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Toward an Understanding and Faithful Response

Patricia Hoertdoerfer

We live in a culture of violence. The Children’s Defense Fund reported in 2003 that every day 2,140 babies are born in poverty, nearly 12 children and youth under the age of 20 die from firearms, 218 young people are arrested for violent crimes, 144 children are abused and neglected, and 5,760 women are battered. We live in a world of hate crimes and teen suicides, violent music videos and video games, high school shootings, and Internet pornography. Violence permeates American life from the private sphere to the public arena. We are a country born in violence and continually formed in violence—the violence of conquest, colonization, conversion, and civilization. The macrocosm of American culture and history is reflected in the microcosm of faith communities and Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations.

Each day we read news stories detailing the latest allegations and arrests of sexual abuse, clergy misconduct, and acquaintance rape in communities across our country. This culture has entered our lives, our communities, and our congregations. Family conversations and congregational discussions often take on violent language and heated rhetoric inappropriate for a UU family or a faith community. It happens in UU households or congregations when one person offers a different perspective or asks a difficult question, when one member passionately takes a position or accepts a leadership role. If this disrespectful, uncivil behavior is not confronted and addressed, it becomes accepted and condoned. We must name the abusive behavior in its many forms, overcome the secrecy and shame, and address interpersonal violence. Until all relationships-between young and old, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, liberal and conservative-can be respectful and healthy; none of us is safe.

Our religious heritages—Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist—compel us to address the important, widespread, and complex social issues of abuse and interpersonal violence. Physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse; sexual exploitation; partner abuse; child abuse; and elder abuse—all profoundly affect all participants by diminishing human dignity and free choice. In our religious communities breaches of trust, faith, and safety in our congregations undermine the foundations of our personal and communal covenants.

Our faith demands our service in promoting and creating communities of peace, love, and justice for all. Our faith calls us to practice our relational theology by respecting the worth of every person and the sacredness of every person’s sexuality while honoring the wholeness of life in the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Our faith calls us to treat others with justice, equality, and compassion while we work to create environments, locally and globally, that lend themselves to modeling liberty, peace, and justice in human interactions. Our faith calls us to act in ways that foster well-being in ourselves and others by doing no harm and acting responsibly to create communities and institutions that are safe and nonviolent. Finally, our faith calls us to be courageous and committed leaders in the ongoing search for truth and meaning, spiritual freedom, and ethical responsibility.

Interpersonal violence is a form of dehumanization in our society perpetuated by those with power over others who use intimidation, coercion, threats, deceit, isolation, sexuality, and privilege to dominate and control. This violence is physical, emotional, sexual, social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and/or political behavior used to harm, oppress, and control children, youth, women, and men. In Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin, Marie Fortune writes that interpersonal violence is a symptom of social conditions that maintain the imbalance of power and societal privilege.

Abuse and sexual violence can take many forms, including rape, sexual abuse, incest, sexual harassment, family violence, and child abuse. It is impossible to obtain complete and accurate data, but FBI researchers estimate that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn sixteen, and that 75 to 95 percent of these abused children are victimized by someone they know—a sibling, parent, stepparent, cousin, uncle or aunt, grandparent, neighbor, or teacher. The vast majority of abusers are adults on whom the victims are dependent, physically and emotionally. The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect reports that 3 million incidents of abuse were reported in the United States in 2000. As shocking as this number is, the total number of children and youth involved in these reported incidents is closer to 5 million. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 6 million more incidents go unreported each year.

Abuse—the misuse of power in a relationship to manipulate, control, or hurt—takes many forms:

  • Physical abuse is deliberate and intentional harm to the body of a child, youth, adult, or elder. Examples may include violent battery with a weapon (such as a knife or belt), burning, choking, fracturing bones, and other non-accidental injuries.
  • Emotional abuse is harm that deeply affects a child’s, youth’s, adult’s, or elder’s self-esteem. This type of abuse exposes the person to spoken and/or unspoken violent language and emotional cruelty.
  • Sexual abuse is the use, inducement, or coercion of a child, youth, adult, or elder by another person, who is usually older and more powerful, to engage in sexual conduct. Examples of sexual abuse include fondling, intercourse, incest, exploitation, and exposure to pornography and/or prostitution.
  • Neglect occurs when a parent, relative, or caregiver endangers a child’s, youth’s, adult’s, or elder’s health, welfare, and safety through negligence. It may include withholding food, medical care, affection, or proper living quarters for a long time.

Abusers use their power—their age, physical strength, authority, knowledge, and resources—to take unfair advantage of their victims. Without some kind of intervention, the violence usually gets worse. For example, verbal/emotional abuse may start as name-calling and criticizing, escalate to yelling and humiliation, and end with the victim’s suicide. Sexual abuse may begin with unwanted touching or viewing pornographic pictures, escalate to sexual talk and forced sex, and end in rape.

Sexual assault is the act of forcing or threatening a person to engage in an unwanted sexual act.

