Domestic violence is a complex dynamic that is commonly characterized by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Survivors that identify with a specific faith or spirituality are susceptible to a different type of abuse known as spiritual abuse. Despite the previous history in which faith-based buildings served as sanctuaries, many have closed their doors to help victims in need.
According to research, religious texts, traditions, and spiritual counseling have been correlated with the process of healing for many domestic violence victims; however, spirituality is frequently exploited to pardon abuse (Stotland, 2000). Studies reveal that 25% of identified Christians are victims of abuse (Haaken, Fussell & Mankowski, 2007). Both famous quotes reiterated by important leaders along with scriptures from faith-based books have the power to re-victimize or shun away devout practitioners.
According to research conducted in the U.S., 22% of documented offenders attend church on a regular basis (Nason-Clark, 2004). Further inquiry revealed differences in participation among perpetrators. Individuals who had attended services sporadically were more likely to commit acts of violence towards their spouse versus those who attended services on a consistent basis.
Research illustrates differences in rate of abuse among faith-based practices. According to studies, Evangelical Christian men who attend church intermittently have been documented to have higher prevalence of domestic abuse than their Christian counterparts (Haaken, Fussell & Mankowski, 2007).
Up until the late 1950s, female survivors were glorified in their faith-based communities for enduring an abusive relationship (Haaken, Fussell & Mankowski, 2007). Debates among religious and spiritual leaders arose during the women’s rights movement, and many disagreed over the interpretation, critical explanation and the relevance in the time frame in which it was written.
The deliberation among religious leaders reached its climax during the second half of the 20th century as several Christian denominations proposed and later ordained women into priesthood (Stotland, 2000). The ordination of women caused upheaval in many religious sectors, as the idea proposed equality between the two genders. Spiritual abuse and the perpetuation of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse can be traced back to the years 570 CE (Nason-Clark, 2004).
The majority of clients who identify with Christian denominations confess seeking their religious leaders’ guidance only to be advised to enroll in faith-based couples counseling. Survey responses reports that 62% of religious leaders provided couples therapy as a solution to domestic abuse (Chisale, 2018). Although some religious leaders have good intentions, couples therapy rarely changes the nature of the abusive relationship as abuse is not a specific relationship matter. Abuse outside the context of a relationship is the manipulation of power over another, and thus a choice of the individual rather than a disconnect of communication.
Whether couples or individual counseling is pursued, both require those seeking treatment to take accountability for their actions and modify their behavior which is rarely the case for perpetrators. Instead, perpetrators place the blame on the victim and minimize accountability. Many faith-based leaders conduct the services themselves however, their lack of education on domestic violence reduced their ability to provide effective therapeutic services (Stotland).
Survivor testimonials have demonstrated how couples therapy is ineffective and in many cases, escalates the risk of danger for the victim. What a religious leader can perceive as a lack of communication between the couple, can underneath be the victim’s fear to speak honestly for fear of retaliation.
At the same time, when referred to couples therapy many male partners in heterosexual relationships not only refuse to go, but threaten their female counterpart if they attend. On the one hand, you have the perpetrator controlling the counseling session with his presence while also inflicting retribution for involving their religious leader into a “private matter.” Making haste decisions such as referring couples to counseling cannot only further the abuse, but in some cases make the abuse fatal.
Religious leaders play an important role in maintaining participation among its congregation by preaching and upholding the sanctity of marriage and family. Whether indirectly or intentionally, priest, pastors, Imams, and rabbis have condoned domestic violence among its assembly. Testimonials reveal how counsel given by religious leaders rely on prioritizing marriage or the family over their safety (Chisale, 2018). Common themes among religious leaders’ responses revolve around victim blaming.
Since perpetrators rarely exhibit their violent behaviors in public, many religious leaders along with non-involved faith-based members question the legitimacy of the claims as many are perplexed at the idea that a church member can exert such violence when they do not exhibit behaviors in their place of worship. Similarly, religious leaders react defensively and imply that their own behavior is causing their partner to react violently. Some leaders have suggested that the responsibility of diminishing the violence lies on the victims, and any failure to do so reflects on their “feeble” relationship with their higher power (Chisale, 2018).
In spite of the immense stride’s women have made within Christian denominations, several prominent pastors have publicly defended domestic abuse in the 21st century. Back in 2009, the high-profile evangelical minister John Piper was asked if a woman was abused by her husband what should her submission look like. The minister’s response was that she should withstand “verbal abuse for a season and experience being slapped at least one day before recurring support from the church (Levitt & Ware, 2006).
Another influential American pastor Steven Cole verbalized back in 2013 how women must endure both verbal and psychological abuse; however, if physical violence is involved only then should she seek support from the law and her church (Chisale, 2018). As late as 2016, evangelist pastor Kirk Cameron gave a consenting statement to the Christian post which stated how women ought to follow and not attempt to change their husbands, as each spouse submits to their role (Levitt & Ware, 2006).
Interviews with religious leaders illustrate how some leaders’ lack of knowledge regarding resources and shelters inadvertently perpetuate the abuse. Jane Doe describes how her Imams (Muslim religious leaders) was very sympathetic to her confession.
His response was to pray with her and counsel her to submit to his demands as the man is the “spiritual head.” Complementary to the advice given, faith-based leaders reiterate common themes along the lines of becoming more submissive, saving the sanctity of marriage, keeping the family unity, and maintaining face (Levitt & Ware, 2006).
