Can We Talk About Intimate Justice?

Despite staggering statistics and horrific personal accounts, intimate partner violence remains a normalized part of life. Even when videos of intimate partner violence committed with the hands, mouths, and privilege of sports stars and celebrities flash across our screens, outrage dissipates as soon as a new scandal arises. It is easy to become desensitized to intimate partner violence and the many forms it takes — verbal, psychological, financial, physical, spiritual. But intimate partner violence continues at epic levels, killing and wounding our women, children, and men, and depriving communities of fullness of life.

Perhaps the lack of public outrage and mobilization is due to desensitization or apathy, but also because of combat fatigue. For many of us have been waging a war against intimate partner violence for years. Having worked as an advocate and educator about intimate partner violence for almost a decade, I have witnessed the struggles and amazing courage of those working to bring an end to intimate partner violence. Small and important victories have occurred on legal, social, and political levels. But overall, the issue of intimate partner violence remains glaringly absent from the dominant discourses of society. Maybe it’s time to call a cease fire on the all too often silenced war on intimate partner violence, to put an end to our overly militarized rhetoric about ending violence, and instead focus our efforts on promoting intimate justice.

Intimate justice is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary concept that seeks to broaden the means of addressing intimate partner violence. Intimate justice recognizes the ways in which intimate partner violence denies human worth and the ability to flourish, while simultaneously lifting up concrete visions of life-affirming, just, intimate relationships. This work necessitates a paradigmatic shift in our thinking about intimate partner violence. It requires that we move from a primarily crisis-based, direct service model to one that views preventative care and education as central to the justice work that addresses intimate partner violence. This shift is not meant to mask intimate partner violence nor to negate the need for direct services. But it calls upon communities to move beyond models solely based in crisis and charity and to envision and take concrete steps towards embodying a vision of right relations and healthy intimate relationships within communal structures. In doing so, space is created to identify and address the root causes that allow for the perpetuation of intimate partner violence.

Intimate justice also requires that intimate partner violence no longer be viewed as a private issue between two individuals, but as a communal concern. This means that every member of the community — victim/survivors, perpetrators, children, and the seemingly unaffected — is held accountable within the community’s work around intimate justice. It calls for communities to identify the systemic and structural resources and barriers for right relations and to place these in conversation with the particular lived experiences and socio-political locations of community members. This communal work requires making the safety of all community members a top priority. The reality of intimate violence within the community cannot be ignored or marginalized. Instead, it must be acknowledged that not all members of the community may be able to engage in the intimate justice process at all times or in the same manner, as the community itself might not be a safe space. These complexities and realities must undergird every step of the community’s process.

Faith communities have a special place in the work of intimate justice. Communities of faith carry the responsibility of enacting and passing on beliefs and values to their members from childhood to the end of life. Thus, faith communities are uniquely positioned to discuss, embody, and model just relationships and healthy self-images not just to adults in relationships but to children, teens, singles, and the elderly. Thus, discussions of intimate violence and intimate justice must expand beyond pre-marriage counseling or domestic violence awareness worship services. The work of fostering right relations becomes part of the fabric of the community through its scriptural and theological interpretations, liturgical choices, and actions within the broader society. It is also present in the community’s struggles with the ways in which it perpetuates violence, holds conflicting values, and enables unhealthy relationships.

The following discussion explores the possibilities for faith communities engaging in the work of intimate justice. It draws upon my own experiences, primarily within Protestant Christian communities in the United States. Though the examples reflect this particular positionality, it is my hope that the insights might hold potential for intimate justice work within other communities of faith as well.

 

Lamenting Love

Silence is one of the deadliest aspects of intimate partner violence. The concept of communal lament provides an opportunity to counter such privatization and silencing of the topic. Communal lament draws on the rich scriptural traditions of lament, especially those found in the prophets and psalms. In these texts, the people of God lift up a wide and complex array of emotions and experiences arising out of crises ranging from forced exile and oppression to plagues and famine. These laments produce a public cry that carries the collective experience of injustice that stems out of particular encounters of suffering.

