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.

the-virgin-at-prayer-il-sassoferrato

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.

21 thoughts on “Domestic abuse and theologies of control and submission

      1. Awesome article Shane. I have wondered this same question regarding Christian men and women and the idealogy that women must submit to their husbands.
        My best friend suffered an abusive marriage for 18years at the hands of a “good Christian man” he held a responsible position as a teacher at a Christian school in the SW of Sydney. You would likely know him through your own childrens schooling… Often they are right under our own noses but we would never know… My best friend was subjected to many years of psychological emotional and sexual abuse. She is a very brave woman and left him a few years ago . She was in danger as well , after she left him . The extent of his harrassment and abuse was such that she was keeping everything diarised, she told me where she kept the diaries hidden just in case he murdered her , I would be able to give them to the police. She stayed with him for many reasons (as abused women do) but mainly because of the wrong theology she had regarding what a Christian marriage should look like. She was the wife , her husband told her that to submit to him was the Godly thing to do and even took scripture out of context to manipulate and control her.
        He has wounded her so deeply that although she is now away from him , the scars are evident. She has turned to drugs and another abusive relationship. She has all but turned her back on God and the church. It makes me so angry and yes I was extremely moved by the ABC Doc #HittingHome .
        What can we do?

    1. no violence in a relationship is appropriate. But the data is conclusive – by far and away the majority of domestic violent cases is perpetrated by men against women. of course, if violence occurs the other way around, or any gay relationship, or so forth, it is equally abhorrent.

      1. Shane. You have correctly quoted a large number of women killed within a family framework. However, its implied that all of those women were killed by men. 78 women were not killed by their male partners, or ex partners.

        Over 27 of these women were killed by other women.Some of these killed women were living in same sex relationships and killed by their female partners. Others were killed by daughters, nieces, granddaughters, mothers, aunts, sisters and grandmothers.

        On average, 1 woman a week is killed by a partner or ex partner…and this is way to high. At the same time, on average, 1 man every 10 days is killed by a partner or ex partner…and again, this is just way to high.

      2. Craig you are very predictable in your response to this topic. I knew before posting what you’d say. Why not simple agree that violence against women is abhorrent and note that violence against men is equally so. This post was a response to a documentary on domestic violence against women. Hence that was the focus.

      3. Shane, yes, I will always stand up for truth. When you consider that 1/3 of the women you quoted were killed by other women…that is not a insignificant statistic.

  1. Awesome article. Such thought provoking questions. Having walked the long scary abusive walk with my best friend who was married to “a good Christian man” , I can absolutely relate to the comments that you have made about the church and the wrong twisted theology that christian men default to when they want to control , manipulate and hurt their wives. My friend is free after 18years from that abusive toxic marriage, however she is not free from the scars of the torment and psychological damage that he inflicted on her. Those wounds go deep. She has all but walked away from God. But we know that without Him whole complete healing never comes.

  2. I sit on the board of The Lisa Harnum Foundation (www.lisahf.org.au). Thank you for this. We see the consequences of power being asserted over women and children every day and we just can’t seem to stem the tide. Physical violence is only one aspect of intimidation. The psychological intimidation and trauma that women and children are suffering is the great unspoken, unreported and unaddressed. Thank you for speaking out with gentleness and compassion.

  3. Thanks, Shane–I appreciated reading your thoughts here. I am interested in why you think it’s a fact that “violence has it’s origin in unequal power” though? In the context of your post here it strikes me as a theologically significant statement, and I wonder what your basing it on.

  4. Great comments shane,
    Bringing this issue into focus and open dialogue provides opportunity for those suffereing domestic violence a voice and perspective. A believe a “servant savior” attitude as evidenced in Jesus is the model christian men should apply to their relationships.

  5. Yes! I was encouraged this week to see how far the media and society have come in recognising this issue. The problem hasn’t changed since I started working in the field 8 years ago, but finally people are talking about it, which is a huge step in the right direction.
    But alongside of feeling encouraged I thought, “what about the church?”. I’m wrestling with how to get people to see the links between power, entitlement and abuse, and submission and silence. And don’t get me started on teachings about ‘modesty’.

    Anyway, before I get too passionate and type out an essay in the comments (too late?) I have to thank you for pointing me in the right direction several years ago, Shane. When you spoke about egalitarianism as part of a panel at church, the penny dropped for me, and the inklings of discomfort I’d had around complementarian teaching all made sense.

    So thanks and please keep talking about it, I’m sure there are many out there who have just never heard an alternative to the complementarian view.

