paul insists on when he requires the church to submit to one another in reverence to Christ- mutual not hierarchical submission, men to women as much as the other way round, so that submission is only ever an appropriate response to love, but never to abuse. The gospel, doesn’t entrench male control, it repudiates it in the strongest fashion, as it does every power imbalance that has justified violence; Jew over Greek (racism), free over slave (hierarchies of class, wealth, and social status), and male over female (sexism) – Galatians 3.26. (And as an aside, I would add able bodied over disabled).

So much for theology. What about church symbols? Consider, for example, the ultimate symbol of female submissiveness, the reification of a demure and perpetually virginal Mary. We paint her in our iconography with eyes downcast, the perfect submissive woman whose purity is most deeply apparent in virginity. But is that Mary as she should be envisioned? What difference might it make if we imagine her with her head raised and eyes staring unbendingly into our own? Here is a strong mother of many children (no virgin, whatever the uniqueness of Jesus’ conception), empowered by The Spirit to participate in the story of human redemption. Far from the ideal submissive woman, Mary should be a symbol of female freedom, equality, and power. But that’s not the story we tell the girls and boys in Sunday school, who learn only of powerful bible men, contrasted with meek, mild and pure submissive women.


And don’t get me started on what we model in our liturgies. Only men can be ordained. Only men can be senior pastors. Only men can preach. Only men can be elders. And so women are silenced in church, and disempowered,  and we’re surprised they don’t feel empowered to speak up about abuse at home. If it wasn’t so damnably horrifying – if it didn’t make the church complicit in the blight of domestic violence – it would be laughable.

I know that abuse has many other causes, and non Christian institutions are equally sexist, and worse. Women are mere props at many sporting events, are often abused in porn, are presumed dumb by fashion designers, are constantly demeaned by a sexist media. But that our churches are not as bad as others is no excuse. In fact, it’s an opportunity for the church to lead the way; to repent of its see no evil here no evil pretense that nothing is wrong; to change its theology and culture; to appoint powerful women models at all levels of leadership, and in numbers sufficient to show that it’s serious about the matter; to establish explicit teaching and policies about the appropriate response to abuse; to say it loud and say it often:

the church won’t tolerate abuse, and women and children should never submit to violent men. Never ever.

Day 1 of the cleansing

  It’s been a long time since I’ve documented my days, but for the sake of something to do I thought I might risk voyeurism and share something of a travel log of my holiday at Prince of Wales hospital.

Sorry if I’m repeating myself, but to bring newcomers up to speed, I’ve been in and out of POW over the last few weeks as a result of autonomic dysreflexia brought on by bowel care gone wrong – my fault not the carers. It’s been a boring but relatively easy stay, since after going to the toilet in the morning, Ive been healthy the rest of the day. I’ve felt like an interloper on a ward full of others who actually need to be here. 

The permanent solution to my problem is a colostomy, and the operation is set for next Tuesday. In addition, my doctor wants to poke a camera all the way up to the top of the small intestine, and for that reason he wants me completely empty. So from today I have seven days of bowel preparation. Today I start a clear fluid diet, then tomorrow I take a magic potion to get things flowing. And since my bum has a mind of its own, this means 6 days in bed incontinent. I guess this means I’ll no longer be an interloper. 

So I woke to my first meal: broth (hot water with a very faint chicken flavour), orange juice, black tea, strawberry jelly. Not too bad, really, although I suspect it will get harder eating the same fare three times a day. Truth be told, it’s better then the hospital food normally tastes!

Since this was to be my last day in my chair for awhile, I went out and about and decided to get myself a shave. There is something about having a barber shave you with a cut-throat that feels deliciously decadent, since It’s an intimate, pampering, service ( is this why women get their nails done). I was shaved by “razor” Sam, a handsome Middle Eastern man with a Tattoo of a pair of scissors on his neck (I’m guessing he has no plans to change his career). Using a shaving brush, he lathered my face for about five minutes, softening the skin in preparation for the cut. He then went to work with the blade, his face so close to mine that I could smell his cologne and breath, which was fortunately minty and fresh. He managed the job without a nick. With my grey beard gone, I’ve lost 10 years of age. Elly will be pleased to hear that I’m kissable again. 

I snapped a selfie of the shave, but my poor skills are in evident by the fact that the iPhone blocks the view.

  Lunch: broth (hot water with a very faint chicken flavour), orange juice, black tea, strawberry jelly. Are you seeing the theme here?