Emilie Townes, drawing on the lament found in the opening chapter of the book of Joel, explains the nature of communal lament as tri-fold. It “names problems, seeks justice, and hopes for God’s deliverance.” When applied to the work of intimate justice, communal lament begins to break the silence around intimate partner violence, putting into words the suffering experienced by the primary, secondary, and communal victims of violence. As Townes writes, communal lament calls communities to see and bear witness to the crisis that is within their midst.

Communal lament needs to be a multi-vocal endeavor that provides space for the particularities of violence experienced by individuals to remain distinct, while simultaneously allowing a multitude of voices to interact and discover places of common resonance. Communal lament necessitates full community participation. Personal and communal reflection allows individuals to find their voice within the communal cry. One’s particular cry may arise from personal experience, acknowledgment of one’s complacency around addressing intimate violence, or seeing one’s involvement in systems — political, cultural, and religious — that perpetuate violence.

Communal lament calls for not only a naming of violence but deep reflection concerning the structures, traditions, and beliefs that aid in the perpetuation of intimate partner violence. For faith communities this involves looking closely at their theologies, rituals, and sacred texts. It requires addressing not only blatantly patriarchal, abusive beliefs, but those aspects of the tradition that contain subtler death-dealing visions of love, suffering, and sacrifice. Simultaneously, they must also seek out the texts and traditions that create visions of right relations and the sacredness of every individual.

Love is one such concept that requires lament and revision. Many within the field of intimate violence have worked diligently to banish discussions of love when examining intimate violence, instead focusing on the dynamics of power and control that generate such violence. While this shift in focus is vital for understanding the dynamics of intimate violence, attention to intimate justice calls for the concept of love to reenter the dialogue. But this reentry requires redefinition of the concept of love within Christian communities.

Perhaps there is no better place to witness the potential of this transformation than 1 Corinthians 13. This poetic “love chapter” is wildly popular in wedding and commitment ceremonies. It declares that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way…” (1 Cor 13:4-5, NRSV). This love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things (13:7). While a seemingly life giving and affirming sentiment, in the context of abusive intimate relationships these verses are deadly. This type of love traps victims in abusive relationships either because of the belief that if they loved their spouse more fully the abuse would stop, or because in love they have eternally committed to endure all things in order to preserve the sanctity of Christian marriage and/or to help bring about the salvation of their partner. These death dealing sentiments require communal lament and must be held accountable for the violence perpetuated when the sanctity of marriage is upheld over the sanctity of life. But intimate justice does not stop with lament. It calls for engagement to right the injustice caused by these verses.

Embodying intimate justice calls faith communities to redefine and reframe the concept of love. As Carter Heyward explains in Our Passion for Justice, love cannot remain defined as “fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being ‘drawn toward.’”  Love is not an emotion or attitude that asks for the annihilation of the self. Instead Heyward explains, “love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth. To make love is to make justice.” With this redefinition, love always seeks to preserve the sanctity of life and uphold justice.

Regarding 1 Corinthians 13, contextualizing this text and the love it describes aids in asserting Heyward’s vision of love. For 1 Corinthians 13 is not speaking of an exclusive love between two individuals but rather love that is present within community. Re-contextualizing the text within 1 Corinthians shows that the text was not a treatise on marital relations, it was meant for a community. Thus, in contemporary situations it calls communities of faith to commit to promoting and embodying a love that is just. It calls for transformations in communal attitudes and openness about discussing abuse. It also affects liturgical practices. For example, many congregations I have worked with have altered the place of 1 Corinthians 13 within wedding ceremonies. Now the only way that these verses are read in a ceremony is if the community reads them to the couple. This way the love described becomes the community’s love for the couple, not just the couple’s love for one another. It is a commitment made by the community to take seriously its responsibility to ensure that love between partners is life affirming and just. When relationships are abusive and unjust, communities are called in love to stand against the abuse, enduring and bearing the pain and consequences of ruptured relations. Thus, love becomes a tool for supporting just relationships, not a weapon to prolong abuse.