  • Rape is simply defined as “forced sex.” Stranger rape is perpetuated by a person unknown to the child, youth, adult, or elder assaulted. Marital rape or spousal rape is inflicted by a marriage partner, usually the husband. Coercion sex involves “consent” that is at least partly motivated by fear that rape will otherwise occur.
  • Acquaintance rape and date rape are similar. These terms describe rape of an acquaintance. The perpetrator may be a family member or dating partner.
  • Incest is sexual intercourse between two persons too closely related to legally marry.
  • Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as the use of one’s authority or power, either explicitly or implicitly, to coerce another into unwanted sexual relations or the creation of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment through verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Acquaintance rape and sexual harassment are forms of sexualization, the use of sexuality to influence, manipulate, or control others. Stereotypes of gender-role behaviors strongly promote sexual harassment and acquaintance rape.

These various forms of interpersonal exploitation can range from harmless manipulation (flirting) to extreme violence (rape). The term sexualized behavior includes various forms of touch and other physical and verbal behavior and refers to words, touches, or actions that communicate sexual interest. Sexual harassment is by definition abusive. Sexualized behavior is in itself neutral. It becomes good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, as a result of the balance or imbalance of power in the relationship and/or the presence or absence of choice. But this concept of sexualized behavior is complex because it varies between cultures as well as between subcultures. For example, for a woman to meet a man’s gaze is considered provocative in some cultures whereas in other cultures, it is neutral or confrontational. For males to hold hands is considered an indication of sexual interest and/or homosexual orientation in mainstream North American culture, whereas in other cultures it is routine and conveys nothing about sexual orientation.

Safe Sanctuaries

While a faith community cannot guarantee the safety of every person, every UU congregation can be responsible for reducing the risk and eliminating the circumstances that lead to harm. Leaders and members need to work together to ensure that the congregation’s covenant and mission are carried out in responsibly safe circumstances. Congregations must remember the pledge made to all children during their dedication ceremonies and the celebration of all youth during their Coming of Age services.

The work of UU congregations is to create and preserve the safety and trust in which spiritual growth and ethical action can occur. Violations of trust fracture a faith community and destroy the basis of ministry. Ministers are bound by their calling and lay leaders are bound by their covenant to lead faithfully and guard the safety of the congregation for all members. A sexual relationship or sexualized behavior between a minister and a congregant is an abuse of clergy power and is inappropriate. No congregation can afford—spiritually, ethically, legally, or financially—to fail to live up to its covenant of trust by implementing strategies for reducing and preventing abuse and interpersonal violence.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is the mistreatment of one family member by another. In Violence in the Family, Marie Fortune states that domestic violence refers to a pattern of violent and coercive behavior exercised by one adult in an intimate relationship over another. Most often perpetrators of abuse and battering are spouses, ex-spouses, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, or lovers. Most often victims of this kind of abuse are women and children. The abuse can be physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, economic, and psychological. Domestic violence is a problem of epidemic proportions in our country and in our communities. Every fifteen seconds, a woman in the U.S. experiences the terror and humiliation of being battered by a spouse or partner, and 2 to 4 million women are assaulted each year by their husbands or boyfriends. In 2000, 1,247 women were killed by intimate partners. That same year, 440 men were killed by an intimate partner, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

As UU leaders we must teach that violence is not an appropriate way to handle conflict. Clergy are present as officiates and symbols at almost every significant rite of passage and occurrence in the lives of our congregants. Lay leaders fill an unparalleled role in offering care, healing, and hope to abused women, men, children, and elders. Our help must include compassionate caring, practical guidance, and nurturing faith.

UU clergy and lay leaders can become more knowledgeable about family violence and respond appropriately. We must acknowledge both secular awareness and religious concerns. We need to identify how the issues of diverse theology, ethnicity, age, and community define (and particularize) the characteristics of family violence. Family Violence and Religion: An Interfaith Resource Guide teaches us that with greater knowledge and understanding, we can resist evil, protect the harmed, and affirm the purpose of families.

In breaking the silence about family violence, religious professionals and lay leaders need to name it for what it is and become prophetic voices and powerful antidotes to the cultural and religious norms in our society. By confronting the myths about domestic violence, we gain an understanding of the problem and clarify our pastoral responses.

To further our understanding of domestic violence, consider the following myths and facts adapted from the SafeHouse Center Inc., in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Myth 1 Domestic violence only occurs in minority, poor, poorly educated, or “dysfunctional” families.

Fact There are doctors, ministers, psychologists, and professionals who beat or abuse their wives. Battering happens in rich, white, educated, and respectable families. About half of the couples in the U.S. experience violence at some time in their relationship.

Myth 2 The problem is not really woman abuse. It is spouse abuse. Women are just as violent as men.

Fact In over 95 percent of domestic assaults, the man is the perpetrator. To end domestic violence, we must scrutinize why it is usually men who are violent in partnerships. We must examine the historic and legal permission that men have been given to be violent in general and to be violent toward their wives and children specifically. There are rare cases in which a woman batters a man. Battering does occur in some lesbian and gay male relationships.