I had a quiet afternoon, sleeping a bit and reading. I’m spending some time with Lauren McGrow’s draft manuscript, missionary positions, which is exploring Christian ministry to sex workers. Lauren is a gifted writer and a radical, so the book is great fun. I love it when past students overtake you with the quality of their work.

Dinner: broth (hot water with a very faint beef flavour), orange juice, black tea, strawberry jelly. Did you notice the variation? I’ve also been allowed to have some jelly sweets. It seems that the basis for this meal plan is sugar – nothing but sugar. I’m starting to feel a desperate need to brush my teeth after every meal.

Well, that’s about it for day one. I think I’m going to delay getting out of my chair and into bed. I’m guessing I’ll be sick of lying down in the days to come.


Back to Paradise

I’ve just returned home after a five-day surprise visit to Prince of Wales hospital. I’ve been having problems with autonomic dysreflexia (AD) during my morning bowel routine (yes, I know, poo is something we don’t want to talk or think about, but when something goes wrong with the plumbing it’s a real pain in the butt). AD occurs when problems arise below the level of my spinal-cord injury, and it results in dangerously high blood pressure (BP) rises; in my case 255/135 when a normal BP is about 120/80. BP spikes of this type can cause strokes and bleeding on the brain, and since I quite like my brain, it’s a matter I had to take seriously.

So, a visit last Thursday to my spinal doctor to seek her advice resulted in me being readmitted to POW. After five days investigations, it’s been concluded that the issue should be solved by a colostomy that was already scheduled for 17 November (for a non-gross explanation of a colostomy, see this video here, and for a much more interesting video, see here – and Elly, I would advise you not to click). Truth be told, the idea of a colostomy is a bit icky, and I’m a little nervous about the whole thing, but I’m also looking forward to what should be a more efficient way of managing my waist. Sure, I’ll now have a bag for both wee and poo, but it should make my morning routine less complicated (providing, of course, that nothing goes wrong).

Anyway, I was sent home from hospital last night with some drugs to get me through till the op without brain damage.

I’ve been asked by a couple of people what it was like to be back at POW. I guess it felt a little bit like returning home – maybe like returning to a foster home with parents that you mostly liked, but were still pleased to have escaped from. There were some fantastic people involved with my care and rehab five years ago, and some of them are still there, so it was nice to catch up– and once again I was well looked after. Even so, I was pretty keen to keep the visit short. The food is still intolerable (I refused to eat it, buying meals and eating “bring ins”), and hospitals are noisy places. And since the doctors had me up at 5 AM to check my blood pressure hourly thereafter, I became drastically short of sleep. So it was more than nice to return to my own bed.

I also felt like the wise old man in the ward, and I hope I didn’t come across as smug. It was full, as usual, of mostly men (I only encountered a single female patient). They were all friendly, but were facing all the difficulties of adjusting to life changing injuries; struggling with uncertainty, hope, frustration, depression, determination, and the wide range of emotional ups and downs that goes with the early months of sci. I was thankful to be a little further down the track. There was some satisfaction in being able to answer questions and provide a little bit of hope that things will get better and life will go on.

it’s great to be home. Of course in a couple of weeks I’ll be back inside (for about five days) to undergo the procedure for the colostomy. I reckon I can face up to a stint as short as that.

Not quite what I'll look like after the operation.
Not quite what I’ll look like after the operation.

Joseph Prince, distorted grace, and mental illness

It’s World Mental Health Day on Saturday, a day intended to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by providing mental health education, awareness, and advocacy. I thought I might contribute to those goals by highlighting the destructive attitudes to mental illness that are far too common in contemporary charismatic Christianity; the view that mental illness is a result of lack of faith and can be completely healed by right believing and thinking (an idea mirrored by positive thinking proponents in secular society).

PrinceTo that end I will focus on the message of Joseph Prince, particularly as set out in his New York Times bestselling book The Power of Right Believing: 7 Keys to Freedom from Fear, Guilt, and Addiction.

The book is directed at people suffering mental illness; those “bound by severe insecurities, trapped by eating disorders, or gripped by constant fears and recurring panic attacks…, held captive by years of chronic depression, fighting suicidal thoughts that stripped them from their ability to function in their everyday lives…, caught in in the destructive cycle of addiction” and so on. Prince is certainly to be applauded for addressing mental illness, a topic that often goes unacknowledged in society in general and the church in particular. Unfortunately, the approach that he takes – to set faith over and against psychological treatment – is flagged on the first page:

They all long for freedom and have tried everything, including psychological and psychiatric treatment.… Many of become financially drained from seeing psychiatrist after psychiatrist, doctor after doctor, counsellor after counsellor, spending thousands of dollars every month on consultation fees. They’ve taken all types of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, in addition to trying quick fixes of every imaginable kind. And they are no better.

