The Evil Among Us: Helping Youth Leaders Identify and Address Domestic Abuse
The majority of Christians who are not abuse survivors would like to believe that the evil of domestic abuse isn’t in our midst. They’d like to believe that it’s only kids in outreach programs who have abusive homes, not any of the kids in our churches. And for those other kids, if we can just bring them—and possibly their families—to Jesus, redemption and rescue will follow, and the abuse will cease. If Christian parents are periodically abusive, God will solve the problem if they’re coming to church and hearing the Gospel.
Who abuses children? Parents, teachers, family, friends, babysitters, Sunday school teachers, police officers, ministers, youth workers—domestic abuse crosses all socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, educational, age, gender, and religious lines. It’s just as likely to occur in wealthy homes as in blue-collar homes; just as likely to occur in Anglo homes as in Asian, Latino, Native American, or African American; just as likely to occur in Christian homes as it is in non-Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, or Mormon homes.
95% of victims are women or children. But by no means are men always the perpetrators, nor are husbands exempt from suffering domestic abuse. It does happen in reverse—usually emotional or verbal abuse (which is the hardest to spot and address)—though sometimes physical abuse as well. And children experience the full spectrum of abuse from mothers as well as from fathers.
Some of the doctrines and beliefs we frequently address have actually perpetuated the cycle of domestic abuse among us. While most of the teachings I’m about to mention have validity in proper context, for abuse victims these doctrines and beliefs can be deadly to their safety, deadly to their souls, and deadly to their relationship with God. Furthermore, the ways these tenets of faith are most frequently communicated further alienate abuse victims from God and cause victims to remain victimized.
Obedience and Authority
In most evangelical churches, there is a strong emphasis on obedience to God. In more fundamentalist churches, obedience, authority, and headship are interconnected: God is the ultimate authority; the husband is the spiritual head of the home; the wife and children are to defer to the authority of the husband/father; and as the spiritual head of the household, the husband/father speaks for God.
Implications of hierarchy have kept more women and children in life-threatening situations than almost any other doctrinal teaching. It reinforces the notion that abuse by the husband/father is caused by wrongdoings of the wife and/or children who provoked his anger and discipline. This is precisely how abusers, and many Christians who don’t understand the dynamics of abuse, portray it. Scriptural misrepresentation and selective use of Scriptures by abusers further reinforce this scenario. Abusers make the rules and proclaim the rules to be God’s, so questioning the rules or the abuser’s authority equals questioning God. Victims don’t want to be out of God’s will, so they submit…as they are told the Scriptures require of them.
Obedience to—and compliance with—this hierarchy of authority also serve to make victims vulnerable to abuse from authority figures outside the family (teachers, policemen, clergy, etc.). Remember: domestic abuse isnever about anger or discipline. It’s always about power and control.
Forgiveness is vital in its proper context, but somehow the message of forgiveness has been horribly distorted. We’re overly focused on praying for our enemies and forgiving those who hurt us whether or not there is any change in actions or behavior. This teaching causes abuse victims to believe the apologies of their abusers and their professions that the abuse won’t happen anymore. With abused children, it reinforces that they’re powerless and that God requires them to love and forgive the people who are hurting them, regardless of whether there has been intervention or justice. Christians too frequently want to hurry forgiveness along. For abuse victims, forgiveness may take a lifetime…if it happens at all. Actually, I don’t believe pure evil requires forgiveness in order for a victim of abuse to experience full healing.
It’s certainly true that in its proper context, forgiveness is often more powerful and healing for the forgiver than for the one forgiven. Our inability to forgive gets in the way of our relationship with Christ. Unfortunately, when abuse victims search themselves and find they’re unable to forgive, it only heightens their shame and feelings of alienation from and unacceptability to God. When abuse victims are made to feel that the only way they can experience healing is to forgive their abusers, and when well-meaning Christians try to usher that process through, the damage to the abuse victim’s relationship with God is devastating. Rather than preaching forgiveness to the abuse victim, we should leave that process up to Jesus.
