Domestic Violence Speech:
Tackling Domestic Violence and Abuse in Faith Communities,
23rd November, Kahrmel Wellness
That one in three women worldwide have experienced some form of gender-based violence, and 1 in 4 women in the UK is affected by Domestic Violence and Abuse, is unacceptable. That 1 in 5 children in this country have been exposed to domestic violence, is yet more shocking. Let us not forget though, that for every three victims of domestic abuse, whilst two will be female, one will be male. The equivalent of 2.2 million male victims and 4.3 million female victims. Domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone, of any gender, age, faith or background. Churches and religious institutions of all faiths, I believe, have a major part to play in ending domestic violence, at a local, national, and global level.
Crucially though, as has been so well set out today, this is not something that faith communities, of any kind, are immune from. The sad and shameful truth is, religious institutions can often be the worst places for perpetuating dangerous cultures of abuse, shame and cover-ups. That, above all else, should convict us to challenge this injustice.
That reality is starkly revealed in the fact that perhaps as many as 1 in 4 women in UK churches are victims or survivors of domestic violence or abuse, mirroring the picture in the rest of the country. Just as disgracefully, we know that child abuse can, and does, happen within churches and other religious institutions. This should move us, as Christians, and people of all faiths, into action. The God whom I worship, calls me to act against such injustice. God takes the side of the oppressed, and so must we.
Throughout history, churches have been at the forefront of positive social change. There are great examples of Christians throughout history who have taken a lead in taking on the biggest injustices of their time, with fearlessness and integrity. William Wilberforce led the campaign that ultimately abolished slavery; churches continue to fight modern slavery and human trafficking today. Martin Luther King courageously fought against racism, in the name of Christ’s vision of the equality of human beings. I am proud of the Church of England’s recent record on challenging debt and pay-day lending practices. The global crisis of domestic violence and abuse cries out for similarly courageous action in our generation. Together, in partnership with all survivors and victims, we need to speak out against it and stand firm, praying for justice and restoration of broken relationships.
There is a particular story in the Bible, in what as Christians we call the Old Testament, in 2 Samuel, which provides a useful illustration of what we are talking about. The passage tells the story of the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David, by her half-brother Amnon. It is a terrifying account of how lust, and the abuse of power, can inflict lifelong damage on a victim. Leading to an entrapping cycle of violence and retribution.
The sexual violence that results, has a severe effect on Tamar. She tears her dress and covers herself with ashes as a symbol of mourning, that she has been violated. This story, is a strong reminder that sexual violence causes immense pain and suffering, and is an affront to God. It is also an abuse of what we now call human rights.
What makes the passage particularly challenging and uncomfortable, is that in there is no justice for Tamar. It leaves us challenged to think about how the story could have been changed to prevent the rape in the first place; and then of how justice might have happened.
I am comforted, however, that within our faith and scriptures, we find a clear spiritual mandate to tackle this problem. The very essence of Christianity, the faith I represent, is sacrificial love and service, not power or domination. This idea must be at the heart of a Christian response to this issue. When Jesus told his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ in response to violence, this was not, and is not a call to passive submission. Instead, it was a radically anti-violent way of countering unjust violence. It was designed to expose and shame the perpetrators, leading them to change their ways. And so, for us, whatever faith we represent, helping victims and survivors to find strong peaceful ways of exposing domestic violence and abuse, must be key.
What does combatting this issue actually look like, in the modern church? What might it look like for all of us here, in our different faith communities, to practically challenge this injustice? I recognise of course, that I am speaking from a Christian perspective, and therefore will draw on examples of the church. I hope though, that the suggestions I outline will be applicable in many differing faith contexts.
Firstly, our places of worship: our churches, synagogues, mosques, as well as being sacred places also need to be safe spaces. Places of healing and restoration, where survivors of violence are loved, respected and supported. Jesus brought healing and restoration to many, and so must we. Part of this, is the brilliant work of Kahrmel Wellness is leading on: equipping and educating faith communities to respond to this issue. To not only call it out in the world outside and around us, but to recognise it in our own congregations and communities. We have a responsibility to ensure that in every staff or leadership team, of church, mosque, synagogue or other, there are people who have been adequately trained and equipped to walk with those who have experienced domestic violence. Crucial to this, is a culture of openness and transparency. All too often domestic violence is muffled by stigma and shame. What a witness it would be, if places of faith and worship, were places free of judgement, where survivors and victims could talk about their experiences. Places abounding in love, understanding and support.
