On religion and domestic violence

Posted in News

On Tuesday 18 July, the ABC released an article titled “‘Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God”. The result of a year-long investigation led by journalist Julia Baird, the article presented research showing that “the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical Christians who attend church sporadically”. This investigation was also the basis of a segment on ABC’s 7.30 Report.

Articles and other responses, particularly from The Australian and ABC News, have been published almost daily since the release of the Tuesday 18 July article. Responses from Christian denominations, churches and commentators have also formed part of this ongoing conversation.

On Monday 24 July, ABC’s Media Watch pointed out a few misleading statements made within the original article and on the 7.30 Report, and particularly noted that the American research used for parts of the article also showed that “conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly are found to be the least likely group to engage in domestic violence”.

This clarification of the research is important – but it is also vital to recognise that domestic violence is something that affects the lives of many who attend Christian churches.

Uniting Church SA Moderator Rev Sue Ellis wrote a “Call to prayer: a response to reports on domestic violence” addressing some of these recent concerns. It was sent to UC e-News subscribers on Monday 24 July, and can be read online here.

In light of these recent discussions, it seems appropriate to re-publish a lightly edited version of a 2015 New Times article on domestic violence, the Uniting Church SA’s Beyond Violence campaign, and how to start conversations about this pervasive issue.

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Love is…

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

These words are often spoken at weddings – both Christian and non-Christian. They are words that describe the way love should be; the kind of love many long to feel, particularly in relationship with a significant other. Unfortunately, this passage expresses something very different than the “love” experienced by the many people who live with domestic violence.

What is domestic violence?
While the term domestic violence has traditionally been most closely associated with physical acts of violence within the home, the definition is much wider.

According to the Parliament of Australia, domestic violence “refers to acts of violence that occur between people who have, or have had, an intimate relationship in domestic settings.” This encompasses emotional, verbal, social, economic/financial, psychological, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse.

It is not defined only by acts of abuse. The National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children states that “a central element of domestic violence is that of an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling one’s partner… the violence behaviour is part of a range of tactics used by the perpetrator to exercise power and control.”

Family violence is a term that is sometimes used in conjunction, or interchangeably, with domestic violence, and often encompasses the definitions above. The Parliament of Australia describes it as “referring to violence between family members as well as violence between partners.”

Although domestic violence is sometimes perpetrated upon males, numerous studies in Australia have shown that it is most commonly perpetrated by males against their female partners.

Studies have also shown that domestic violence is more prevalent in regional and rural communities, as well as within some cultural communities. But it is also something that can happen to anyone – young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Unfortunately, it often goes unrecognised and unreported.

Despite the numerous definitions available, domestic violence is something that is incredibly difficult to understand. It can be hard to comprehend the kind of abuse it encompasses, the way it can affect anyone, why many people take so long to report an incident, and how hard it can be to leave abusive situations.

Jess Hill, an Australian freelance journalist who conducted a year-long investigation into domestic violence and its causes, wrote in the Guardian:

“It wasn’t until I’d spent months researching and writing about it that I began to understand why most people don’t get domestic violence: it doesn’t make sense…

“But the more you learn about the nature of domestic violence, the more sense you can make of it.”

Domestic violence in the public sphere
Domestic violence is a topic occupying a good deal of public space at present, with politicians and advocates increasingly speaking out against it. Many hope that increasing awareness and knowledge about the issue will help to put an end to it.

A Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence was established in Queensland in September 2014, drawing together members from social services and politics, including Anne Cross, the Chief Executive Officer of the UnitingCare in Queensland. The taskforce released a report on its findings earlier this year, encouraging the community to take action on this issue.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria) held a series of hearings from July to August this year, and is due to hold several more this month. They released their findings in March 2016 [after this article was first published]. The summary and recommendations can be read online here.

Australian campaigns such as the United Nations’ He for She, Counting Dead Women (an initiative of Destroy the Joint), White Ribbon Australia, and 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty’s Never Alone initiative have been increasingly in the public eye over the past twelve months [at the time of writing in September 2015]. They have each helped to draw further attention to domestic and family violence – as have the recent, highly publicised deaths of several women in Queensland. At the time of writing this, in September 2015, 63 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence in Australia since the beginning of the year.

