Justifying Domestic Violence?

It is astonishing to me how many people don’t understand how easily it is to justify violence, especially in the Church. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Most evangelicals are still strict complimentarian-patriarchalists. But even those I thought were more sane in their approach can fall prey to bad assumptions. Here’s a comment from a respected ministry guy who accepts women’s ordination and who has proved to be very wise on a lot of subjects (I won’t name him for his own benefit):

I agree: Men should never hit women. On that I completely, wholeheartedly, and unequivocally agree. Any man who physically, sexually, or verbally abuses a woman is nothing but a coward in my eyes. Man up. Live up to the name “gentlemen.” Treat others as you would like to be treated. That should not be the end of the discussion, though. Yes, let’s talk about the man’s behavior and do so in incredibly critical ways. At the same time (not “But”), let’s also talk about the woman’s behavior. In my opinion, significant societal progress will not be made until we’re able to have a thoughtful public discourse about both sides of the equation. The fact that discussing one-half of the behavior involved seems culturally taboo is a significant problem. Of course, I know why that is. Experience tells me that few people are able to engage in that conversation without immediately inserting foot in mouth, making some profoundly stupid and insensitive and hurtful comments. At their very worst, such comments can victimize the victim all over again. Not good. So it’s easier to simplify it to an absolute rule of “Just say no” without further dialogue. Yet that approach doesn’t work. It never does on a large-scale. As one born in 1985, I can tell you that it didn’t work with D.A.R.E. and it didn’t work with abstinence-only sex education. Likewise, it doesn’t work with domestic violence. There’s a crucial distinction to be made between understanding ad justifying. I’ll say it again. We need to be able to thoughtfully discuss the behavior of all parties involved. To my eyes that is nothing if not reasonable.

The guise by which we can sneak our poor assumptions in is through our appeal to “reasonableness.” Everybody likes a good, balanced discussion. Except that in this case, this is not a balanced discussion. This is the implicit justification of domestic violence. In the abstract it sounds perfectly acceptable to say that we should consider both sides; in philosophy and theology this is indeed a strength. But this does not necessarily apply when dealing with specific real-world situations.

The response with violence is never an acceptable response. It does not matter what the victim was doing, violence is never a proportionate response. So we should have no need to “talk about the woman’s behavior.” (Let’s include abused men here too and say that the victim’s behavior, regardless of gender, is not what is under review in trying to figure out what happened). There is no behavior on display that justifies violence as a response. It doesn’t matter what the victim was doing – the moment a punch was thrown you have crossed into unacceptable behavior. It doesn’t matter if they pissed you off. It doesn’t matter if they were annoying you, or even screaming at you. It doesn’t even matter if you have PTSD or “trigger words.” Violence is always a choice, which means we always have the opportunity to say no.

So how does this kind of superficial “reasonableness” imply victimization? Because it blames the victim for the event, even if handled in the nicest, kindest way. It does not do so directly, so you don’t have to intend to blame the victim or consciously realize this is what you are doing. The point is that implicit in the very assumptions of the statement above is assigning blame, or partial blame, up0n the victim. You cannot say what is said above to the face of an abused woman and not have it come across as blaming them. “You know it takes two to have an argument.” “What were you doing, Mrs. Brown?” Implicit in the claim that we “need to be able to thoughtfully discuss the behavior of all parties involved” is that both parties worked to provoke an act of violence. This also implies that women ought to learn how to walk on eggshells around their husbands so to not contribute to a situation that would result in violence. But this is not their responsibility. Our approach to the situation must not be, “Learn how not to get punched, Mrs. Brown” but “Stop punching your wife, you bastard.”

And what of those women for whom the only trigger in their husbands is alcohol? Or walking in the room at the wrong moment? Or asking how their day was? Or saying that dinner is ready? Anyone who can sit across from a woman with a black eye and bruises all along her body and ask her, “How did you contribute to the situation?” should not hold any counseling or pastoral position anywhere at any time. This is a mark of disqualification from oversight and care. It is no different from asking the rape victim, “What were you wearing?” That is irrelevant to the case of being raped. No outfit (or indeed no outfit at all) is “asking for” being raped.

We must stop victimizing the victims, blaming the victims, and focus on healing and caring for them. They need no more burdens placed upon them. Stop. Please.

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