  6. Great comments Shane. Thank you for bringing this issue out into the open, especially in Christian circles. It needs to be exposed and dealt with.
    However, from a theological point of view, I’m interested in you teasing out the concept of the origin of violence. As mentioned by Joshua above, you said “violence has it’s origin in unequal power” …. do you think you could improve on that definition ? 🙂 Perhaps “violence has it’s origin in abusive power” or something else with a stronger biblical foundation. I think of the origin of evil and the way Satan tried to “de-god God” (a Don Carson phrase), how he brought violence into heaven and accused the perfect, faithful, all good, all powerful One of a malignant character. It was a lie. He lied about God, tempted and lured other angelic beings to revolt with him, and then repeated his tactics with the human race later. The violent are cowardly beings, normally jealous of other people’s powers or gifts, and therefore have to try to exercise their “superiority” over them to make them feel good about themselves. It is pathetic and ignoble. It is rooted in a spirit of rejection: rejection of God’s love and goodness. Then often poor hapless victims receive this spirit into their beings by the mistreatment of others, and then go on to abuse and treat others badly too &/or self loathe or self destruct. And so the cycle of violence repeats itself. This is unless and until they get help and healing. On the other hand, strong loving men (or women) feel no need for such treacherous acts ….. I’d be interested to hear yours and others’ comments about the origin of violence, from a biblical viewpoint ………..

    1. I was using the term “origin” in a much more colloquial fashion. That is to say, my point wasn’t to establish an historical or theological basis for the “origin” of abuse (that’s a task beyond this particular blog post), but rather, to make a general statement that abuse occurs in situations of unequal power. This is not to suggest that every hierarchical relationship results in abuse – clearly that’s not the case. But it is the case that domestic abuse is about the exercise of control over women and children who are supposed to submit to that control.
      So I guess I’d answer your question – about the origin of violence from a biblical viewpoint – by saying my blog post just wasn’t about that question. Theologically, it’s enough to say that the violence of abuse is a consequence of and an expression of sin. I might add that patriarchy (male control and rule) is attributed in the scriptures to the fall (Genesis 316). That is to say, patriarchy is a consequence of sin.

  7. Ok, just getting around to reading your response now Shane … I have been away on a Bonhoeffer Conference. Granted, your blog post was not about the origin of violence from a biblical viewpoint, but I don’t think it is an irrelevant topic to what you are talking about here. You say that “abuse occurs in situations of unequal power” but thankfully you go on to say that not all hierarchical relationships result in abuse, which of course is true. i.e. A good parent exercises loving leadership over their children. But your statement assumes that the one with the greater power is the only one who is capable of “abusing” it, and that is not the case either, although it is predominantly the norm….. i.e. a subordinate can seek to usurp a leader’s authority in a way that is not justified, or a child can “rule the roost” at home. Also you talk about domestic abuse only in terms of men dominating women and children (which I agree is totally abhorrent and generally the most common abuse of power), but it does also happen the other way around too, albeit in different ways. I totally agree with your statement that “the violence of abuse is a consequence and an expression of sin”. My point is that it is not always attached to gender, nor is it always the sin of the “more powerful” that is in question ……… I hope that all makes sense ……

  8. Just tried an interesting experiment. Searched for any depiction of Mary with eyes forward and head up…I don’t think one exists…

    If you search for ‘powerful woman’ the majority of images you will get I suggest are designed to look sexually provotative and enticing.

    It feels telling that it is hard in our society to depict a woman as powerful, without making it about sexual desirability. You are either demure, virginal and passive, or powerful, seductive and unholy. Between rock and hard place. The Madonna/Whore dichotomy hasn’t died, in society or in the church. And young women and men often struggle to interact with each other in a wholesome, respectful manner, because power has often been modeled as something you exercise over another (generally man over woman but it could be between any parties) and violence becomes the means of resolving conflict and maintaining power.

    As an egalitarian community, empowered by the Spirit, the Church must demonstrate mutual submission and love. Sadly, many use the text of the Bible to defend a claim to power (calling it authority does not change what it is). The story of Scripture demonstrates that the only being truly entitled to all power surrenders it time and again in the creation of free beings, and in the humiliation and sacrifice of self for the redemption of all.

    Can someone please paint us some new icons?

    1. there are some out there – modern Art Mary’s. I think there’s nothing wrong with Mary being sexual – I quite like the idea that Mary was a sensual person. She did, after all, have a bunch of kids, and presumably she had some fun bringing that about.

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