“To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence”—Andrei Lankov
When our church began an End It Now committee as part of our women’s ministry, the congregation was hesitant. Nevertheless, committee members tirelessly pushed, preached, and prayed to helpour church community recognize the need for this ministry.
Their work paid off. The committee members were surprised by the overwhelming response from victims of abuse who finally felt safe to come forward and ask for help from their fellow church members.
The responses included a late-night phone call from a member of another congregation who heard about the ministry and needed help. She described the abuse but denied that her spouse was abusive. Initially she described only emotional abuse. She told about how her spouse called her stupid and overweight. He compared her to other women and wondered why God had given him such an “inferior” wife.
She discussed periods of extreme isolation: he didn’t allow her to talk to her family or friends. At church he was friendly and charismatic; she was always in the background and struggled to make any connections. He constantly called her at the office, which caused her career to stagnate. She grew distraught as she watched her peers excel while she remained financially dependent upon him.
She did everything to get pregnant with their first child, believing that her spouse would be pleased, or at least leave her alone. But as soon as she became pregnant he became physically abusive. She normalized his behavior by imagining that every wife had to go through this. He normalized it as well: “At least I didn’t give you a black eye” or “You made me do this; it hurts me more than it hurts you.” After each outburst he became loving and attentive. Slowly the physical abuse became more and more violent, and in his fits of rage he started threatening to kill her.
Things did not improve after the births of their children. One evening he became so violent with one of the children that she knew she had to take action.
She reached out to her pastor for help. He seemed shocked by the accusation against her husband, an elder of the church. The pastor spoke to her husband, suggesting that the couple get counseling. That night her husband tried to strangle her. The next day he left. Now she is unable to pay her bills and care for her children. Many church members will not speak to her.
Abuse carries serious long-term health implications for victims beyond their immediate injuries.
Abuse is sadly common in our society. It is a serious public health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in three women, and one in four men, will be victims of abuse in their lifetime.1 In 2014, 702,208 children were abused or neglected.2 Despite these sobering statistics, abuse has historically been underreported, especially within faith communities.
Abuse is more than an unhealthy or unhappy relationship; it is a pattern of behavior used by one individual to assert power and control over another. Although commonly portrayed as physical or sexual behavior, abusive patterns also include mental, emotional, financial, and even spiritual facets. Victims often suffer in silence, unsure about how or where to seek help. Unfortunately, many victims reach out for help only to receive advice that perpetuates the abuse or retraumatizes them.
Abusive behaviors include:
Initially, victims rarely recognize abuse as such while it is occurring. Instead, they internalize and normalize the violent behavior. Abusive relationships generally follow a cycle that includes (1) a “honeymoon” period, (2) a tension-building period, (3) an abusive incident, and (4) reconciliation.
George K. Simon notes that through this cycle “often victims end up unnecessarily prolonging their abuse because they buy into the notion that their abuse must be coming from a wounded place and that only patient love and tolerance . . . will help them heal.”4
A common reaction to signs of abuse is to ignore them as private, intrafamilial problems. Alternatively, well-intentioned but misguided interventions are often aimed at promoting reconciliation at all costs. The reality of domestic violence requires an immediate and calculated response to safeguard victims. According to the CDC, more than half of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of death among women under the age of 44. Even when physical abuse is not a precursor to domestically related homicide, other types of abuse—such as emotional abuse—are typically present.
Abuse carries serious long-term health implications for victims beyond their immediate injuries. According to a recent study, individuals exposed to six or more adverse childhood experiences—including all forms of child abuse and witnessing domestic violence in the home—suffered a life-expectancy reduction of approximately 20 years, compared to individuals not exposed to such experiences. This chilling data points to the long-lasting aftereffects that children may suffer from domestic abuse, even when they are not the primary target of the abusive behavior.
In light of such high risks of immediate and long-term harm, abuse must be taken seriously. Although it may occur behind closed doors, its corrosive effects are felt in our schools, churches, and workplaces. Because of unfounded stigmas and unawareness, church communities can provide cover for perpetuating abusive behavior. But equipped with information and compassion, churches can also be ideal places of refuge and portals to healing for victims.
Abuse is not simply a private problem; it is a community problem that demands a community response. We Christians are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps to “heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18, 19, KJV).
Many abuse victims do not seek help because they are unaware of available resources, they are in denial about the abuse, or they have spoken out before and received an improper or ineffectual response. Fortunately, many resources are readily available to assist abuse victims by providing counseling, shelter, legal advocacy, and other services. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org, 1-800-799-7233) is an excellent gateway to national, state, and local resources; enditnow (www.enditnow.org), an initiative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, provides helpful information for victims and church communities.
Because of the vicious cycle of abusive relationships, victims often do not recognize the abuse or cannot take the first step toward healing by themselves. It is crucial for our communities to be trained to recognize signs of abuse and equipped with information to point victims toward help. Even if unsure of whether a situation rises to the level of abuse, seeking help should always be presented as an available option, and safety should be our paramount concern. Fear has no place in Christian relationships. Abuse is never acceptable in any form; it is never too early to seek or offer help.
Whether facing an abusive situation or striving to support someone who is, we can find strength and assurance in the words of the psalmist: “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Ps. 10:17, 18).
Amanda and German Rodríguez are attorneys who live in Laurel, Maryland, and are members of the Spencerville Adventist Church.Amanda, a former prosecutor, is an executive at a nonprofit that provides emergency and long-term assistance to abuse survivors.