Young women are still taught (at the very least, it’s implied) that men have uncontrollable sexual desires, and that Christian females are not to dress or act in a way that would cause their Christian brothers to stumble—i.e. to inspire lust. This means, of course, that if advances are made, young women have brought it on themselves. The truth is that at some point during or after the abuse, all abuse victims have been made to believe that abuse is their fault at some point during or after the abuse. With female sexual abuse victims, this teaching about lust, implied or stated, strongly underscores the belief that they’ve somehow brought about their own abuse.
Often, overly provocative attire or behavior in females may be an indicator of having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age or at the present time. The opposite is also true; a female going out of her way to be dowdy and unattractive may be trying to desexualize herself because she’s internalized that being sexually attractive is what caused her violation.
Emphasis on sexual purity and abstinence is a huge issue for sexual abuse victims. We tout virginity as a hallmark of young people’s devotion to God. What does that say to abuse victims who may well have been virgins before they were abused? They weren’t devoted enough—if they’d just loved God a little more, this wouldn’t have happened? Victims often internalize that they have “fornicated” and are no longer able to proclaim their devotion to God, and therefore when the abuse continues or another abuser comes along, they think they deserve it.
Childhood sexual abuse victims have extreme guilt over their “participation” in the abuse. Often they’re carrying tremendous shame over the fact that there were some aspects of it that they enjoyed. Some of it (especially with young children) felt pleasurable or made them feel loved and special, which only heightens their shame and sense of God’s rejection once they’re old enough to understand what’s been happening and come face to face with their abuse. A young teen who’s beginning to explore his or her sexuality and sexual attractiveness may feel severe guilt when an adult comes along who exploits those feelings, and perhaps the teen enjoys some of his or her own response (i.e., feeling grown up, perhaps experiencing orgasm, perhaps even thinking he or she is “choosing” to have sexual relations with an adult).
When abuse gets reframed as something the victims caused, participated in by “choice,” or enjoyed on some level—and then they hear that their virginity is synonymous with their devotion to God—the implications to a victim’s current and future faith are staggering. It’s not that we shouldn’t encourage sexual purity and abstinence, but we must be aware that there are kids in our groups who are hearing this with different ears, and the concept of “secondary virginity” doesn’t cut it—especially if they’re in active sexually abusive situations, and often even if the sexual abuse is “in their past.”
Forgiveness for choosing to have sexual relations with one of their peers is much easier to comprehend than forgiveness for having unwanted (or “wanted”) sexual relations with an adult who has convinced them they somehow invited it, or that they brought it upon themselves. And make no mistake—there are plenty of teen-aged children who think they are “choosing” to “love” the adult who is abusing them. Those adults are predators. I don’t care how grown up and sexual children appear to be or how vocal they are about “choosing” to be sexual with that adult. It is adult-to-child sexual abuse. Period.
Sometimes God requires us to suffer: God is chastising us, teaching us something, or testing our faith; one day, we’ll understand our suffering and all will be turned to good.
To abuse victims, this teaching reinforces the notion that their suffering is caused by unconfessed sin in their lives, and as soon as they discover what that sin is and confess it, the suffering will cease. Or, it reinforces the notion that God calls them to “remain and endure” in order for their suffering to be rewarded, to discover its hidden meaning, or to prove their faith in God.
Be extremely careful. Imagine if victims in your group hear that the suffering they are experiencing is just “part of life, part of God’s plan,” or that they’re lacking faith, but that their suffering will somehow turn out to be for the good of the Kingdom or the glory of God if only they are steadfast.
We’re taught that God is bigger than every problem; there’s nothing outside of God’s power; Jesus can fix all that’s broken and awry in our lives; a loving God cares deeply for us, about every hair on our heads.
The ramification of this is the ultimate source of abuse victims’ deepest spiritual brokenness and rage. Why doesn’t God protect or rescue me? Why didn’t God hear my prayers; weren’t they good enough? Maybe there is no God. I guess my faith isn’t strong enough. Maybe I’ve already gone to hell. Where was God when this happened to me? God obviously didn’t or doesn’t care enough about me, otherwise why would this be allowed to happen to me and to my family? For abuse victims, these questions are never answered.
When abuse victims/survivors hear “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done…” it immediately gets translated into “It doesn’t matter what your abuser has done.” Be careful. Grace can be a powerful ally in helping abuse victims, or it can be just another stone around their necks.
