October 16, 2020

Adventists Can Do Much to Confront Domestic Violence, Harvard Professor Says

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

Domestic violence is a challenge that the Seventh-day Adventist Church must confront, Harvard professor and researcher David Williams said during his address to the church’s Executive Committee members, who met virtually on October 12, 2020.

Williams’s presentation, titled “Enditnow: Effectively Confronting the Challenge of Domestic Violence,” sought to educate committee members about the state of the issue around the world and then show what the Adventist Church can do to make a difference in society.

This is already being done, Adventist Health Ministries director Peter Landless emphasized as he introduced Williams. Landless referenced the enditnow initiative, launched by the Adventist Church to stop violence against girls and women. “It’s a multi-departmental project initiated by Women’s Ministries,” Landless explained, “but today families, children, and everyone is teaming together to effectively confront domestic violence.”

What We Are Talking About

In the first part of his presentation, Williams defined domestic violence as the United Nations does, namely, as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in private or in public life.

“There are many faces of domestic violence — physical, sexual, economic — but domestic violence is always psychological: verbal attacks and constant erosion of one’s self-image,” he said.

Domestic violence includes a broad range of behaviors, including constantly checking where the spouse is or telling her she is ugly, fat or thin, stupid, or useless. It even includes using Scripture to justify behavior or not giving the other person any money.

According to the UN, Williams said, the home is the single most dangerous place for women. Indeed, “a female runs a greater risk of assault, physical injury, and murder in her home than in any other setting.”

The statistics are sobering, as 87,000 women were killed in the world in 2017; 50,000 of them, or 58 percent, were at the hands of intimate partners or family members, Williams reported. According to a 2018 study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Women are 82 percent of homicides perpetrated by a partner or family member; six women are killed every hour, or 137 a day, by people they know.” And the number of deaths is increasing, given that there has been “no progress in protecting and saving the lives of female victims in recent years, despite laws and programs to eradicate violence against women,” he shared.

Domestic Violence Among Christians and in Society

Williams reported that some studies have shown that domestic violence is more common in small conservative religious groups. He pointed out that a random sample of a study from 2006 of 1,431 Adventists in 70 churches in a five-state area in the United States found disturbingly high levels of intimate-partner violence (IPV) among Adventists. In that study, 65 percent of women reported they had experienced controlling and demeaning behavior at least once in their lifetime, 46 percent experienced common couple violence, and 29 percent experienced sexual violence.

Society does not help either, Williams said, as violence is a common method of problem solving. “In many children’s TV programs [cartoons], violence is the first choice in conflict resolution and lacks lasting consequences,” he explained. “The crushed or exploded victim is magically restored shortly after, [and] this is soon followed by unrelenting advanced training in violence through movies and TV.”

Within a religious context, Williams explained, the Bible has often been misused to provide the moral and ideological support for ideas of male superiority and to enforce rigid boundaries for the behavior of husbands and wives. “Many persons in our society view the socially determined role of husbands and wives as established by God for all cultures, societies, and times,” he said.

The most famous passage that has been used to justify the abuse of wives by their husbands is Ephesians 5:22, where the apostle Paul writes, “Wives, be subject to your husband.” Some husbands think that that verse gives them a license to use physical force in their efforts to “command their children and household after them," Williams quoted. And “many wives accept violence as part of their God-ordained lot in life.”

But Ephesians 5:22 cannot be divorced from verse 21, where Paul calls everyone to submit “one to another in the fear of God,” Williams added. “The command for wives to be subject to their husbands must be balanced by the three commands in this passage for husbands to love their wives with the same self-sacrificing love that Christ has for the church. This passage directs twice as many instructions to husbands as to wives, as 9 out of the 13 verses describe how husbands are to nourish and cherish their wives.”

What Can the Church Do?

The extent of spouse abuse in society indicates that Christians should be involved in ministering to those affected, Williams emphasized. “If we are to be truly Christ-like, we must be eager to identify and take care of those who are unprotected, wounded, and without an advocate,” he said. As the church, “we can be either part of the problem or part of the solution. There are no easy solutions, but there is much that can be done.”

Williams explained that the ignorance and stigma associated with domestic violence emphasize the need for training and educating pastors and other institutional workers regarding abuse. “Often clergy and health and human services workers reinforce guilt or humiliation by insensitive treatment of victims,” he said. Something similar can happen in a religious context, as many abused women feel that they cannot approach their church or pastor.

In this challenging context, there are at least three things the church can do, Williams said: be aware, engage, and support. In the last part of his presentation, he elaborated on the three suggestions.

Be Aware: Raise Awareness

Williams suggested that the church must take a decided stand on the issue of abuse and regularly provide messages in sermons, workshops, seminars, and classes that domestic abuse is inappropriate, un-Christ-like, and wrong. “The local church can use posters, cards, leaflets, and the church website to publicly indicate that domestic abuse is unacceptable and against God's plan for Christian families,” he said. “The church must acknowledge the real pain and victimization caused by physical and sexual abuse, and provide opportunities for healing and reconciliation for those who have been injured, and confrontation and appropriate assistance for those who have been abusers.”

It is something, Williams cautioned, not always easy to achieve, as many churches often do not have the needed expertise. “Without proper training and experience in this field, we can do more harm than good,” he shared. “But we can learn how to support victims, and empower victims to seek professional care from relevant agencies.”

Engage: Active Involvement

The church must strive to become a safe place, with more considered actions taken by the congregation and leadership, Williams suggested. “Church leaders need to do their homework and increase their understanding of domestic abuse. Use online resources and read books on the subject to be better informed.” He said that church leaders can also educate the church by inviting a local domestic abuse service or program to do presentations and training, and even reserve a day on the church calendar to increase awareness.

The church must discuss domestic abuse and issues of conflict in pre-marital, marriage, and relationship courses or resources, and programs for youth. “Plan special workshops and training for men on what it means to be a man walking in the footsteps of Jesus,” Williams advised.

According to Williams, it is also essential to respect and listen to the abused, believing the victim, to avoid asking for proof of violence, and to assure the victim that is not her fault. It also helps to “reassure that confidentiality will be maintained and … be honest and upfront about your ability to help.”

The church can also help men to acknowledge their problem, Williams emphasized. “God requires men to take full responsibility for their actions, and the first step in prevention is acknowledging that there is a problem.”

Support: For Victims, Survivors, and Perpetrators

The church can provide local referral and support to local resources for survivors and perpetrators, Williams suggested. “Work together with local service providers and set up clear pathways and systems for referral,” he advised.

Training could be provided to designated church members, Williams said, adding that they can be a point of contact, as the staff needs to be supported with adequate clinical supervision.

“Some large churches could provide comprehensive support for survivors and perpetrators in collaboration with local service providers,” he suggested, but “all support activities should be done in a way that ensures safety and confidentiality for women and their children.”

Biblical Advice

God is calling us throughout Scripture to love each other, Williams reminded his viewers. “We have great advice from Scripture. Let’s look to the Lord; let’s look to the Holy Spirit to be convicted of this problem within our churches and communities,” he said.

Williams also reiterated a call to develop programs that make a difference to protect all of God’s children. “We know that in so doing, we will be doing the work that God has called us to do — to take care of the least of these, and to protect them, and to ensure their safety and their wellbeing,” he said.