Loving Those Who Betray the Foundation of Love (Jan-Feb 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by David Livingston
January – February, 2008

It has been fifteen years since I first walked into a batterer’s treatment group in Nashville, Tennessee. I have gone in and out of working directly with men who beat their wife, girlfriend, or child. Much of what I do now is teach and lecture about the dynamics of domestic violence and how religious people and church communities might respond to this tragedy that remains ever present in our communities.

One of the greatest dilemmas that I have confronted over the years of working with and thinking about domestic violence and the men who perpetrate it is how to balance grace and justice. This is for me the fundamental paradox of human existence and those of us who find the Christian path to be life giving have the most poignant set of stories which reveal and illuminate this paradox. Jesus is so clear in his emphasis on justice for the marginalized and oppressed. At the same time Jesus claims that we are to visit those in prison and pray for our persecutors.

Little speaks in a more challenging way to a woman who has been beaten by her husband than the words “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The violation these women experience is so clear and yet this violation is sometimes coupled with a sense of love that can no longer be expressed. The community that surrounds and supports the survivors of domestic violence also faces this dilemma. How is one to interact with a man who has broken his wife’s arm or bludgeoned her face?

In my book Healing Violent MenHealing Violent Men, I have argued at much greater length than is possible here, that the balance of justice and grace can be found in the sacramental tradition of reconciliation. The tradition of reconciliation is one that calls on the community to demand of the perpetrator real and genuine contrition as well as “this worldly” satisfaction and making amends. It also recognizes that it may not be possible for the victim and perpetrator to reunite, but it demands that the community both love and hold accountable the perpetrator and care for and protect the survivor.

Our criminal justice system is an essential element in the struggle to reduce incidents of domestic violence, but the church communities cannot relinquish their responsibility to those who violate one of the most basic covenants in human society, that of the family. These men need our prayers and support while they are in prison, in treatment and on probation. They need groups of people who will hold them accountable to reimbursing their ex wife for her hospital bills and be sure that he follows the guidelines of the order of protection.

While all of this is being done, the batterer must be treated with respect. He must be loved. It is one of the most difficult things to love those who violate the innocent, but we are called to do this in spite of how difficult it is. We cannot demonize those who sin; we must work within our communities to bring these men face to face with their acts of violence and love them through their healing. This is overwhelming work that gradually wears down any individual who takes it up.

This is where the Christian community comes into play. It is through a community grounded in hope that we can continue to work with men who batter and with the survivors of their brutality. Without a community of support the survivors, the perpetrators, and those who work in the field will all suffer. It is in and through the Spirit which enlivens and strengthens the ecclesial community that the work of ending domestic violence begins. The Spirit offers us hope when we are overwhelmed by the repetitive nature of domestic violence and the Spirit allows us to love those that we feel we cannot love.
New Wineskins

David J. LivingstonDavid J. Livingston is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst College, Erie, Pennsylvania. An experienced pastoral counselor, Livingston has counseled batterers and has devised and implemented these church programs for them. Reach him at [dlivingston@mercyhurst.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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