By the Rev. Wallace Culp
As a family court lawyer, nothing is more emotionally moving than sitting across the table from a woman whose face is three shades of red, a result of the beating she received several days earlier from her husband or boyfriend.
It filled me with the awesome responsibility of how to keep this from happening again. Legally, I knew what to do. I was able to get my client an emergency order from a family court judge that told the husband or boyfriend to stay away from her.
Practically, though, life is much more complex when dealing with domestic abuse. First of all, emergency orders are only worth as much as the paper they are written on. Unless the abuser is in jail, a court order will not keep him from abusing again if he really wants to act. Second, I also learned there are times when the woman wants to return to the abuser. Why this happens and how we as Christians approach such a situation are the focus of this article.
There are economic reasons why women return to their abuser. Many women still depend on their husbands or partners for financial help. They cannot afford to live on their own. Many women are often reluctant to spend legal fees to protect themselves, usually because they do not have the money. The legal system itself often does not move fast enough to provide them with the financial support they need to protect themselves.
Women are often threatened by their children’s father that he will take her children if she does not return to him. This is a threat that goes straight to the heart of a mother’s love for her children and is usually effective. No mother wants to risk separation from her children.
Theologically and spiritually, women in the church face at least three major problems when they are abused. First, they may be told they should not divorce. They are reminded they took a vow that they were in a marriage for better or worse. They may also be told that divorce is a sin.
Although we should encourage people to work out their problems before they resort to divorce, when a woman faces physical abuse or threat of abuse, the marriage contract has been broken. She needs to be affirmed and not told that she will sin if she leaves the abuser. I have concluded that the humanity that Jesus Christ displayed allows for divorce when a lovely human being, made in God’s image, is abused or threated with abuse. The women in our churches or community who are abused need our love, not our judgement.
Second, Christian women have to deal with how they forgive their abuser. We are all to forgive those who have done us wrong. We say this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. An abuser may be forgiven, but this does not mean he should not bear the consequences of his actions. When abuse has occurred, in most cases the consequence should be that his wife or girlfriend should not return to him.
Unfortunately, we have a culture in our society in South Carolina, and to some degree in our churches, that encourages abused women to return to their abusers because they should forgive them. This is dangerous. There were two times I had women clients who wanted to return to their abuser because family members had told them they should forgive him. I told both clients not to go back. One did not go back, but the other did. I was scared to death when she returned. She was fortunate. Nothing happened. However, I know of two cases from other lawyers that when their abused clients returned they were killed by their abusers.
No amount of forgiveness justifies this horrific outcome.
We as ministers need to have a theology, both from the pulpit and in our congregation’s culture, which promotes the self-esteem of all women. Our congregations need to be a safe place for people who have experienced abuse. I realize we may have practical problems when both the battered wife and the abuser attend our church and often sit next to each other during the Sunday service, but we need to make sure we have policies in place to deal with these situations. The abuser may need to be counselled on forgiveness, redemption and repentance but should never be led to believe that his actions are ever justified or OK.
The third problem I saw battered women being exposed to in Christian circles was the antiquated idea that men are the head of the household and should be obeyed. This belief has no place in our churches, and I have seen it abused by men to take advantage of their wives or girlfriends in many situations. Our theology needs to promote marriage as a relationship of mutual respect, mutual trust and love, not a relationship of domination and submission. Our churches need to teach and model healthy masculinity and engage men as allies with women to lessen violence and risk factors for abuse.
Finally, as ministers and laity of our churches, we need to promote public policies that empower women financially. Women should receive equal pay for equal work. Women and their children of all backgrounds should have access to adequate and affordable health care. Women should also have access to affordable legal help.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be showed mercy.”
Culp is senior minister at Latimer Memorial United Methodist Church, Belton. Before becoming an ordained elder, he worked for 25 years as a trial lawyer in family court and probate court. He also served for five years on the board of the Greenville Rape Crisis Center.