by Kay Marshall Strom
With one vicious punch to his fiancée, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice pounded the issue of domestic violence into our national conscience. We recoiled at the video of him callously dragging her limp body out of the elevator. But when she recovered, she surprised us by speaking out in his defense. A month later, she married him. We shook our collective heads and asked: Why?
When Sarah Kaplan asked that question on Washington Post.com, thousands of abuse victims tweeted their answers: I have nowhere to go… My children need a man around… He says no one else will love me… I’m afraid he would find me and kill me… I have no money… God says I must stay.
Some years ago, an editor asked me to write a book on domestic violence from a Christian perspective. I thought, That will be easy: Chapter 1. If he hits you, leave. The End. Then I started getting phone calls from women who wanted to tell me their stories. I interviewed many who stayed, and later visited some of them in the hospital. I asked the same question Sarah Kaplan asked, and I got the same answers. Especially the one about obedience to God.
To want to live by biblical principles is admirable. The Bible teaches us to love God first, then our neighbors as ourselves. That what he requires of us is justice, mercy, and humbleness before him. That we are to treat others as we want to be treated. Jesus modeled compassion. And healing. And forgiveness. He taught that we are not to judge lest we be judged.
The problem comes when a person chooses specific verses and reads them without context or consideration of their setting. With such random application, it’s possible to make the Bible seem to condemn or condone almost anything. In the case of wife battering, a common defense is the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. But that isn’t all Paul has to say on the subject of submission. He also speaks to husbands: In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies… (Ephesians 5:28). Most important, he starts this section on submission by laying down an overlying parameter: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
Yes, women are to submit to their husbands. But men are also to submit to their wives. Indeed, submission is required of every one of us: to God, to family, to church, to authorities, to country. True Christianity doesn’t consider women as less than men. Paul made that clear in his letter to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
All one! That’s pretty clear.
Unfortunately there are Christians who admonish victims of domestic violence to go back to their abusers. Who caution about siding with women against men who “must have had a good reason.” Who warn about questioning God’s ways.
Yet more and more, churches and other Christian organizations are actively speaking out against abuse. During October—Domestic Violence Awareness Month—many leaders will be preparing sermons on the topic, leading book discussions, facilitating awareness training, and presenting other special projects in which their congregations can be involved. For instance, my church—Valley Covenant—is affiliated with a denomination that sponsors Advocacy for Victims of Abuse. They offer training around the country, including in Cannon Beach.
So, what is the Christian response to domestic abuse? Simply this:
First: Violence is unacceptable. Totally and absolutely. It hurts the whole family, and it damages us as a nation.
Second: Victims must not be blamed for the abuse. They are to be protected and cared for, not punished.
Third: Women, like men, were made in the image of God. Both deserve respect. Both have the right to live safely and without fear.
And so do children. For history repeats itself. Abusive homes nurture the next generation of abusers. Domestic violence can never be justified as Christian teaching. But, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:22, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control most certainly are.
Kay Marshall Strom is the author of 42 published books, including In The Name of Submission. She attends Valley Covenant Church in Eugene.