Secondly, we must seek not only to support survivors, but to empower them. In particular, to empower women in our communities and congregations. Jesus’ respect and love for women who society called “sinful” and of little worth or value, shocked and appalled the religious and social elite of his day. From the bleeding woman whom he healed on the sabbath, to his many friendships with women, to his own stand against a gross act of violence against a woman who is about to be stoned for adultery. Regardless of our different faiths, we need to challenge any theology and teaching which in any way demeans women, or condones violence against them.
In the same way, Jesus had a remarkable, counter-cultural message about the dignity, worth and innate sanctity of children. He had a profound and special love for the youngest, in a hierarchical, patriarchal society where children would have afforded little respect or attention. He said that to welcome a child, was to welcome Christ himself, and that to enter the kingdom of God, we must all be like children. He is clear though, that to harm a child, and abuse that call, is a profound sin against God himself, and it would ‘be better to have a large millstone hung around one’s neck and cast into the sea’. We must take this teaching seriously, and care for and protect the youngest in our faith communities.
Finally, we must model healthy, loving relationships, through positive and respectful behaviours. Religious institutions, and the faiths they represent, should be cradles of moral integrity, and beacons of hope in our broken world. Not, places of shame or judgement. Jesus calls us to love one another, and I know that love is at the heart of many of the faiths represented here today. Abuse can have no place in any loving, respectful relationship. It is vital that the church, and other religious communities, promote positive, strong and mutually respectful relationships.
We must though, vitally, acknowledge the role which men must play in this. Too often, we focus on survivors of domestic or sexual abuse, and not upon the perpetrators. The men in our congregations and faith communities have a key role, in modelling respectful attitudes towards women. They must challenge abusive attitudes and behaviours amongst their male friends and colleagues. It is vital, as faith communities, that we have the integrity to confront perpetrators, and where perpetrators are committed to a long-term process of change and accountability, we are willing to engage and work with them. I praise Kahrmel’s work, of assisting faith communities to become facilitators of the crucial work required in the positive transformation of perpetrators.
Finally, if I may, I’ll sketch out some simple, tangible ways, that our places of worship can be equipped and ready, to tackle this injustice, from today. Something really basic, which I have observed in a handful of churches I’ve visited, is to display the phone number of domestic violence helplines, in toilets or on notice boards. Another great idea, would be adopting a domestic abuse charter, or a declaration for our places of worship, like the one I have before me, drawn up by Kahrmel. This is an excellent way of clearly setting out a zero tolerance approach to this injustice, to all who engage with our institutions. Finally, can I encourage leaders: preachers, Rabbis, Imams, be modelling this approach from the front. Particularly, being aware of the language we use in preaching. Language, the language we use around sexuality especially, can have a huge effect upon the attitudes and self esteem of someone who has experienced domestic violence, and so sensitivity around this is key. Preaching is also a wonderful opportunity to shape wider attitudes about respectful relationships.
I am proud of, and encouraged by the work within the Christian church which is already being done to stand up to this issue. Restored, an international Christian alliance working to transform relationships and end violence against women, have already trained hundreds of church leaders across the country to address domestic violence. Their First Man Standing campaign, asks men to respect women and challenge attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate violence against women, in themselves and other me.
This is in addition to their international mission, in Latin America, Zimbabwe, Kenya and India, where church training programmes are being piloted. Because, as we know, this is a global issue. The Anglican Mothers Union, will be engaging, from the 25th November, with the global 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. Throughout the campaign, members will join together with one voice, to raise awareness of, and call for, an end to gender-based violence in all forms, and in all societies
I am encouraged, too, by the work we have seen here today, by Kahrmel Wellness, which is brilliantly equipping and educating religious communities of different faiths, to say no to Domestic Violence and Abuse, in all varieties and contexts. I pray that their vision of faith communities transformed into fortresses of refuge and practical resources, will be realised across this nation.