Thereafter, in a book almost 400 pages long, Prince makes no reference to the insight of experts in the field of mental health, and instead relies on simplistic and slogan-esque strategies that he insists will enable us to walk in divine health, both physical and psychological. The logic that frames the entire book is the insistence that the answer to mental illness is belief:

Right believing always produces right living. If you believe right, you will live right.

In referencing right belief Prince is not referring to theological categories, but to beliefs about God’s grace and favour toward us. Prince is well known for his emphasis on grace, which he defines as “unearned, undeserved, and unmerited favour.” And many people have felt liberated by his insistence that divine grace frees us from condemnation and religious obligation.

The problem is not his assertion that grace is unmerited, but that he misrepresents grace by connecting it to prosperity and complete health.

His principal metaphor for understanding grace draws on the idea of God as father – as “Daddy God.” For Prince, God is like a sugar daddy, who gives his children everything they want, ask for, and believe in. If you can “play the right mental movie” and learn to see as God sees, then breakthrough is certain. As he repeats, again and again, “The key is to receive his grace as unmerited favour and believe that same unmerited favour is what transforms you.” Or looked at the other way round, “the hindrance then between you and your victory is your wrong beliefs. The battle has to do with your beliefs. This is why when you start believing right, you will step into your breakthrough.”

Prince may well emphasise grace, but it’s a distorted grace. Grace is not the promise of perfect mental health, but the radical idea that God is present in the good times and the bad, in and through our suffering, even at those times when he seems most absent.

What is readily apparent throughout The Power of Right Believing is that Prince has no understanding of mental illness and addiction, no awareness of its myriad causes, and no knowledge of the complex medicinal and psychological strategies that will help a person (and their family) to manage (not cure) the lifelong challenge of living with the illness.

The book recounts story after story of people that have experienced total freedom, almost always after they have listened to Prince’s sermons or read his books. Some of these stories are plainly absurd – such as one businesswoman who prayed for a rise in the Dow Jones sharemarket index, and a few hours later the index had risen by 18%. But almost all of them are reductionist. There are no stories telling of the complex and recurring hardships of people with severe depression, bipolar disorder, debilitating anxiety and so on, except where right belief has facilitated complete freedom. But anyone who’s been involved with the real-life of people with a mental illness will recognise how unrealistic these stories are.

Prince’s promises are explicit:

I promise you that sin, addictions, bad habits, fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, and any condemnation will drop off from your life when you’re absorbed and occupied with the person of Jesus. They simply cannot coexist in your life when you’re occupied with Christ and not yourself.”

What he believes he is doing in promoting this message of grace is freeing people from condemnation, but his insistence that a life of faith entails perfect mental (and physical) health ads failed faith to the suffering of people with mental illness. This is because the very nature of that illness is that sufferers are unable to control their thought processes; so Prince’s remedy is inevitably unworkable. In his boringly repetitious advocacy of right believing – of taking control of our mental images – Prince reveals his complete failure to understand the illness for which he is recommending a simplistic cure.

You might wonder whether I’m being too harsh? Perhaps I am. After all, isn’t Prince’s message of grace liberating even if overstated? Maybe it is. Isn’t there obvious truth to the general principle that thinking rightly about God’s grace will improve our thought processes and have a positive impact on our life? Well, Yes. But even so, the hardship of mental illness is too substantive, and the number of people affected too many, to allow a message of distorted grace to go unchallenged. Rather than slogans, the church needs to be a place where people suffering with mental illness are accepted, understood, valued, encouraged to seek professional help, and supported through the crises that are likely to recur over the long run. Insisting on a person’s healing and providing unrealistic promises isn’t grace.The church mediates grace only when it become a community that embraces people that suffer.


Shane Clifton is Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. his memoir, Husbands Should Not Break, reflects upon On the challenges of adjusting to an accident that left him a quadriplegic. It is a reflection on loss, disability, faith, and the possibility of happiness in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.


Grab life by the scruff of the neck.

It’s been five years today since my accident; mid-afternoon on 7 October 2010 my life changed irrevocably. Elly and I don’t know whether we should commiserate or celebrate. Are we remembering the day I broke my neck, or the day I survived?