All too commonly, religious leaders do not follow through when abuse is disclosed whether to refer to resources or investigate the matter further. Survivors disclose that many times in order to please their faith-based members they remain in the abusive relationship longer, as leaving the relationship translates to renouncing their faith.
From the Qu’ran to the Bible, verses have routinely been utilized to illustrate that domestic abuse is God’s will, ultimately condoning the abuse. The verses written in these sacred texts are subjective to interpretation and thus biased. Various sacred texts both covertly and overtly endorse a patriarchal society in which a man dominates over a woman. From this lens, women are taught to obey their husbands and honor God by not going above him (Smith, 2010).
Additionally, religious texts (Psalms 22 and 55) focus on suffering and how when an individual experiences suffering it is the divine power’s form of punishment for previous “sins” (Smith, 2010). Thus, victims will look into their past actions and recall what would be considered sinful (having sex before marriage, being a bad child growing up, or making a poor decision in marrying their partner in the first place) and acknowledge the current violence as a consequence for their actions.
The reiteration of readings from Judges 19:22-29, Deuteronomy 22: 13-21 and Number 5: 11-31 strive to remind women they are merely property and as such must meet all marital obligations willingly and consequently promoting marital rape (Spiegel, 1996). This form of spiritual abuse manipulates religious texts to minimize and rationalize all forms of abuse as God’s divine plan for the victim. Despite the healing process religious writings can have on a victim, the majority have been misinterpreted to perpetuate the abuse (Sheler, 2010).
Who Does It Affect?
Time and time again, sacred passages and their placing of men as the head of the spiritual household have systematically been used to oppress women within their communities of faith. Despite the similarities and differences between the Christian denominations, Jewish practices, and Muslim traditions, they all share the common perpetuation of abuse within the marriage (Akintoke, 2016).
Although they have different perspectives in regards to the purpose of suffering, the dynamic of a marriage, divorce, and forgiveness, their shared convictions on these matters further creates an environment of risk and isolation. The secular or religious approach of domestic violence in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities reflects the lack of knowledge and comprehension of the cycle of domestic abuse. The rationalization of abuse by these faith-based practices contributes to the self-blame, guilt and even death of victims.
For heterosexual couples who practice Christian teachings, the sanctity of marriage lies within the power for the wife to follow her husband. Both the bible and pastors often give wives instructions on what their marriage should look like. However, these directives are rarely given to men (Stotland, 2000). The most widely used are based on scriptures that state women should submit to their husband which is misinterpreted as submitting to abuse.
The expectations of a husband and wife in regards to physical and even sexual contact are mentioned, and describe the need for mutual respect. Nevertheless, even though there are over ten scriptures referencing a husband’s respect towards his wife, the only scriptures and directives given in public services and in a personal affair is that of a woman’s duty to submit (Haaken, Fussell & Mankowski, 2007).
Marriage in many cultures, religions, and traditions is viewed as a permanent union. Divorce despite being a legal right for all is not an option for many victims. Vows such as “’til death do us part” are more often than not taken into literal translation even when there is a high risk of death in an abusive home (Sheler, 2000). Even if a wife is able to obtain her divorce from the courts, the annulment process within the Christian denomination’s places victims in a vulnerable position to be revictimized.
Commonly, women who initiated the process were denied an annulment despite having evidence of the abuse filed in court. For female victims who were able to obtain an interview with the panel, countless were frequently subjected to the questioning of whether or not they baited the husband and even questioned her morals as well as her judgment (Sheler, 2000).
Testimonials reveal how the church’s aggressive position against divorce deters many victims from even considering asking support from the clergy. The common doctrinal assumption states that a marriage regardless of abuse is better than no marriage, and thus should be conserved. The Ten Commandments are considered to be the laws to which one as child of God should follow, and yet like scriptures have been manipulated to rationalize abuse.
The fourth commandment which states one should honor their father and mother has been routinely utilized by parents to misuse their authority and coerce their children to endure physical, psychological and sexual abuse. The frequent psychological abuse endured within the Christian community has caused many victims to disassociate with a parish, and for some turn away from God.
Suffering is a common theme in the Torah (Jewish holy book) and both the literal translation and the rabbi’s interpretation of suffering view it as divine punishment for sinful behaviors. The majority of the prayers observed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflect the repentance of wrongdoing and accept abuse per their belief that it is a divine consequence (Ben-Porat, Levy, Kattoura, Dekel, & Itzhaky, 2017).
Similar to the Christian faith, Judaism asserts that suffering is needed as a motivation for spiritual growth, and thus the sufferer is to accept and embody the abuse. According to the faith, those servants who suffer most are the ones HaShem (God) loves the most (Ben-Porat et al., 2017). To surrender to hardships is to prove one’s worthiness of HaShem’s love (Ben-Porat et al., 2017).
Kiddushin is the sanctification of marriage within the Jewish community. According to scripture (Gen. 2:18) HaShem declares it is not favorable for humans to be alone, and thus Jews view marriage as fundamental for self-realization (Spiegel, 1996). An essential value within the faith is peace within the home also known as Shalom Bayit (Rubin, & Mills, 2007).
However, the responsibility of maintaining the peace within the home lies on the wife on several occasions, and thus encouraging the continuation of abuse (Rubin, & Mills, 2007). Unlike the Christian marriage, ceremony Jews do not incorporate the “‘til death do us part.” Although Jews view marriage as the primary religious obligation and thus an everlasting commitment, they take into consideration the intricate complex dynamic that it takes to maintain a marriage. Undoubtedly, Jews recognize that divorce may be an imperative decision for some couples, yet the bill of divorce was I.