I will never forget what it felt like to sit in a pew in a church as I was waiting for the service to begin, reading through the bulletin and seeing these words just beneath the list of clergy and staff: “Our congregation is a Safe Haven for those who are experiencing violence or abuse in an intimate relationship. We want you to know you are welcome here and we are happy to support you in whatever ways that could be useful. The individuals wearing the purple ribbons during coffee hour are those who have been trained to provide resources and support to survivors. Feel free to speak with them.” The power of and acknowledgment within these words, even when I was not seeking this type of support, was deep.
I work in Boston within a Unitarian Universalist social justice organization that houses a shelter and community-based program providing services to survivors of domestic violence. As an ordained American Baptist minister, I have the privilege of supervising the staff and frequently offering spiritual support to the survivors in our program. Over the past 12 years in this role, I have listened to countless survivors (both male and female) share their fear of speaking about the abuse or violence they have experienced in their relationships within their faith communities, most specifically, with their pastor or priest. Not only have they heard messages from clergy condoning abusive power dynamics within a relationship, but they have also heard messages blaming them for the abuse that they must have come to deserve. Not all of the messages from the pulpit are overtly about intimate partner relationships themselves. Sometimes the messages are about the punishment of God for living wrongly or guilt-ridden messages about putting the marriage or the children before any other needs. These words go deep into the soul of survivors, because these words corroborate the messages they are hearing from their abusive partner.
The opportunity for preachers is to share the good news with our congregations — that, in fact, violence and abuse is not the answer nor does any individual deserve to be treated in a way that is lesser than anyone else. As noted above, even just a mention of the fact that there are individuals in the pews who are experiencing abuse/violence in their relationship is incredibly validating and welcoming. And, whether you want to believe it or not, it is true.
According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey released in December 2011, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence or stalking at the hands of an intimate partner; that’s more than 1.3 million individuals. Naming the reality that survivors sit in your pews in a sermon or even a pastoral prayer is a powerful gesture. Your congregation, and its visitors, will know you are not only aware, but a resource and an ally to their families.
Throughout my theological studies, I have found myself drawn to the writing of Walter Brueggemann and his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of covenantal people. Brueggemann explains entering into a covenant was, in fact, a completely new way of living and agreeing to be together.1 It was markedly different from what had been the reality of the past lives of the Ancient Hebrew people. This new covenant was calling them into right relationship with one another, acknowledging that there were problematic places in their relationships with God and with one another and making an effort to repair that. In looking at the Ten Commandments, for example, Brueggemann interprets these words as the basis of an alternative social ethic that is not rooted in scarcity, fear, or oppression.2 This interpretation frees us from a “God over us” vision to a “God with us” vision. If God is with the people of Israel through their struggles and falls, God continues to be with the church and its people today. And this liberatory God wants us to live lives free from violence and oppression. Even when we break this covenant — God is still faithful to us and welcoming us back into God’s embrace.
Each time we start a new group with survivors at our domestic violence program, we begin by making group agreements. How do we want to be together? What are our expectations of one another? What do you need to feel safe/respected/acknowledged?
In many ways, we are creating a covenant together that we agree to live into throughout our time together. And, when we break one of our agreements, we discuss it and do our best to make it right.
There is a similar opportunity for us within church covenantal communities. In your role as a minister, you have the authority to name the realities of those who are sitting in the pews, who may prefer to remain silent, for now, about their lived trauma. And what I have learned from survivors is that when someone acknowledges the reality they are facing and clearly calls it out as a sinful breaking of Biblical and covenantal agreements, they feel seen and heard.
Isn’t that our role as faith leaders, to have the audacity to share a new vision and way of being where all God’s people live whole lives filled with love and respect?
Here are some places in Scripture that invite discussion of domestic violence in your preaching:
- Isaiah 35:1-10 (Advent 3A, Pentecost 15B) God will offer protection and healing and assure that struggle and pain will cease and joy and gladness surge
- Psalm 55 Instructions on how to lament from the pain of violence and abuse
- Matthew 19:1-12 Questions of Jesus on marriage and divorce. An opportunity to discuss the ancient patriarchal teachings on marriage and to uncover the need for divorce in particular circumstances.
- Luke 15:3-7 (Pentecost 17C) Lost Sheep — sometimes we are lost and we need God to come and find us and welcome us back in the fold
- Luke 15: 11-32 (Lent 4C) Prodigal son — when someone has squandered and abused — the father is grateful when he returns home. Is it possible for an abuser to return home and be held accountable for his behavior? How do we welcome a loved one back home after they have been in an abusive relationship and cut off from family?
In this bimonthly Working Preacher feature, a variety of writers incorporate lived experience into preaching texts from the Revised Common Lectionary.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2012).