Faith and Abuse
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Every day innocent women and men "suffer" as victims of domestic violence. Children and the mentally disabled are often targeted as defenseless subjects for sexual manipulation and abuse while wives often suffer that and numerous other manifestations of dominance, power, and control. Each one "suffers" the pains associated with the loss of autonomy over his/her bodily integrity and its sacred-nature.
Many have "sacrificed" their will to vile perpetrators under force and/or threat of imminent death. Others have been "sacrificed" by a skewed sense of obedience to the so-called Christian concepts of nonresistance and pacifism. Rape, sodomy, incest, pedophilia, sexual assault, and sexual battery are just a few sex crimes defined in the American Law Institute Model Penal Code (ALI Official Draft, 1962). These are neither intimate crimes nor are they act of intimate violence. They are crimes of power -- criminal acts of domestic violence – often sexual crimes.
Marital rape occurs far more frequently and disturbingly than the community at large wants to acknowledge. It is a tool used by husbands to dominate their wives and assert their power through violent means. Marital rape has not been given the right response, since the mainstream idea is that rape cannot exist between married couples. Furthermore, if it is even considered rape, it is usually dismissed as the woman not feeling the desire to have intercourse and the husband coercing her too. This is far from reality. Marital rape is extremely violent, destructive, and highly isolating. Victims of this kind have an even harder time coming forward or identifying their abuse. It has been noted by the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse that 10-14% of women will be raped at some point in their marriage [citation].
The first two concepts generally seemed entirely antithetical to the third. Yet, Jesus' call of Levi to take up one's cross, deny one's self, and follow Christ is understood as the Christian's clarion call to suffering and self-sacrifice.
This is often taught as the centerpiece from which all else emanates in Christian theology. Is this not an oppressive theology? Isn't there some discrepancy here? Did not Isaiah and Christ say that the Spirit of the Lord anoints one to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor? Was Christ not a liberationist? How then is following Christ equivalent to justifying, rationalizing, or endorsing suffering? And how does this apply in the context of domestic violence?
European male theologians (and Western thinkers in general) have historically espoused interpretations, pedagogies and theologies without contextualization as though theirs is a universal truth. Unfortunately, many practitioners (pastors, scholars and laypersons alike) have accepted and utilized these concepts in like manner. One of the most popular examples of this is Deitrich Bonhoeffer's - The Cost of Discipleship. In this text, he articulates a theology wherein true discipleship has as its mandate a requisite obedience to suffering -- "only [one] who believes is obedient and only [one] who is obedient believes" (Bonhoeffer, 63). For Bonhoeffer, "[s]uffering is the badge of true discipleship" (91).
Unidentified oppressors were apparently his anticipated audience. The social locations of Bonhoeffer and other so-called "classical" European theologians disclose an inherent assumption of such "cost of discipleship" paradigms. As European men of privileged economic status growing up in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, they had multifarious options. They could even choose to sacrifice themselves. Moreover, they could choose to suffer.
In like manner, this theological model presumes an optional submission to suffering -- a choice of self-sacrifice -- an acceptance of evil. While it is unlikely that either would have endorsed exploitative suffering, they were limited by their contexts and could only foresee certain implications of their words. It should be noted, however, that even Bonhoeffer in later works, such as Ethics, recognizes the limitations of this theology and the need for contextualization.
Oppression depends on one's context and perspective. Even Jurgen Moltmann acknowledges that oppression always has two aspects: on the one side stand the oppressors, on the other side the oppressed. "On the one side stands the master, on the other side the slave; on the one side the exploiter, on the other his victim; on the one side the victor, on the other those who are subjugated" (69). He goes on to state that oppression destroys humanity on both sides but in different ways: on the one side through evil, on the other through suffering. The evil of the one is the cause of the suffering of the other, and the latter is the consequence of the former" (69). Therefore, the need for contextualization is clear.
Even in the scriptures of the New Testament, Jesus contextualizes. Jesus' commands differ when he is speaking to the oppressed/victimized than when he is speaking to the oppressors/victimizers. For instance, Levi was a tax collector. He, like Nicodemus, was one of the wealthier members of the society. Both Levi and Nicodemus are commanded to "suffer" and "sacrifice" their affluence as means of salvation and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Yet, when interacting with the ailing, blind and disenfranchised Jesus' message, through either his actions or his words, is one of liberation and empowerment.