Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

Holy Hush or Shattered Silence (Jan-Feb 2008)

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Abuse and the Christian Church

by Nancy Nason Clark
January – February, 2008

Holy Hush: intentional silence concerning the subject of abuse in families of faith by religious leaders and the congregations that they serve; neglect—willful or unintentional—of religious victims, perpetrators and their families by their faith communities.

Shattered Silence: intentional words and actions concerning the subject of abuse in families of faith by religious leaders and the congregations that they serve; support—emotional, practical and spiritual—of religious victims, perpetrators and their families by their faith communities.

Abuse is ugly. It is always wrong. It is never part of God’s design for healthy family living. It distorts relationships and shatters dreams. It creates pain and despair.

Violence against women is a pervasive reality. It exists in every country of the world, among all people groups, in every faith community. And it knows no socioeconomic boundaries. Rich women, poor women, black women, white women, educated women, illiterate women, religious women, beautiful women—all women can be potential targets of violence.

Governments around the world are waking up to the reality of the devastating consequences of violence against women. Large sums of public money are starting to trickle towards a greater understanding of the problem of abuse, reforming the judicial system to respond more quickly, and providing health and other social services in an effective coordinated response to the needs of violated women and their children.

Yet, amidst growing world recognition of the everyday fears of abused women, the bruises and battering they experience and their needs for safety and security, where are the churches? Where are the ministry centers? Why are so many of us still sound asleep?

By and large a holy hush pervades religious organizations, cathedrals and small churches alike. Woman abuse is a sensitive topic. It makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to believe it is happening in our own congregations and we don’t know how to respond with spiritual comfort and sensitivity. As a result, we sweep the issue under the proverbial church carpet.

But you and I need to crawl out from under that carpet, see the horror of violence for what it is and then proclaim with all the strength we can muster that every home should be a safe place, every home a shelter. There is no place like home. When abuse strikes, there is no home.

Some don’t even find a home away from home in churches. The hush looks like this:

• Most religious leaders do not name violence in the family context for what it is. Instead, they refer to family conflict, disagreements or problems of communication. There is a holy hush about the seriousness of abuse.

• Most religious leaders have never visited the transition house in their local area. They do not know any of the workers there by name, nor do they have the phone number in an easily accessible location. There is a holy hush about the prevalence of abuse.

• Most clergy have never preached a message that explicitly condemns wife abuse, child abuse or violence in the home. There is a holy hush.

• Most ministers do not include any information about violence in their premarital counseling package with couples. Holy Hush.

• Most leaders of youth groups never talk about violence in dating relationships nor do they encourage young men and women to identify and practice healthy interpersonal encounters. Holy Hush.

• When women who have been victimized come to their faith communities for help, ministers and other religious leaders are often reluctant to refer them to outside community resources—to the experts. Keep it hushed.

• Sometimes, religious leaders do not offer spiritual comfort to victims—like reading passages from the Bible condemning violence. Hush. Hush.

Yet, there is a rumbling in some congregational closets that cannot be silenced. It occurs when you least expect it. It is getting louder all the time. It is determined to shatter the silence about abuse, particularly in families of faith. People of faith, shatter the silence! Bring hope to those who feel their hope has been extinguished.

• When clergy counsel a woman who has been battered to consider safety her top priority, the silence is shattered.

• When church women offer practical and emotional support to a victim, they cause shattered silence.

• When a group of women or children or teens support the local transition house by financial or in-kind donations, the silence is broken. Shattered.

• When the women’s washroom at church has a brochure that says…Christian Love Shouldn’t Hurt, the silence is ended. Shattered.

• When there are shoe cards from the shelter in every stall of every bathroom at every religious meeting house, there is encouragement for victims to find help. Shattered silence.

In our work we use the motif of stained glass as a constant reminder that beauty can be borne out of brokenness. Jagged pieces of glass, rough to the touch, and piercing to the skin, can become something new. Stained glass—long a symbol of churches—reveals that violence knows no religious boundaries. It happens within and beyond communities of faith—in approximately the same prevalence rates.

When the language of the spirit infuses the language of contemporary culture new images can be created from broken pieces of glass. The language of the spirit involves words of religious comfort to victims and words of religious accountability to offenders. The language of contemporary culture involves recognizing principles of safety, empowerment, empathy and justice. For religious men and women, weaving together the language of the spirit with the language of contemporary culture is powerful. When religious leaders speak out against violence, they use their moral authority to bring healing to victims and call those who act abusively to accountability. It stops the holy hush.

When violence strikes, many religious victims look first to their religious leader or spiritual support network for help. What will they find? Who will listen? What advice will be given?

I call on each of us, to pledge in our own way to shatter the silence surrounding violence against women. We need to raise our voices as we renew our commitment. We must show support for survivors even as we attempt to respond with best practices to their plight and compassion to their pain. We must never stop attempting to make every home a safe place, every home a shelter. As people of faith, we must sound out the prophetic call. Behind the stained glass beauty of our houses of worship, there is often brokenness. We need to build bridges between the steeple and the shelter.

God’s Holy Spirit, symbolized by the white dove, urges us to rise with new strength and power. The time for renewal is now. This is the time of new beginnings. We must be united in collaboration, with courage as our breastplate. The journey is long and arduous. Like the issue of violence itself, many traveling companions are required to lighten the load of those who suffer. Hope beckons us forward. With whom are you going to walk?

For assistance along the journey, visit our RAVE website Here you will find a range of abuse resources for survivors, pastors and those who want to walk alongside them.

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Nancy Nason ClarkDr. Nancy Nason Clark is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. She is the author of numerous books, including The Battered Wife: How Christians Confront Family Violence, No Place for Abuse and Refuge from Abuse (with C. Kroeger), and co-editor of Woman Abuse: Partnering for Change. She is the Director for the RAVE Project (Religion And Violence E-learning), funded by the Lilly Endowment.

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