You are loved, you are beautiful;
You are God's gift, a new creation.
You are a gift to humankind,
God's gift of love to us.
You are loved;
God danced the day you were born.
This little song was sung to us pilgrims by the team that conducted the Walk to Emmaus I attended many years ago. I could not find any attribution for it; my current community does not use it. I believe it is a paraphrase of the original, which was in Spanish and which I've never heard. But whatever its provenance, I still treasure the concept of God's delight in each new human creation.
Today is my 48th birthday. That's not especially significant, considering the number of people in the world and the number of days in a year. It merely marks the beginning of the 49th such round of days in my life. Yet it IS an annual occurence, when it is appropriate to consider the course of my life to this point, thank God for what has been and entrust to God what is to come.
I bring this up and this song came to mind because a remarkable woman, with whom I'm acquainted only through Better Bibles Blog, has told a much more compelling story there, a story of her birth from out of a living death. Her story, though much different from mine, has had me thinking for hours now about the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth we sometimes experience in this life. I'm not talking about the resurrection from the dead, nor about our physical emergence from the womb into the world. I'm talking about the resurrection/rebirth OF the living from out of a hellish existence that really can't be called life.
This hell is "domestic" violence (a phrase that is far too pretty for the reality it inadequately describes). It happens to children, and women, and men, at the hands of both men and women. It can be subtly (or not-so-subtly) non-physical, or grossly physical. It can involve sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, or any combination of these. The common factor in this all-too-common atrocity is the willful misuse of another human being by one who, by virtue of the family relationship, is supposed to love the one whom he or she is abusing. Domestic abuse cuts across all kinds of societal lines: economic, educational level, ethnic, and religious. Speaking now to my fellow Christian readers, we can and indeed must call domestic abuse by its real identity: willful, chosen sin.
I won't summarize the Better Bibles Blog entries and subsequent comments here. It's far more powerful to read about it there. What I am led to do here at "my place" is to tell a little about why it's so important for those of us who've inhabited that kind of nightmare to tell the truth about it. In doing so, we show a different side of what the BBB entry was about in the first place: BEING the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are observing what Christians do, over and above what we say.
Virtually all children, and many adult, victims of abuse at the hands of a relative or household member, believe they deserve what's happening to them. They have the idea, often deliberately taught by the abuser, that if they would only "behave better" or "submit" or "know their place," the abuser wouldn't "have to" beat/berate/rape/molest/humiliate/otherwise abuse the victim. They often have no one they can tell. Churches have a dismal track record of believing those who report domestic abuse, and an even worse record of doing anything effective to stop the abuse. Law enforcement involvement rarely results in the abuser being kept away from the abused party, and can trigger an escalation of the violence once the abuser is reunited with the victim. Friends may commiserate, but often know of no resources to get help for the victim. And abusers often threaten further abuse if the victim tells anyone. If the victim is the spouse, the children may be threatened, if they're not already being abused. An adult may threaten to harm a sibling or a pet if the child victim tells; this is especially common when the abuse is sexual and is being kept secret from the spouse.
Domestic abuse often entails planning by the perpetrator, to prevent such obvious injuries that disclosure is inevitable. It is often made worse by substance abuse, which is frequently blamed by abusers for their misdeeds. And the point I want to make here, is that domestic abuse is often "excused" and/or justified, when it is perpetrated by men, by claiming that as "head of the house" (a title never bestowed by the Scriptures on anyone), a husband has the "right" to "discipline" his wife and children any way he sees fit, and it is their duty to obey him--only more often, he'll misuse the biblical word "submit" in his demands to his wife.
Do all proponents of so-called "biblical" patriarchy behave this way? Thankfully, no. Do some Christian men shield their abuse of their wives and children behind the privilege of patriarchy, and dare to call it godly? Unfortunately, yes. Do some Christian women abuse their husbands and/or children? Yes. (The difference is, of course, women can't hide behind their "role" as "head" when they do it.) And the big question is, is the form of hierarchy in which men rule over women (and children), a godly way to structure the home (or the church, for that matter)? Though I find a number of descriptions of patriarchy in the Bible, it is simply never mandated, and many biblical principles preclude it as a commendable practice for Christian households and congregations. There's simply no support for a man presuming to rule over his family, nor for a woman in this free society to condone his doing so.
