To those who find strength or peace in their religion, it may seem helpful to advise those they meet who are struggling to do the same.
Have you tried church? Prayer has really helped me.
Surely survivors of domestic violence, who may feel traumatized, lost and alone could benefit from knowing a higher power is taking care of them, grieving alongside them, at the ready to help. Right?
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Not always. Unsurprisingly, abusers have been using religion as a way to justify their control and violence for centuries, and some religions continue to put the onus for ending domestic violence on the victim.
“I’ve spoken to thousands of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s witnesses, Hindus and those of the Jewish faith who were battered. In pretty much every case, the scriptures of their religion had been somehow twisted [by the religious leaders] to convey they should be submissive to their husband,” says domestic violence advocate and educator Julie Owens told DomesticShelters.org.
To abusers who misuse religion, their religious texts apparently imply domestic violence isn’t all that bad. And some spiritual leaders believe in a similar rhetoric. Owens says she’s known of survivors who reached out to their church for support while in the midst of abuse, only to hear the church leaders say things like, “It’s your cross to bear” or “Just pray for him.”
Ruth Jewell, a retired domestic advocate of over 20 years and current member of the DomesticShelters.org editorial advisory board, says she remembers vividly a particular survivor who came to a Maine shelter where she used to work. Her voice barely above a whisper, curled up in a chair, she was terrified to disclose the abuse she had been enduring for 17 years after her father forced her to marry the man who raped her, resulting in the first of her seven children.
“We had many hours of conversations about her feeling guilty for betraying her vows, betraying her family, betraying God,” says Jewell.
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But isn’t rape against God’s will? Jewell says the woman was taught, according to her faith, that the man was the head of the household and it was the woman’s duty to submit to his will, especially after he took her virginity.
Eventually, Jewell was able to convey to the survivor that the rape and abuse were indications of the abuser breaking his vows long before she broke hers in seeking a divorce.
“It literally took months for her to understand .... God never intended marriage to be abusive.”
Pushing Religion Isn’t About the Survivor
When a person of faith is adamant that their religion is the only true and right path to follow, it may be more about fear than anything else, says Owens, who, along with her reverend father, has been educating faith leaders about domestic violence issues since she survived a domestic violence assault in 1989.
“I think it’s really about control and fear. When you’re raised in a faith about hell and damnation, then you worry about your friends [not going to heaven] – you think it’s your job to help them ‘see the light’ and all that,” says Owens. “Some faith traditions are more rigid than others and they’re more focused on doctrine and rules than they are on love, compassion and understanding.”
Pushing religion can actually push a survivor away, Owens points out. She quotes the well-known spiritual writer Anne Lamott, then, who once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
A Better Way
Even if a support person or advocate has personally found faith healing, the better way to involve that is to say something along the lines of, “What makes you feel good? What’s a self-care act that makes you feel safe? For me, it’s faith, prayer, the church. What is yours?”
Owens seconds that suggestion.
“For a person of faith to share how their faith helped them, that’s fine, talk about how your faith worked for you. But to pressure someone is just to be another abuser.”
It’s important to be sensitive about giving unsolicited advice in general to survivors. Saying “no thank you” might take more strength than one can imagine.
“It’s hard for a lot of survivors — being assertive is what got them hurt. It puts survivors in a really difficult and unfair situation to try to coerce them to do anything.”
For more information on this topic you may want to check out 5 Ways to Recognize Religious Abuse, Do You Feel Trapped by Your Faith and our selection of 10 recommended books on the intersection of spirituality and domestic violence.
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