Myth 3 When there is violence in the family, all members of the family are participating in the dynamic, and therefore all must change for the violence to stop.

Fact Only the perpetrator has the ability to stop the violence. Many women who are battered make numerous attempts to change their behavior in the hope that this will stop the abuse. This does not work. Changes in family members’ behavior will not cause or influence the batterer to be nonviolent.

Myth 4 Domestic violence is usually a one-time event, an isolated incident.

Fact Battering is a pattern, a reign of force and terror. Once violence begins in a relationship, it gets worse and more frequent over time. Battering is not just one physical attack. It’s one person’s domination and control of the other. It is a number of tactics (intimidation, threats, economic deprivation, and psychological and sexual abuse) used repeatedly.

Myth 5 Battered women always stay in violent relationships.

Fact Many battered women leave their abusers permanently, and despite many obstacles, succeed in building a life free of violence. Almost all battered women leave at least once. The perpetrator dramatically escalates his violence when a woman leaves (or tries to) because it is necessary for him to reassert control and ownership. Battered women are often very active (and far from helpless) on their own behalf. Their efforts often fail because the batterer continues to assault them and institutions fail to offer protection.

Myth 6 The community places responsibility for violence where it belongs—on the criminal.

Fact Most people blame the victim of battering for the crime, sometimes without realizing it. They expect the woman to stop the violence and repeatedly analyze her motivations for not leaving rather than scrutinizing why the batterer keeps beating her and why the community allows it.

Myth 7 If a battered woman wanted to leave, she could just call the police.

Fact  Police have traditionally been reluctant to respond to domestic assaults or to intervene in what they consider a private matter. People of color may be reluctant to call the police because law enforcement officers often exemplify racist attitudes and behaviors.

Myth 8 If a battered woman really wanted to leave, she could just pack up, go, and get help somewhere else.

Fact Battered women considering leaving their assailants are faced with the very real possibility of severe physical harm or even death. Assailants deliberately isolate their partners and deprive them of jobs and opportunities for acquiring education and skills. This, combined with unequal opportunities for women in general and a lack of affordable childcare, makes it excruciatingly difficult for women to leave. Some priests, clergy, and rabbis have been extremely supportive of battered women. Others ignore abuse, are unsupportive, or actively support the assailant’s control of his power because of a lack of training and understanding.

Myth 9 Men who batter are often good fathers and should have joint custody of their children.

Fact At least 70 percent of men who batter their wives, sexually or physically, abuse their children. All children suffer from witnessing their father assault their mother.

Ministry in Response

The stories of interpersonal violence against children and women and in teen relationships are everywhere. Tales of abuse in families are common in our communities. Marie Fortune writes in Sexual Violence,

Prevention of (interpersonal) violence requires addressing the root causes of the problem. Sexual violence is a widespread problem, taking place in a broad social context which allows and even encourages it to occur. Rape and child sexual abuse are life-threatening by-products of a violent, sexist and racist society.

Often victims first turn to their religious communities for help. In her essay “Ministry in Response to Violence in the Family: Pastoral and Prophetic, ” Fortune states that the task of ministry is to provide the resources of faith and the congregation to accomplish the following goals:

  • Protection of the victim/victims from further abuse. The immediate safety of the person(s) harmed must be served.
  • Stopping the abuser’s violence. This means immediate cessation of the abusive behavior and calling the abuser to account in order to prevent its continuation. The minister can make it clear that this behavior is intolerable, immoral, and criminal in most states.
  • Restoration of relationship if possible or mourning the loss of the relationship. But restoration of a relationship is impossible prior to the authentic achievement of the two more urgent goals of protection and ending the violence.

Religious professionals’ and lay leaders’ prophetic response to interpersonal violence and abuse begins by breaking the silence and speaking openly from the pulpit, in communities, and in congregational newsletters. Ministers and leaders should be prepared for disclosures from congregants of any age. They must empathize with victims, validate their experiences, and help them solve their problems. This response requires knowledge of local resources.

Religious educators can do their greatest ministry to families by providing education that supports healthy family relationships and prevents abusive relationships. The Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education series offers opportunities at several significant points in the life cycle to provide healthy norms and expectations for right relationships. Children need prevention education. We need to teach them self-respect and self-confidence and give them permission and the skills to say “no” to any adult who may harm them. Teenagers who are exploring their sexuality and their relationships need accurate information in order to have expectations about mutuality, choice, and respect in a relationship. Adults who are approaching marriage and life-long commitment need to have opportunities to reflect carefully on their expectations of each other and their relationship. Adult children who are facing the illness or disability of an adult parent need information, resources, and congregational support to deal with the stress of possible elder abuse or neglect.

What does our faith require of us? Is a faithful response to interpersonal violence and abuse possible in our congregations? Can UU clergy and lay leaders speak prophetically and respond pastorally to all forms of interpersonal violence? Our faith calls us to work for justice that provides healing and promotes equality and compassion. The following essays articulate faithful responses to the many forms of interpersonal violence. May we cast our lot with those workers who, in the words of Adrienne Rich, “age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

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