But that's easy to say, and much harder to make reality. Intimate relationships result in emotionally charged complications when violence enters the picture. And when there is religous coercion to stay with a violent spouse, and the violence is long-standing, a victim of domestic violence may not have the emotional strength to challenge what is happening. If the victim is female, she will almost certainly be told by a pro-patriarchy church to return and be submissive to her husband. If the victim is male, the strong pressure to conform to stereotypical "gender roles" will ensure that he never discloses his "weakness" to anyone related to the church--or indeed, anyone at all, for fear of his masculinity being called into question. And children quite naturally can be fairly easily intimidated by adults of either gender into terrified silence.
The stories told in this series of entries and comments at Better Bibles are not foreign territory for me, though the details differ somewhat from my own. I was abused, sexually, physically, and emotionally, as a child. My abusers were careful to leave only marks that could not be seen when I was clothed. I made flimsy excuses the few times I couldn't avoid them being seen (by other girls when dressing for gym class), because that long ago, no one talked about child abuse and I had no reason to think anyone would believe me or do anything about it. My father and stepmother could not have children together, so early on in their attempts to adopt a child, my brothers and I were told by our stepmother that if we told the social worker anything (clearly implying, anything about the beatings and other abuse), she would kill us. We believed her. And since, with frightened children cowed into silence, and outwardly saintly appearance of our family, no one ever seriously suspected anything amiss. Regretably, but not surprisingly, my father and stepmother were eventually awarded a newborn baby for adoption. Helpless to do anything about it, I witnessed the beginning of another child's entry into a living nightmare.
Eventually, I got the help I needed to stop living the only way I knew how: as a victim. As a victim, I'd never have told ANYONE my story. It took more courage than I thought I possessed, to finally disclose to anyone the nightmare that was my childhood. It's still not easy. But now, in telling when the Holy Spirit prompts me to do so, I can trust that it's for someone else's good. I have seen over and over again the dawning that takes place when someone realizes for the fist time that he/she did not cause the abuse, did not deserve the abuse, and need not let the abuse rule their lives. Ironically, there are Christians who scoff at survivors of violence who are also egalitarian. They concoct the fiction that we are egalitarian because of the abuse and would accept "complementarianism" if only we'd accept our "god-given" roles in life and stop "playing the victim" (remember, it's always about "roles" for those who oppose biblical equality). They lie by saying that we refuse to forgive those who abused us; again, if we'd just give up feminism, we'd somehow magically "forgive" and all would be well with our families. I pray that they tell these lies out of ignorance, out of never having HAD an abuser to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice; it frees us from the perpetrator's power over us, and it frees the perpetrator IF (and ONLY if) the perpetrator accepts the forgiveness. But this nonsense about redefining forgiveness (making it a "never say another word about it" and "you have to restore your relationship with the person who abused you") for someone they've never met, is nothing more than self-righteous busy-body bullying. And when they pull this garbage on someone very newly on the path to healing, it's spiritually criminal. But all's fair in the "let's hate egalitarianism" and "blame it on the feminists" games, apparently. And I read it over and over again.
I accept Scripture's teachings that we're to submit to one another, simply because we honor Christ and because he both taught and modeled for us what it means to give up our own lives in service to one another. One of the ways we serve others is to offer them freedom from however they've sinned against us. It is not possible for us to make them live within that forgiveness; they, with God's help, must do that for themselves. Meanwhile, their sin no longer binds us, once we've learned how to live as whole persons, free of the warped reality that abuse forces us to live within.
I accept Scripture's teaching that how we treat the least of Christ's brothers and sisters is indeed how we treat Christ himself. Those who mistreat those over whom they have power, will have consequences for those actions. The worldly authorities rightly have the means to prosecute those who abuse others, even members of their own families. The church has no call to stand in the way of such actions; they are the law of the land. The church can and should stand by those who have committed violent acts as they face the consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the church is called to be a family of brothers and sisters to those who are their victims. The world is looking on, measuring the validity of our faith by the integrity of our actions.