Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

A “Me Too” movement is needed for emotional abuse

Rev. John Zehring

December 7, 2018

My mother, in her 70s and alone for many years, went to a dance with her girlfriends where a man asked her to dance. She was flattered that a man took notice of her and then later asked to see her again. She defended him to family and friends, months later, as he became pathologically controlling – so much so that she needed his permission to call her friends and then only if she told them how wonderful he was. “Tell them about me,” he whispered firmly as he placed his ear against the phone to listen to the conversation.

Did he hit her? No, not physically, but he hit her with a two-by-four of emotional abuse. Would physical violence have been more abusive than his narcissistic, obsessive need to control which thrust its jealous hand into her soul and cupped it over her heart, smothered it, denied it breathing space and crushed its joy until it just could not beat another beat? He knew her vulnerability and her need and he exploited it. Emotional abuse is domestic violence.

Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime.  Far more will be emotionally abused.  Domestic abuse does not care about how much education you have, how well raised you were, how much money you’ve got, how successful you’ve been, what kind of person you are, where you live or where you go to church.

When I became Senior Pastor of a large church in an affluent community, I could find no resources in town for victims of domestic abuse. I asked leaders of the church where people could go. Their answer: “We don’t really have that problem in our community.” A few weeks later, our police chief told me that reports of domestic abuse increased 82% in the previous year.  Help must be very easy to get and very accessible or it will not be used. Some churches have phone numbers for help on the inside of bathroom stalls in the women’s bathrooms. My mother might have wondered why hers did not.

Sometimes the Bible is taken out of context to justify domestic violence. Perhaps they quote Ephesians 5:22-24 about wives being subject to their husbands: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”

That passage applies to a different context of another age, much like the verses in the following chapter which implore slaves to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” These verses were written when everyone believed that the sun and planets revolved around us. Since that time, our understanding of our physical world has changed, as has our social world’s understanding that women are not subservient, people of color cannot be considered as property, gay people are not a mistake, and one person may not control another because of gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other reason.

Abuse is not your fault, it is not God’s will, and it is not punishment. Sometimes an abused person may see their suffering as just punishment for a past deed. Or, they may see their abuse as God’s will, as a part of God’s plan for their life, or God’s way of teaching them a lesson. Abuse does not occur because God is mad at you. God, who sheds the gift of grace over all, does not cause bad things to happen to people. All people are God’s beloved children. A loving Parent would never consider abuse as a way to punish or teach a lesson. God does not work like that. The loving and compassionate God wants for you that which is best in your life.

Abuse is not your fault. Abuse does not happen to you because you did something bad. Do not blame yourself. Being abused is not a failure of your character or your faith. Even if you care for the person who hurts you, they are the one doing wrong. Not you. Abuse is not because you are to blame, even if someone tells you that you are. Abuse is not a consequence of poor choices, being stupid, a bad attitude, or not being able to get your act together.

You have rights: You have a right to a home without constant conflict. You have a right to be you and to be free. You have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You have a right to your own privacy. You have a right to your dignity and your reputation. You have a right to say no. You have the right to be safe, physically and emotionally.

A “Me Too” movement is needed for those who suffer from abusive relationships, to focus the spotlight publicly on anyone who takes advantage of another and abuses their rights and freedoms.

A “Me Too” movement is needed for those who suffer from abusive relationships, to focus the spotlight publicly on anyone who takes advantage of another and abuses their rights and freedoms. It is too late to help my mother, who died too soon from what seems to me the stress caused by an abusive relationship. I pray for a movement to give courage to others who may be reluctant to seek the help they need to break out of a trap which can feel like there is no way out.

Jesus brought the world a new way of seeing love. The New Testament word for love is agape, which can mean to desire that which is in the highest and best interest of the other. If someone hurts another, whether by hitting or by controlling them emotionally, that is not seeking what is truly best for the person. There is no way that behavior can be described as love. That is abuse.  It is violence, even if someone does not hit you physically. It is a violation of covenant between two people.

Do not give up on your faith. Trust that God is with you in your worst of times. To the abused, it can appear like there is no hope, no way out. It is a dark time. The literal translation of the phrase in Psalm 23:4 is “the valley of dark shadows.” For people who are abused, that may be the most comforting message in the Bible. In the valley, you are not alone: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of dark shadows, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.” Some of God’s sheep suffer abuse. God leaves the flock to go and be with them in their darkest shadows of brokenness, for they need the compassionate touch of the Shepherd so very much.

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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