The emotional, behavioral, and spiritual outcomes of the misrepresentation of these tenets can be dire. They include depressive or dissociative disorders, suicide or murder, substance abuse, promiscuity, other high-risk behavior, ultra-conservative religious beliefs, or simply walking away from God. And sometimes our misguided responses only add to the list:
We Ignore It
We’re much too quick to believe the denial, the cover up, the retraction, or the profession that it’s been straightened out. Abusers always deny, apologize, and cover it up if someone gets close to sniffing it out.
We Make Uninformed or Naïve Assumptions
We assume that the best help for families in trouble must come from Christian counselors, Christian books, and Christian education; otherwise, essential elements of faith may be compromised. The hard truth is that it’s much more important for people to get good counseling that it is for them to get Christian counseling.
Don’t make the fatal (and it really could be) mistake of trying to “talk to” suspected abusers yourself. Abuse gets worse if the victim tells. The abuse goes further underground, and victims are driven to recant. If you confront abusers, they’ll cut you off from their children. They may even get you fired. Or they’ll withdraw, disappear, and take their families with them. And their children will be worse off than before.
We’re Simplistic or Superficial
We nobly “respect confidentiality” and try to help the people deal with the problem in secrecy. Sometimes we give both victims and their abusers simplistic answers: claim the victory, accept Jesus, and turn your life over to him; you’re a new person in Christ; it’s all under the blood; the slate is washed clean; you’re born again; you can start again today. Abusers are notorious for claiming “life change,” only to repeat the abuse.
We Believe in Total Immersion
We take the role of rescuer and jump in whole hog without stopping to realize how long the long haul can be. Abuse victims are terribly needy and often very draining. If we’re not careful, before we know it, we burn out and abandon ship. Ultimately, this can be worse than if we’d done nothing at all.
More Appropriate Responses
So what can we do? Stop shying away from the issue. We have to find opportunities to raise the issue in our sermons, lessons, conversations, and group prayer times. Abuse victims aren’t likely to trust someone enough to share their situations unless the issue has been raised repeatedly. It has to become part of the regular topics you’re already teaching and addressing, such as: sex, love, dating, marriage, sin, forgiveness, divorce, parents and family, self esteem, and the will of God.
You can also help this along by appealing to your senior pastor to address the issue from the pulpit, and by finding out if there are opportunities for your youth group to volunteer at shelters or crisis centers. If not (and there are usually safety and confidentiality reasons for this), then incorporate domestic violence shelters into your food/clothing/toiletries drives. In any way possible, let your kids know that this is a very real issue, and one with which you are concerned.
We have to get educated enough to recognize abuse’s subtle symptoms in our kids and their families. Educate yourselves as thoroughly as possible. It would be disastrous to get you fired up to address this issue before you have a network in place. Contact your local social services and domestic violence agencies. Find out what kind of training is available.
Check out your local Child Protective Services agency. Meet with a CPS worker for coffee periodically and develop a relationship with one or more workers in case you need them. Find out which therapists they think are particularly skilled at dealing with abuse victims and go talk to them. Introduce yourself to your service agencies and begin a dialogue. Begin building a bridge between your church and social services. Offer to be on call for kids in shelters who have questions about God. Consider starting a foster program or a shelter within your church. Buy books on the subject, read up on abuse wherever you can, learn the dynamics of the cycle, and go online and research. Learn what the laws are in your state about mandated reporting and what happens when you do. Also find out what happens if an abuser is reported to law enforcement. What are the criteria for arrest?
Finally, you can check out these resources for further help:
Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know, Rev. Al Miles, Augsburg Fortress, 2000
No Place For Abuse: Biblical & Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence, Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark, InterVarsity Press, 2001
When Violence Begins At Home: A Coprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse, (Chapter 11 is specific to faith issues) K.J. Wilson, Hunter House 1997
Abuse and Religion: When Praying Isn’t Enough, Anne L. Horton and Judith A. Williamson, editors. Lexington Books (Macmillan) 1988
Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Herald Press, 1993 (available through Christians for Biblical Equality, Minneapolis, MN)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.