I like to think I’m an honest blogger, but like everyone, the truth is I put on a show. I’m reluctant to leave the impression that things are tough, because whiners are boring and sympathy is overrated.

But I will admit I found the recent October long weekend hard. The weather was spectacular and everyone on the east coast of Oz was at the beach. Saturday I moped around the house. Sunday morning I went to church (they had put up with me preaching), before returning to home to brood away the afternoon.  Monday we took the family to the beach. I know I should have been content, enjoying the frolicking of the kids and marvelling at the strangeness of the sea of half naked human bodies, but I couldn’t get past the fact that watching others in the surf, when you can’t join them, is a form of torture.

As I said, whiners are boring.

If the perspective of life post injury allows me to give you some advice, let me commend you to take the opportunities to enjoy life while you can. Don’t waste time in front of the computer, since there’ll be occasion enough for that when decrepitude sets in. Get outside. Climb a mountain.  Surf a wave. Run a marathon. Go camping. Smash a golf ball. Stand up to a bully. Swing on a rope. Jump off a cliff (carefully). Step under a waterfall. Ride a bike. Wrestle the kids. Hug someone you love. Enjoy an orgasm.

As the ancient poet reminds us:

Scale back your long hopes

to a short period. While we
speak, time is envious and

is running away from us.
Seize the day, trusting
little in the future.

Horace, 65 B.C.E.

Or the prophet Isaiah 22:13 (admittedly, taken out of context):

But see, there is joy and revelry,
    eating of meat and drinking of wine!
“Let us eat and drink,” you say,
    “for tomorrow we die!”

Of course there is truth here for me also, and for those of you who find yourself similarly restricted. We can whine by all means, but then let’s move on, because life is too short to waste it complaining. Laugh with a friend. Listen to a symphony. Drink fine wine. Savour an aged whiskey. Read a novel (or my memoir). Play chess with the kids. Tell someone you love them.

Grab life by the scruff of the neck, because it is short, and fragile, and you’d just don’t know which day will be your last.

Shane Clifton, jump off a cliff while you can

NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church

I thought you might appreciate a small extract from my recently published article, “NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church.” if you would like to read the whole thing, you can download it on the following link:

Shane Clifton, “NDIS, the disabled voice, and the church.” St Mark’s review, No. 232 (July 2015): 65 –80.

I highly recommend you consider buying the full edition of the journal, which includes seminal riders on disability (see here).

But for all you young people who are incapable of reading more than a few hundred words (I know, it’s bad form to berate your audience, but you know I’m right), here is an extract. It follows my my encouragement to “amplify the disabled voice,” and focuses on the skills and opportunities of listening:

Amplifying voice is not just about giving people opportunity to speak, but it also means that we need to learn to listen. People with disabilities are routinely required to listen to others, “forced to listen to experts about their lives, instead of being listened to, not least as experts on themselves.” This is as true of preachers as it is the medical establishment. We are told from the pulpit about sin and its consequences, and the value of forgiveness and grace, but these are topics about which people with disabilities are experts – if for no other reason than that they are constantly needing to forgive us for excluding them!

To hear their expertise we will need to pick up new skills, and examine ourselves as to whether we are open to hear. Listening is a challenge. We have a tendency to prejudge people, and then to hear what we expected to hear. We are more likely, for example, to treat good-looking people as smart, and assume that those in wheelchairs, or with some obvious physical disability or speech impediment, are less intelligent, and so discount what they have to say.

Disability also has the potential to make communication challenging, so we may need to learn new methods of listening. Gerard Goggin, for example, notes that listening to people with severe communication impairments will require us “to indicate clearly and frequently whether or not we have understood. Listening here involves the negotiation of uncertainty – with the potential of exposure as being an inadequate, unresponding, or uncomprehending listener.” In facing up to the challenge, however, we get a small insight into the humility and frustration, as well as the strength and determination, that is a part of the everyday experience of people who struggle to talk, hear, see, and so on.

In the concrete everyday activities of the local church, facilitating communication will require creativity. Again, churches are used to one-way communication, from the pulpit to a silent congregation. But what if the decision to amplify disabled voices generated a revolution in how we understand preaching, teaching, and sharing in the church? Is a pulpit and people seated in rows really the best way to communicate? Might replacing sermons with onstage conversation model our theologies of the priesthood of all believers? What other forums or technologies might we introduce to hear the disabled voice, and more broadly, to open ourselves to the diverse spiritual insights of congregations as a whole?

St Mark's review