Le Dernier soupir du Christ by Julien-Michel Gue (1789-1843)
How can the Church stand at the foot of the cross with those who weep as victims and survivors of violence? Guest blogger Rev. Angela Compton Nelson reflects on Domestic Violence and silence in the Church.
October 31, 2014
My eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the young women in my city.—Lamentations 3:51
Born on a Thursday, I was in my parents’ Baptist church three days later and have spent almost every Sunday in church since. Over the years I’ve been in congregations across the Protestant spectrum—Methodist, Nazarene, Episcopal, non-denominational—and for all of their differences, these churches have at least one thing in common: never once did I hear about family violence, rape, sexual assault, child abuse, or domestic violence. Not at a workshop, not in casual conversation, and not from the pulpit.
I was in my second semester of seminary before an Old Testament professor told our class that we had an obligation to preach all of Scripture, even the nasty bits, and that we should have in mind the pastoral concerns of our congregation when we did. She was working with a difficult text in Ezekiel and told us that this particular text might require us to speak about domestic violence. It was, at 23, the first time I ever thought that the church might have something to say about domestic violence. Domestic violence cannot be predicted based on race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, political affiliation, or socio-economic background. It is a willful and intentional action on the part of the perpetrator to abuse for the sake of maintaining power or control.
Silence can seem like the neutral option, but it isn’t neutral when we consider the statistics: 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. Silence is dangerous.
In Telling the Truth: Preaching about Sexual and Domestic Violence, editors Nancy Ramsay and John McClure write that silence “sends a clear ‘hands-off’ message to victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. At the very least, this silence communicates to victims that they are alone in their suffering. To perpetrators […] that the church does not hold them accountable. To bystanders […] that it is okay to stay on the sidelines in a brutal and sometimes deadly game.” There it is. Silence means that “this does not matter to us.” Surely, the church has more than nothing to say about violence, relationships, and what God wants for human community. The problem with silence is deep.
In a recent lecture at Duke Divinity School, entitled “Mapping the Tears of the World: Following the Tears of a Crucified World,” theologian Shawn Copeland asked the 200 or so gathered theologians, ministers, and students a version of the following questions: Is it possible to hold the tears of the world? Can we listen to and hear deeply the story of suffering from others? Can we honor their suffering? Can we hold their tears? These tasks, Copeland contends, are necessary if the Church is to be Church rightly, if it is to stand at the foot of the cross with those who suffer.
I wonder how things might be different for people in our churches who are suffering if churches spoke honestly about relationships characterized by violence. I wonder what would happen in our churches if ministers preached about the rape of Dinah, the unnamed woman in Judges, or Tamar. What possibilities would arise if we shared these stories and offered an open door, an open heart, and an invitation to speak? How would our churches change if we took seriously the task of naming violence as sin, regardless of who might be offended?
What would it mean to families touched by domestic violence or those living with domestic violence if large groups gathered frequently to remember the names of those whose lives have been ended by intimate partner violence?
Might we learn better to lament—to name what is not right in the world, to plead for a new world—and share one another’s pain?
Would new spaces open for people to share stories and tears? Would someone be empowered to find help? Would the wounds of violence and brokenness heal as people shared their pain with others? Would a person who has never disclosed childhood sexual abuse share his or her story with a minister or counselor?
Would a perpetrator seek help—real help—to heal his or her desire for power and control? Might we become more capable of naming the distorted imagination of hierarchy and male domination?
Would we, just for a moment, become capable of standing at the foot of the cross with those who suffer, holding the deep ocean of the world’s tears?
By Rev. Angela Compton Nelson, Associate Pastor, Refuge Home Church