It was the Scribes and Pharisees that brought before our Lord a woman caught in the very act of adultery. We know the story well, but does our Lord’s example infuse our response to domestic abuse in the Brotherhood?
Firstly the woman was not committing adultery on her own, yet the other offender was not brought before our Lord. To me there seems to be a distinct parallel - a sister separating from her abusive husband sometimes is the only one facing ecclesial discipline - I say this to our eternal shame. When this is done we are elevating marriage above the first and second commandments. This is a dangerous and wrong belief system for any of us - ecclesia, family, arranging brothers or friends.
If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matt 18:6 NIV)
There can be no doubt that an oppressed and down-trodden survivor of abuse is one of Christ’s little ones. Their needs are urgent and complex - instead of causing them to stumble we need to be understanding of their needs and helping them to get them met.
Does this really need to be said? It seems it does. The Hear Believe Act Project has heard of numerous survivors whose ecclesias have failed to provide for their needs. This is across the world and in ecclesias of all shades and sizes. One sister was told by the Recorder of her ecclesia that she would not be in the Kingdom because she had separated from her abusive husband. This is not an unusual thing to hear either from arranging brothers or other perhaps well-meaning but surely WRONG brothers and sisters. Shock tactics have no place in dealing with survivors of abuse. Indeed almost every case will need counselling for trauma and grief and a lot of help and support.
Worse, what is also a common feature of some cases we hear of is that we fall into behaviours mirroring the behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees - they never mentioned the male adulterer. Was this because he was a privileged male? Was this because he was one of the Scribes and Pharisees that had to turn and walk away in the face of the searching question of our Lord? Was the woman an adulterer at all or just a set up victim of sexual violence or abuse?
We don’t know the answers to these questions, but we need to find the answer to the question of why do we often find it is the abusers who remain in the meeting and who receive pity and support? Why is it the survivors who are shamed? Why is it the survivor who moves house, or moves states, and often moves ecclesias? Every case is different of course. We are not in a position to question any particular decision of an ecclesia, but this is so common that we must question whether we really take our Lord’s words to heart and whether they really influence our response to reports of domestic abuse and particularly when a survivor feels the need to separate. Are our ecclesias ensuring shame is directed where it is deserved? Are our ecclesias contending for the survivor and counselling the abuser to move out of the family home when needed? Are our ecclesias finding ways for the abuser to get spiritual help and fellowship in other ecclesias or away from the normal meeting place so the victim can share the love and care of the ecclesia at the Memorial table?
It appears we get distracted by the behaviour and character flaws of the survivor. Sometimes these are sins with their own difficult consequences that may require their own attention and ecclesial discipline even. But they must never overshadow or be used to excuse the abuse. These behaviours are not excusable, but we need to recognise domestic abuse survivors are vulnerable. They have many unmet needs, not least of which is love and care. If this is not being provided by spouse, family and the ecclesia it is not surprising that they meet other people with similar needs or similarly vulnerable (or worse sexual predators) in or out of the ecclesia and before we know it there has been an extra-marital affair. For the eternal life of somebody "caught in that sin", we need to help them to confess and repent of that sin or sins and find a way back to fellowship with the Father. But this needs to be done with care and consideration.
We must recognise that many victims have been deprived of their personal autonomy. If we have not been in that position we do not understand what it is like. It is not surprising that victims in desperation do unwise or un-Christ-like things in their pain and anguish. We have heard stories of loud verbal outbursts - not that they have an affect on the abuser or stop the abuse. We have heard of a sister pulling the steering wheel of the car in response to taunts from her abusive husband - but even this was laughed off. We have heard examples of victims using lashing out against their abuser. None of these things can be condoned, but they can be understood when we recognise the desperation and the extent of the deprivation of liberty and ability to make their own decisions and in some cases, the fear, nightmares and constant anxiety they feel.
We do a profound injustice and disregard the example of our Lord when we allow survivor problems, traits or behaviours to cloud our judgement - our judgement of the abuser’s behaviours, our recognition of the survivor/victim’s need for love, care, protection and consideration.
Our Lord told the woman caught in adultery, “go and sin no more”. Let us model our response to domestic abuse on this example of compassion and be found to be his followers - to do otherwise is to be found with a millstone around our neck in the inescapable depths of the sea.
If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.