The lament, reflection, and redefinition within the faith community does not mark the end of the work of intimate justice. For intimate justice calls for the faith community to engage in collective action outside its walls.

 

Acting Out

Collective action serves as a counterpart to communal lament. Action and lament inform and transform one another, as lament calls for action and through action new laments may surface. Collective action provides the space for communities to embody their hope for transformation; some might even say to work to bring justice and the kingdom of God here on earth. This action can take many forms and have a multitude of foci with regards to promoting intimate justice.

Faith communities can work on the institutional and structural levels to confront injustices and encourage reform. A social worker who does not want to take the time to get a translator for a client who has limited comprehension of English may lead to a misunderstanding that sends a woman back into an abusive situation. Policy maneuvers to attempt to limit or discontinue U-visas which provide asylum for undocumented victims of domestic violence, may lead to deportations and children separated from a parent. These issues and many others must be included in a community’s embodiment and understanding of love as described above — a love that reaches beyond the limits of its own community. Radically embodying love requires concrete collective action whether in the form of demanding proper protocol for direct service providers or lobbying for legislation that protects the most vulnerable.

Another area of collective action from faith communities is their involvement in preventative training and education programs. These programs can offer space to educate faith community members about the complexities of intimate partner violence such as the ways race, gender, culture, economic status, sexual orientation, and many other issues shape one’s response to intimate violence. Such programs work not only to learn about the signs of intimate violence, but to examine the structures that perpetuate violence and methodologies for promoting peaceable, just, intimate and communal relationships. These programs seek to empower all members of the community — including children and teens — to establish healthy relationships.

CONNECT NYC (www.connectnyc.org), a violence prevention organization, provides an example of committing to such educational endeavors. By providing intensive workshops and certification trainings, CONNECT works to aid individuals in understanding the complexities of intimate violence and ways of promoting just relationships.  The Rev. Dr. Sally MacNichol, one of the leaders of CONNECT, explained in an interview that the role of CONNECT’s Training Institute is focused on “accompaniment, witness, and support that seeks to bring wisdom and skills to be at the service of community.” MacNichol went on to explain that “the work is organic; it has to be. CONNECT’s Training Institute came into being because we saw that so many people didn’t fit into the crisis-intervention model. Only by incorporating issues of race, ethnicity, class, religion, and education could we help foster potential sites of transformation — sites that often exist on the margins of society.” 

Part of CONNECT’s work is a commitment to providing interfaith programming that helps to explore addressing intimate violence and promoting just relationships within faith-based contexts. Programs bring together individuals from a variety of backgrounds and provide space for them to learn with and from one another’s experiences through trainings, dialogues, theological roundtables, drum circles, and radical wellness events. Embracing opportunities, such as those found at CONNECT, to learn not only within one’s faith community but in dialogue with other communities of faith opens up greater possibilities for building a network of communal support, resource, and activism for promoting intimate justice.

The work of intimate justice in its many forms — lament, action, education, community building — is not a one-time fix. It involves committing to a lifelong process of engagement, revision, creation, and transformation. The work is messy with many more ruptures, complexities, and setbacks than can be captured here. For where there is transformative power, there is also resistance, struggle, anger, and fear. The work of communal lament and collective action is not univocal or always unifying. The realities of oppression and privilege based on race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and many other issues complicate and shape each individual’s ability to speak and act. But faith communities can play a central role in navigating the complex work of intimate justice by committing to address the specific and structural needs associated with promoting intimate justice within their particular context and community. Such commitment holds the potential to transform not only the conversations taking place in our houses of worship, but in our bedrooms and courtrooms, our playgrounds and workplaces. Is it not time we join the conversation?

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Karri Whipple is an interfaith intimate justice activist, educator, and writer in New York City.  A doctoral student at Drew University, Karri explores the intersections of trauma, colonialism, race, and gender in sacred texts and traditions. 

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