Christian Myths about Sexual and Domestic Abuse
By Mary Potter Engel, Ph.D.
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
1. Sexual and domestic abuse do not occur in nice Christian families.
Statistics show that sexual and domestic abuses occur as frequently in religious households as in non-religious households.
2. Sexual and domestic abuses occur in “those other” denominations, not in the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, (etc.) faiths.
All Christian denominations are affected by sexual and domestic abuse. To deny this is to try to find yet one more way to avoid the injustice and shift the responsibility.
3. Theology is irrelevant to sexual and domestic abuse.
There are some reports that members of more rigid Christian groups are at higher risk of abuse. While we have no reliable data on this as yet, it is the case that a theology that is more hierarchical and patriarchal than egalitarian is one, among many other factors, that can increase the likelihood of the abuse of women and children.
4. The power of God alone will change the situation.
By “turning it all over to God,” the individual avoids the help that God sends to us through the hands and hearts of other human beings, whether they be social workers, ministers, friends, other family members or counselors. In other words, it is a fallacy to assume that God works WITHOUT any effort on the part of human beings. We are created to be responsible selves, and thus we are human beings. We are created to be responsible selves, and thus we are obligated to use the gifts for healing that God places before us in this life.
5. Accepting Jesus as his or her personal savior will solve the problems of the abuser.
Domestic and sexual abuse are rarely one time events. Often they are patterns of behavior that are very difficult to overcome. A flash conversion experience will not cure a person of deeply ingrained patterns immediately. Therefore, it is necessary to make use of whatever legal, psychological and pastoral aids and service s that are available to assist the perpetrator in his or her recovery toward wholeness.
6. Redemption comes only through suffering.
Personal suffering can be an occasion for our own growth, but it is never the cause of growth. In other words, suffering is not necessarily redemptive. It embitters some persons rather than urging them towards growth. WE can be redeemed in our suffering but we are never redeemed because of our suffering. God does not require any one or any groups of persons to pay a demanding price in order to purchase redemption. God grants wholeness and healing as free gifts of peace.
For women in the church, the revolutionary theology of the cross of Christ, a witness to his active choice to take a stand against the injustice in the world, has been distorted into a reactionary theology of suffering, a justification for the passive and unprotesting acceptance of their own unjust victimization.
7. God teaches us, trains us, through suffering, therefore it is to be accepted as a gift.
The belief that God has a divine plan, purpose or reason for the ills that one must suffer during her or his life may bring comfort ot some victims by giving them a sense of control of their reality. (If they cannot control what happens to them, they can at least control the interpretation of it.) In other words, this theological belief may be part of the survival mechanism of the victim and should be dealt with sensitively and gently. The aim, however, would be to lead victims and survivors to see that there are acts of violence that have systemic roots, (i.e. caused by an unjust system in society) and that impinges upon their individual lives rather than that of others in a random way, (I.e. the acts are irrational and they personally are not singled out for some divine purpose).
8. Suffering is a punishment for past sins.
Many women feel that they are beaten or raped or otherwise abused as a punishment for previous sins (usually previous sexual activity). They need to know that being sexually active is not in itself sinful and therefore requires no punishment. They also need to know that they do not deserve the treatment they are receiving; that they are unwitting and involuntary victims of an explosive system; and that it is the perpetrator, because of his abuse of his force or authority, who carries the full responsibility for his action toward her.
9. Suffering is a divine vocation.
Women will occasionally argue that it is their “mission” or vocation to save their husbands by their example of patient forbearance. While each one of us is given a divine vocation, no one of us is called to save another human being. That is as presumptuous as it is impossible. It is the work of God to save.
10. Suffering presents us with opportunities to show compassion and love in our suffering with the victims of abuse.
According to Mother Theresa, God is present in suffering human beings and we are to take the suffering of others as opportunities to do works of compassion and love. This is an individualistic and passive approach that accepts the whole system of injustice and does not work to change that system or to understand the social causes of the problem of exploitation of women and children. We do not need to accept unjust suffering in order to show compassion and love. In fact, acts of social justice that aim at restructuring the entire patriarchal system so that there will be no more victims can be fine works of compassion and love.
11. Suffering gives victims a “moral edge” or moral superiority.
This is basically a romantic view of suffering that treats victims of abuse as one-dimensional creatures, as victims alone, rather than seeing them as the incredibility strong and resilient survivors that they often are. Our own need to romanticize suffering can blind us to the great strength and dignity that are present in the lives of survivors as well as to the full horror of the harm that has been done to them.
12. The suffering of women and children is random.
In his popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Kushner presents suffering as a random event. While I think this view is helpful to counter the suffering as punishment and to help us understand the suffering we experience with terminal diseases and other “natural” physical ills, I do not think it is helpful for the victims of sexual and domestic abuse. The suffering in our society of women, children, and elders, like that of Jews, lesbians, gays and people of color is rnot totally random. Rather, it is a necessary consequence of a sexist and exploitative patriarchal system that dehumanizes women, trains them to be willing victims, and blames them when they cry for help.
13. The suffering of individual women is a result of choices they have made.
While the suffering of women as a group is not random, the suffering of a particular woman is. What this means is that there may be no final explanation for why a certain abuse happened to this woman, and not to her sister or friend. In other words, we must be extremely careful not to blame for the suffering that she experiences individually because of the exploitative system that exists in our society.
Reprinted with permission from Marry Potter Engel, Ph.D. in Creating Peace: Encourage to Change (Family Peacemaking Materials for Clergy, Lay Leaders, Staff & Laity)
Anoka County Faith Community Peace Initiative 2000, Anoka County , Minnesota .