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.