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Faithful response

Interfaith summit on domestic violence explores how clergy can work to support victims, end violence

December 2, 2009

Atlanta

Faith leaders gathered here Nov. 17 for a Summit on Domestic Violence.  

Greg Loughlin and Taylor Tabb, co-coordinators of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence (GCFV) Fatality Review Project, along with the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, planned the Summit to equip religious leaders with skills necessary to respond effectively to issues of domestic violence. 

The summit came after GCFV’s research showed strong connections between faith communities and victims in fatal and near-fatal incidents of domestic violence.

Domestic violence has taken the lives of almost 500 Georgians in the last four years and is the leading cause of injury among Georgia girls and women between the ages of 15 and 44.

More than 50 church leaders came to the summit. They were male and female; black, white and Asian; young and older; Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Baha’i. Experts from Seattle’s FaithTrust Institute provided leadership.

“More women go to their clergy person than to law enforcement officers to make first reports of domestic violence,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch. “People define their lives in terms of their faith community. We have the opportunity and a biblical mandate to give help, or we are perpetuating abuse.”

The Rev. Sharon Ellis Davis, a United Church of Christ pastor who teaches at McCormick Theological Seminary, spoke about the pressure many victims perceive from religious leaders to remain in an abusive marriage. She explained that, on average, women leave abusive partners seven times before they finally leave or are killed by their abuser.

“The most danger a victim faces is at the time of leaving,” she said. “In 75 percent of all domestic violence fatalities, the woman was actively leaving the relationship.”

Broken Vows, a video developed by the institute, presented the stories of six battered women — Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant — discussing how religious teachings were misused in their own lives to perpetuate abuse and how religious communities can work to end domestic violence.

“If there is arguing, fighting and hitting in the family,” said a Jesuit priest in the video, “we can expect it in the streets. If we want to stop it in the streets, we have to stop it at home.”

Summit participants joined in an exercise in which Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scriptures were examined for the ways in which they could either be used as roadblocks to confronting violence in the family or as resources for victims of violence. Jessica Davenport, a young domestic violence victims’ advocate and active member of a faith community, raised the question of the extent to which religious leaders have a responsibility to critique oppressive teachings that seem to permit domestic violence.

Yolanda Davis, a recently ordained pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church, said, “It might not be that we’re so afraid to challenge the reading of scripture as it is that were afraid to challenge power in church leaders who may be abusers themselves.”

“Our job,” said Davis, “is the deconstruction of roadblocks and the reconstruction of resources.”

Quoting from Battered Women: From a Theology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment (Joy Bussert, 1986) she went on, “We need ... to begin articulating a faith that will provide women with resources for strength rather than resources for endurance. We must articulate a theology of empowerment rather than a theology of passive endurance.”

FaithTrust’s Rabbi Julie Schwartz advocated speaking about domestic violence from pulpits and in the prayers of the people as a crucial first step for faith communities.

“We need theological clarity that domestic violence has nothing to do with religion,” she said. “It’s all about power and control. You can’t use your religion to say violence is OK.”

Schwartz went on to offer three other goals for intervention in family violence by religious leaders. First, provide safety for victims and children. Go with them to court. Honor protective orders. Know how to refer victims to domestic violence programs and trained community advocates, rather than to traditional couples’ counseling.

Secondly, insist on accountability for the batterer. Support fulfillment of legal consequences of violence. Have clear guidelines for perpetrators who wish to remain in the faith community. Support the abuser in seeking specialized batterers’ intervention programs to help change violent behavior and offer safety for the batterer as well as the victim, through the establishment of appropriate boundaries.

And finally, assist in the restoration of the relationship, if appropriate, or provide for the mourning of the loss through prayers, rituals and pastoral care.

Toward the end of the day, Fatality Review co-coordinator Greg Loughlin said that when they’d begun planning the summit, they wondered where the faith community had gone with regard to domestic violence.

“We thought stuff wasn’t going on. Instead, there’s wonderful stuff. People are doing the work. You are doing the work,” he said. “What we need are connections between those people and momentum for the future.”

“Georgia has the unfortunate distinction of being ranked 14th in the nation for the rate at which men kill women in single-victim homicides, most of which are domestic violence murders. And too often, when these murders are committed, children are either injured, killed, or witness to the violent death of their beloved parent or caregiver” (Georgia Domestic Violence Fatality Review, 2008).

According to FaithTrust founder the Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, “There can be no healing without justice and justice requires courage.”

To view and consider signing the National Declaration by Religious and Spiritual Leaders to Address Violence Against Women, click here.

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