In our communities, whether we realize it or not, we play a role in either empowering victims or keeping them trapped in abusive relationships. This is especially true of our religious communities. Much of the damage and harm we inflict on victims is done through ignorance. With no more than an ignorant question, well-meaning people often over-simplify and dismiss the plight of a victim and/or their long road to healing.
All good and decent people should care about injustice. For those of us who profess Christianity, we must not deceive ourselves that we are truly following Christ if we are not committed to opposing injustice. The opposite of love is not hate; it's apathy. If we can be aware of injustice and not be moved with compassion to relieve avoidable suffering, where is the evidence of our faith?
I'd like to offer a list of three simple things we all can do to help a victim feel less alone.
1) Don't ask: "Why do you stay?" or "Why does she stay?"
We must stop putting victims under a microscope of shame. When we look at victims in disbelief and ask why they stay, more likely than not, victims feel judged by the question. A victim feels she has to justify herself and defend her choices to you (or the outside world when abuse is discussed by the media). It leaves her feeling embarrassment and shame. At best, the question over-simplifies her complicated situation. Instead, you might consider asking a question that will communicate concern and compassion. For instance: "What are your fears if you leave?" or "What are the challenges you face in trying to leave?"
2) Read the book Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse by Dr. Steven R. Tracy.
This is a book I can't recommend highly enough to anyone who wants to increase their understanding and knowledge of the wounds of abuse. Dr. Tracy is a professor of theology and ethics. His wife, Celestia, is a family therapist and abuse survivor. If you can only commit to reading one book on this subject, I would urge you to read this one.
I doubt any of us would ever want to create additional hurt and damage for any victim. But we fail to realize that lack of understanding and compassion does hurt and damage victims.
3) Consciously reject an attitude of moral superiority.
While the question in some circles is "Why does she stay?" -- in our religious communities, a victim is often not permitted to leave without scrutiny.
I remember having lunch with a group of friends a few years ago. The subject of marriage was on the table. Each of my friends explained how they had told their grown children before getting married that divorce was not an option. "No matter how hard it gets, you stay and work on it."
These were not uncaring, self-righteous women. They were committed Christians who placed a high value on the vows of marriage, as do I. But as they discussed the hard times in their marriages, they were valuing their commitment and determination to work through problems with success. They had remained married to their one and only husbands for many years. And because they had not experienced an abusive relationship, their strong statements made me feel judged as someone whose life included divorce and remarriage.
I couldn't imagine that they would have encouraged their own daughters to submit to the abuse I endured for 27 years. But in this conversation, I felt like the failure at the table. I knew without a doubt they were not intending to judge me or my circumstances. But that's exactly my point. Unintentionally, their words implied anyone whose marriage ended in divorce must not have held the same convictions they held. And unintentionally, their comments implied a moral superiority to me or anyone who had been divorced.
|With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, |
but by knowledge the righteous are delivered. ~Proverbs 11:9
Abuse is rampant in society and you never know who you may be unintentionally judging or influencing with your casual words. Our lack of insight, understanding and compassion may have a profound effect on a victim's life and self-image. We may also destructively influence a victim's perception of God and His view of her with our lack of wisdom.
For years after marrying John, I had nightmares that I was still trapped in my abusive marriage. In my dreams, the emotional abuse I was enduring felt intolerable. But the heaviest, most suffocating element of every dream was the weight of how I perceived God. In every dream, I felt trapped in the sense that I so wanted to escape the abuse, but God was making me stay. The perception of His expectations had been deeply branded into my subconscious mind by my spiritual leaders.
I'm thankful I now know there is forgiveness for divorce and that God does not intend abused women to carry the guilt and shame for sins committed against them. I wish more religious leaders would wake up to this realization.
Additional information on this subject: Making a Difference