Arts & Humanities, Religious Studies; domestic violence; religion; families; women; abuse; theology; language
Carol Winkelmann, in her book ‘The Language of Battered Women’ describes not only the fact that domestic abuse is almost a daily occurrence in the lives of many women but that the language of religion and faith is often used by women in attempts to explain, understand and cope with such abuse . While religious belief and domestic violence may seem contradictory in terms of religious values of faith, virtue and love, research demonstrates that domestic violence in religious families and amidst religious congregations is prevalent. In fact, religious beliefs and practices are often embedded in cultural contexts and thus perpetuate patriarchal notions of dominance, power and submission. Abused Christian women, for example, are more likely to seek help from (male) ministers and others in positions of authority in their local church communities and are equally more likely to remain in or return to unsafe relationships, citing their religious beliefs to support their avoidance of ‘family break-ups’ because of abuse. What, then, is the response of ministers and church authorities to domestic abuse in their congregations? Despite recent calls for the training of pastors and other religious leaders in an understanding of domestic violence and in the recognition of appropriate, helpful responses, the language of some Christian churches can be seen to foster notions of submission so that women and pastors alike can appear confused concerning the experience of abuse. Religious congregations, while acting in love to help the poor and needy, for example, often fail to recognise domestic abuse amongst their own members and, indeed, such a topic can remain taboo in some church communities. Women, in turning to their pastors or other Christian leaders for help, can be silenced by the language of the religion itself, so that the role of wives and mothers may be seen to be submissive and the ‘keeper of the home’; to leave an abusive relationship may thus ‘break-up’ a home and imply failure of the woman to understand her role and fulfil her ‘maternal vocation’. On the other hand, religious beliefs offer victims of domestic violence both hope and comfort. Religious practices, such as prayer, liturgies and corporal (physical) works of mercy, can provide solace and practical assistance for women who suffer abuse. Domestic violence in religious congregations can be addressed within the context of the faith itself, with an emphasis on love and respect, helping women to understand their dignity with avenues of help so that the women can remove themselves and their children from abusive relationships, and the religious congregation and its leaders can call the partners to accountability. This paper seeks to outline a picture of domestic violence in religious congregations, specifically Christian church communities, by drawing on current research in the Western world. It then describes the language of some religious congregations that perpetuates domestic violence, with emphasis on contemporary studies in religious belief and domestic abuse. Finally, the paper makes some suggestions on how religious belief and practice can, in contrast to perpetuating abuse through norms, serve to assist women as victims of domestic violence, and how the connections between domestic violence and religious language or belief can be severed.