Domestic violence is an issue that has also been emphasised by the new Australian Prime Minister. In one of his first interviews after taking over the leadership position, Malcolm Turnbull told Today host Lisa Wilkinson that “the issue of family violence… has been overlooked, has been ignored to some extent, for far too long – and we must have zero tolerance for it.”

Domestic violence and the church
Although there has not recently been a strong Christian voice on this topic in the media, many Australian church leaders have long held a “zero tolerance” stance on domestic violence. The Uniting Church in South Australia has been particularly active in speaking out against domestic violence over the past two years.

“Domestic and family violence undermines love and trust and establishes environments of fear and despair,” says Dr Deidre Palmer, ex-Moderator of the Uniting Church SA and President-Elect of the Uniting Church in Australia.

“The Uniting Church – through its congregations and through UnitingCare organisations – is committed to creating and supporting communities where all people can flourish in environments of love, trust and nonviolence.”

It was with ideals like this in mind that the Church’s Beyond Violence campaign was created.

Launched in early 2014, the Beyond Violence campaign offers valuable resources for ministers and pastoral carers to provide education and guidance around the topic of domestic violence.

As part of Beyond Violence, a number of Uniting Church SA ministers signed a pledge for White Ribbon, speaking out against the abuse of women. Others in the church took part in Beyond Violence dinners, helping to put together videos addressing the importance of starting conversations about domestic violence.

These actions have been important steps to take in educating people about this issue, but they have mostly engaged church leaders within the public sphere. Domestic violence is still rarely discussed within congregational settings.

There has been little research done into the prevalence of domestic violence in Australian churches. However, a 2002 survey of 1,000 people undertaken in the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom found that 17% of respondents had experienced domestic violence – 13% several times, and 4% frequently. These figures mirrored those of the wider population according to data drawn from the 2001 British Crime Survey.

Statistics are similar in Australia. The 2012 Personal Safety Survey, based on interviews with over 13,000 women, found that 17% of women had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15. In addition, 25% of women surveyed had experienced emotional abuse perpetrated by a partner since the age of 15.

These results demonstrate the high likelihood that people in Uniting Church congregations are being affected by domestic violence, through people they know or their own experiences.

Starting conversations
In their closing remarks, the Special Taskforce in Queensland emphasised the importance of all communities engaging with domestic violence prevention:

“[We], as a community, can repudiate unhelpful stereotypes about domestic and family violence, clarify its true nature, and collectively identify steps… to stamp out domestic violence wherever it occurs…

“The Taskforce believes that all of the constituent parts of our society – families, groups of friends, neighbourhoods, churches, community organisations, workplaces… and individuals – have an active part to play in opposing domestic and family violence, and promoting healthy family relationships.”

This is a call that the Uniting Church SA community can also take to heart. But how do we start having conversations about domestic violence?

Events specifically focussed on domestic violence education are one way to begin engaging with this issue.

On Sunday 27 September [2015], a Beyond Violence workshop conducted by Dr Deidre Palmer and Uniting Communities’ Chris Dolman was held at Barmera Uniting Church. Open to all people in the Riverland’s church communities, the workshop’s aim was to educate attendees about domestic violence. All congregations are welcome to hold Beyond Violence workshops.

People can also engage with the resources offered by the Beyond Violence campaign, talk to church leaders about the issue, or engage with the White Ribbon Australia campaign on White Ribbon Day (25 November). Marriage courses can provide another avenue for education.

The Uniting Church has a role to play in this dialogue. Leaders, and even community members, have a responsibility to learn how to recognise abusive relationships and the complexities of domestic violence – and to help others to do the same.

“As people of God we are called to shape relationships – personally, in our congregations and wider communities – which are safe havens, where there is mutual respect, care and nonviolence; environments where people are free to make choices about their lives and are able to flourish,” says Deidre.

We are called to loving, nonviolent relationships – and God has given us a reminder of what this should look like:

Love is patient, love is kind…

 

If you are experiencing domestic or family violence, please seek help. Contact the Domestic Violence Crisis Service on 1300 782 200 or Domestic Violence Helpline on 1800 800 098. Information about other support services is available at beyondviolence.org.au

For more information and resources on domestic violence, please visit beyondviolence.org.au


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