Domestic Violence: Congress, the NFL, and the Church

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’ve struggled for several weeks to wrap my head around what I might say in this column to try to unpack this complex issue. Until recently my exposure to domestic violence had been primarily intellectual. However, the past few weeks have brought me closer to some of the grim realities domestic violence victims face as I’ve been assisting a friend in an abusive marriage as she seeks support.

Though I acknowledge that anyone can be a victim of abuse, I want to use my time here to talk specifically about women, who are disproportionately affected by violence and who live with the consequences of a patriarchal society, which reveres violence, shames women, and perpetuates power imbalances.

Let me give you an example – Last month I participated in an interfaith lobby day on the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). I was pleasantly surprised to hear from many Congressional offices that they do not oppose the bill – in fact –  if it comes to the floor, they’re likely to support it. Yet most offices refused to cosponsor the legislation or work to ensure that the bill receives a vote this term. Why?

“Because of staffing and resources, we don’t have the bandwidth to work on this right now,” staffers told me. “This just isn’t a priority for the Senator right now.”

I-VAWA is a good and needed bill that would permanently authorize some of our best international programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. There’s not much opposition to the law, and yet it still might not pass this term because our politicians refuse to be champions of the issue and move legislation forward.

That’s the problem with ending violence against women. It just isn’t a priority right now. Women’s bodies, women’s safety, and women’s lives: they’re just not a priority right now.

oct-2014-quote1-200px.gifWomen’s bodies are still seen as a tool we can leverage in politics. Programs designed to protect women are perpetually under-resourced, and they’re among the first programs to be scaled back in a budget crisis. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which already misses thousands of calls per year due to limited resources, received twice its average number of calls in the days after the Ray Rice full video leak. This, too, has been my friend’s reality. She went to five legal clinics before she found a lawyer who could represent her in court. She had to wait a week and a half before she could get an appointment with a domestic violence counselor. She’s on a waiting list for a shelter that may take several weeks, and she’s lucky enough that she has supportive friends with whom she can stay in the meantime. Many women stay with or return to their abusers because they face inadequate or delayed support from their social network and the services put in place to assist them.

The recent actions of Ray Rice and other athletes have finally put the issue of domestic violence on the lips of most Americans. Most of us are outraged at the way the NFL has handled this particular case and its long history of covering up or ignoring domestic abuse and other forms of violence within its ranks. And yet, the root of the problem comes from somewhere far outside of the NFL.

Such sensationalized stories provide a target for our anger, and a way to distance ourselves from the reality that domestic violence permeates our lives whether or not we are intimately aware of its presence. We believe the fallacy that this is an “us vs. them” problem: I’m not an abuser, my friends aren’t abusers, I would never stay with an abuser, she needs to leave him, the NFL need to take this more seriously and put a stop to the abuse. We think it could never happen to us or our loved ones, and we’re even less inclined to think that our loved ones could be the ones perpetrating acts of violence. But most abuse happens behind closed apartment doors, not behind elevator doors with security cameras. Most abuse goes unreported.

While I agree the NFL needs to take domestic violence much more seriously, I’m even more disturbed by the Church’s complicit and, at times active engagement, in a culture that covers up and perpetuates such violence. Faith leaders frequently shame women for their decisions, often refusing to recognize divorce or adhering far too literally to scriptures about love and forgiveness, which encourage women to stay with their abusers.

oct-2014-quote2-200px.gifThis has to stop.

The church must be a safe place for victims to share their stories and seek support. The Church can play a role in ending domestic violence and has a responsibility to do so. Houses of worship and faith leaders are often the first places people turn when dealing with a crisis. We may not know their faces, but victims and batterers alike sit in our pews and worship within our walls. Whether we want to be or not, the Church is at the front lines of this issue.

Jesus was a radical leader in his time, shaking cultural norms at their very core and demanding drastic shifts of power in leadership, society, and the synagogue. Rather than blaming women for their choices or their circumstances, he stood with them and defended them against their accusers. He invited historically marginalized people to be his disciples, to eat with him, to work by his side as he transformed the world. It’s long past time for the Church to follow Jesus’ model and make a serious investment in ending domestic violence. It’s time for the Church to make women a priority.


If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please seek help immediately. You can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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