The Complex Nature of Domestic Violence and Religion
Domestic abuse is horrific and unacceptable in every case, however, the added component of religion changes the way that social workers, friends, clergy and victims understand domestic violence, cope with abuse, and how they move forward.
I wholeheartedly believe that when a serious incident such as Buffalo’s recent tragedy becomes public, it is imperative that it results in a thought-provoking discussion so that we may all be better informed and more aware of the dangers of abuse.
The first thing I would note is that it is dangerous to approach anything from a strictly secular or strictly religious perspective. Both viewpoints must be considered.
Understanding Domestic Abuse
Both domestic abuse and religion are difficult topics, and they are further complicated by frequent misperceptions of teachings and the blending in of cultural traditions (good or bad) that may not be tied to religion at all.
The notion that Muslim teachings permit the abuse of wives by their husbands is false. Islamic teachings clearly state that the best are those who treat their wives well.
Islamic teachings are not alone when it comes to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Christian teachings are also misused, like verses from Ephesians commonly used in Christian wedding vows, “Wives submit to your husband, as to the Lord.” (NIV, Ephesians 5:22) When it comes to abuse, the word “submit” has been interpreted by some as a written obligation for women to concede to abuse whether that be in the form of verbal, physical, mental or sexual. Clearly, this is not what was intended by the passage. It begs the question, why are religious teachings to easy to misinterpret?
These old written laws are difficult to understand in the context of today’s society, they have been translated and retranslated into a plethora of languages where meaning or connotation cannot be directly translated. There are thousands of books dedicated to interpreting different translations of holy teachings and written laws. For example, the Ephesians verse extracted earlier from the Christian Bible can also be translated as “accommodate your husband,” challenging the implied notion of male dominance.
We also must consider that a single verse plucked out of its original context changes its meaning even if the words remain the same. For example, that same Ephesians passage goes on the address the duties of a husband stating that “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies,” and calls on men to neither stain nor blemish the body of their wife.
Another explanation of why the written word from thousands of years ago is misunderstood is because society has changed dramatically, and monumental steps have been made toward equality and women’s rights. Even if we aren’t yet where many aspire to be, over the last 2000 years immense progress has been made. So antiquated words from a society unlike our own must be adapted to reflect the progress we, as a society, have made.
The teachings do not permit nor condone domestic abuse, yet it continues in homes with and without religion.
Coping with Domestic Abuse
Domestic abuse is a crisis, even if the abuser or the victim attempts to belittle the situation. For many, the event of a crisis becomes a time to search for meaning, to seek a motive for a single incident or the meaning of life. And religion gives meaning for things great and small. This is why faith becomes an essential part of life for many people during times of crisis.
Religion asserts purpose in suffering, and many religious people believe that suffering is the will of a higher being meant to punish. Religious victims of abuse may experience feelings of punishment that evoke guilt, shame, self-blame and further suffering. Yet, domestic abuse is never deserved, and the suffering it causes is not the penalty of any sin.
And though religious teachings like parables can offer valuable wisdom, they may also trivialize very complex issues such as domestic violence, seeking a simple solution when there isn’t one.
The range of coping mechanisms is great, and each individual person copes differently, but every person suffering trauma needs support. Personal faith and religious communities can offer tremendous support in times of need.
Religion in this case has the potential to harm, help or do both at once.
Seeking Help for Abuse
Jewish teachings honor peace and tranquility, yet sometimes tranquility is emphasized to keep serious problems within the family, so that conflicts are invisible from the outside. A survey of Jewish families revealed that 61 percent of the families believe that domestic violence is not a problem within the Jewish community, yet the rates of domestic violence in Jewish communities are the same as general statistics.
Also, feelings of shame keep victims of abuse from seeking outside help, even from a Rabbi, pastor or counselor.
Domestic violence is the single major cause of injury to women in America, and nearly one-quarter (12 million) of women will be abused in their lifetime by a partner. Approximately 10 percent of Muslim women are abused by their husbands. Yet, it is taboo for a Muslim woman to speak out against her husband.
It is critical therefore that families understand that religion does not support domestic violence, and that seeking help is the right thing to do.
Result of Domestic Violence
If the victim of abuse chooses to not seek help — whatever the reason may be — the result may be more consequential than they know. If abuse goes untreated, more than likely it will continue and deepen. Psychological abuse can lead to physical abuse, and the range of victims may also extend to include children or animals.
It is especially important to be mindful of children who are victims of domestic violence because the most common factor amongst abusers is that they were once abused themselves. Domestic violence is passed generationally. But seeking treatment for abuse can be a window for change, ending the pattern of abuse.
I hope that by illuminating the dangers of domestic abuse and religion, an open discussion will emerge. Together, we can provide an opportunity for victims to seek help. There are thousands of shelters for victims of abuse that offer a place to go and a person to talk to. And if someone you know is a victim of abuse be conscientious of their faith or religion, as it may be an integral part of coping with their trauma.
Any thoughts or comments are always welcomed.
If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, please call 1-800-799-7233 (U.S. phone number only).