Faith Based Issues and Domestic Violence
Abusers often use spiritual abuse as a way of controlling their victims. They misuse scriptures to justify physical, sexual and other abusive behavior. Advising a victim to pray, or become a more religious person, will not stop the abuse. Unfortunately, when a victim receives this kind of advice, she/he is often left feeling hopeless—unworthy of love, respect and dignity. Victims begin to question the validity of their faith, or may feel they must choose between their faith and their safety. Victims of domestic abuse need to hear that their faith tradition does not condone the abuse against them, and that their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being is important.
Spiritual abuse tactics can inflict considerable harm on victims of domestic violence, making them question their spiritual values and beliefs. Here are some examples of spiritual abuse used by a perpetrator:
- Abusers cite scripture to justify abusive, dominating or oppressive behavior.
- Abusers deny their partners the freedom to practice the religion of their choice.
- Abusers force their partners to violate their religious beliefs.
- Abusers shame or belittle their partners for their religious practices.
- Abusers make oppressive demands based on their interpretation of scriptures or other religious teachings (e.g., “the scriptures say that you need to obey me because you are my wife”).
- Abusers instill religious guilt in victims for not doing what they want them to do (e.g., “How can you call yourself religious if you don’t forgive me?”).
- Abusers’ sense of marital entitlement causes them to justify their sexual demands, including forced sex (i.e., marital rape).
- Abusers involve or force children to witness ritual abuse (e.g., sacrificing pets).
- Abusers manipulate others in their religious communities to control and ostracize their partners.
Forgiveness may be a long process for victims, and may not be possible at all. Forgiveness is not about pretending the violence never took place, and it is impossible for the victim to do so. It is important to be clear about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not excusing the abuser. It is not condoning the abusive behavior, and it does not give up on justice. Forgiveness is also different from reconciliation, which is a process where two people seek to restore a safe, compassionate, fair and kind relationship.
Joint counseling sessions can be dangerous for the victim of an abusive relationship, and are not appropriate. Not all victims are in need of therapy. Care should be taken to make other referrals.
Domestic violence is equally prevalent within faith and secular communities. It is easy to be blinded by familiarity or “picture-perfect” families. An abuser or a victim can be someone in your classes, your committees, your sanctuary.
People of faith will most likely reach out first to his/her own faith community in times of trouble. Therefore, well-informed and committed faith leaders are often in the best position to provide immediate support and referrals to domestic and sexual violence crisis centers and other community resources.
Appropriate response is crucial. To avoid feeling shamed or re-victimized, victims of domestic violence need validation and support in concert with a communal response to their safety needs. The community must jointly deny abusers’ justifications and hold them accountable for their actions. This is the only hope for preventing further abuse.
You must know how to respond, for the safety of the victim, the victim’s family, and your faith community. It is important to develop an action plan before there is a crisis. The plan should answer the following questions:
- How will our congregation respond to victims of domestic violence?
- How will we respond to those who choose to use abuse or violence against their partners or families?
- How will we respond if the victim/abuser is a leader or staff person in our faith community?
New Hampshire has numerous organizations and agencies, both secular and faith-based, to assist families dealing with domestic violence. You may contact the New Hampshire Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence or your local crisis center for training, resources or assistance in working with victims.
This page was adapted from the Faith Communities: Domestic Violence Protocol 2007, compiled by the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and the NH Attorney General’s Office.
Click here for more information on faith based issues around sexual assault.
Responding to Domestic Violence: Guidelines for Pastors, Rabbis, Imams, Priests and Other Religious Leaders. A document from the FaithTrust Institute
“Wings Like a Dove: Healing the Abused Christian Woman,” FaithTrust Institute
“To Save a Life: Ending Domestic Violence in Jewish Homes,” FaithTrust Institute