Since the beginning of recorded history, spiritual teachings have frequently been interpreted, translated, written, and utilized to encourage, excuse, and justify atrocities. Both secular and spiritual leaders and laity have cited divine beings, religious doctrine, and sacred texts to support culturalism, ethnocentrism, genocide, homophobia, racism, sexism, and war.
Spiritual teachings have also been used to lend credence to situations related to our current focus: intimate partner violence. This is especially true when offenders are male and victims-survivors are female.
Violence within intimate partner relationships is a major detriment to the dignity, equality, freedom, justice, and overall wellbeing of all humanity, especially for those women and men who are victimized. It contradicts the overarching teachings on the manner in which intimate partners need to relate to and treat one another.
The core values espoused throughout philosophical, religious, spiritual, and secular scholarship about intimate partner relationships are mutual dignity, mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual responsibility. We must therefore always treat with suspicion the doctrine and writings that include the degradation, discrimination, minimization, or subjugation of any individual or group.
Nevertheless, it is often claimed that divine beings and sacred texts provide men and boys with certain privileges not granted to women and girls. Males can instruct females on their reproductive choices, on their manner of dress and hairstyles, on their employment and financial pursuits, on their study and worship patterns, and on with whom females can and cannot share emotional, physical, psychological, and sexual intimacy.
These alleged spiritual ‘truths’ make it far more difficult for victimized women, old and young, to seek freedom from intimate partner bondage. Subscribing to these beliefs also increases greatly the risk of female victims-survivors facing more abuse or even death.
The misuse of spiritual teachings is to be found in all religious and secular groups. Here let us consider a familiar passage from the Christian Scripture. It has been selected for two primary reasons. First, Christianity is the religion most familiar to me, having been raised and schooled in that particular faith group. And second, the passage selected clearly demonstrates how the misuse of Spirit works against intimate partner justice.
Ephesians 5: 21-33 (New Revised Standard Version)
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
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.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Throughout the centuries Christian and non-Christian leaders and laity have used the above passage, written in ancient times, as a proof text to support male domination and female submission. Women have been beaten, cursed, raped, and even murdered by their male intimate partners, and the men have been released from any accountability for their crimes and sins by the recitation of Ephesians 5:21-33.
In actuality, the verses have neither to do with male entitlement and male privilege, nor female submission. When read in the original Greek language and placed in its proper historical context, the passage offers instructions to Christian husbands and wives on how to live together harmoniously.
Men possessed all the power in those days. They also carried the burden of responsibility to ensure that the entire household—wives, children, and slaves—were clothed, fed, and housed in ways that offered the best chances for safety and security. Husbands were therefore to love their wives as they loved themselves, and to treat them in the same respectful manner as Christ did the church. As a result of the love and respect shown to them, wives were to offer the same to their husbands.
However, down through the centuries, patriarchal constructs and doctrine elevated man’s status in the home and community. Suddenly, Ephesians 5:21-33 gave men privileges and power never intended by the Divine. Even men who would never dart in the door of a church, mosque, Kingdom Hall, synagogue, or temple, along with those who would, began to misuse Ephesians 5:21-33 to claim authority over women, children, pets, property, and the Universe. It is a practice that continues to flourish in today’s world.
As long as individuals and groups subscribe to a male hierarchal rubric related to spiritual teachings, intimate partner violence will continue to devastate individuals and families, especially women and children. These precepts make it impossible for us to live our lives in balance because females will always be viewed as less than males.
Intimate partner justice begins with us modeling in every aspect of our lives the equal power, equal value, and equal worth of all people, female and male. It is not enough to say we treat everyone with dignity, love, and respect. We must demonstrate these virtues in every aspect of our lives.
In both my personal and professional relationships, I always attempt to model nonviolent and respectful actions and behavior. I am fully aware that if I do not literally ‘practice what I preach,’ then people will rightfully view me as a hypocrite.
My 42-year marriage with my wife, Kathy, is rooted in love, mutuality, and respect. As with all intimate partners, there are times when we disagree and have arguments. But in these moments each of us is given space and time to state our respective positions in a nonthreatening and safe environment.
Concerning the structure of our union, when one of us has greater knowledge and skill on a particular topic, as for example Kathy does in dealing with finances, she takes the “lead” on the choices we make. She then discusses matters with me for a final joint decision. Likewise, I have proficiency in journalistic issues and organization. Still, while initially I might take a “lead” role in, say, logistical matters dealing with a speaking engagement or travel, final decisions are made by both Kathy and me.
In both personal and professional settings, I condemn the degradation or subjugation of any individual or group. Whether these putdowns are based upon someone’s culture, disabilities, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, or gender identity and sexual orientation, I will always challenge what I perceive as a bigoted viewpoint.
Regarding specifically the degradation or subjugation of women and girls, I speak out against such behavior whenever it confronts me. For example, when I hear men or boys tell a sexist joke, I talk with them directly. I explain why such behavior is offensive to me and encourage them to work on being more respectful. If males in my presence use vulgar language to describe a female, such as calling her a “bitch,” “cunt,” “slut,” or “whore,” I’ll tell them that these terms not only put down all females (including their own mothers, daughters, sisters, and female friends) but also demonstrate a lack of self-integrity, self-respect, and self-worth.
As Lead Chaplain serving at the largest privately owned medical facility in the entire mid-Pacific, my “parish” consists of more than 7,000 physicians and staff, and thousands more patients and family members. I meet frequently with victims-survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Occasionally, I have also met with offenders. (But, I never meet with an abused woman together with her abuser because this type of arrangement will, in all likelihood, further harm the victimized woman.)
In all cases I inform these individuals that my role is that of a referral agent. Having neither the credentials nor the appropriate degrees, I am not qualified to be considered a “counselor.” Over the past 30 years serving in the field of domestic violence awareness, I have encouraged all spiritual and secular leaders I’ve encountered to refer victims-survivors and offenders to appropriate resources. Trying to counsel these vulnerable individuals without having the proper credentials and experience could further endanger all parties involved—including ourselves.
During the timeframe I am meeting with a victim-survivor, I make it clear that I believe the story she is sharing with me—even if I know her offender and have never experienced him as abusive or violent. And, I make it a point to tell violated women that they did nothing to cause the offenses lodged against them. Abuse, I state categorically, is always the sole responsibility of the individual perpetrating this crime and sin.
When I meet with men accused of violating their female or male intimate partners, I anticipate that they will take little or no responsibility for their actions. Instead, experience has taught me that they will most likely blame alcohol and other drugs; cultural, familial and societal factors; job stress; mental illness; annoying pets; Satan and other evil spirits; and, especially, the very women they are abusing.
I understand my role in dealing with these men as threefold: (1) to remind them that there are no legitimate excuses for their inappropriate actions; (2) to tell them they are solely and totally responsible for their abusive behavior; and (3) to refer the men to an offender-specific batterer’s intervention program. I also remind other spiritual leaders, especially males, to not go beyond their level of competency and training, or be tricked by a man’s excuses, justifications, victim blaming, or claims of a rapid, divinely inspired, change in behavior.
Last, my expertise on how faith, religion, and spirituality often intersect with domestic violence, especially when perpetrated by men against women, affords me the opportunity to encourage other spiritual and religious leaders to embrace a more egalitarian narrative. I preach, teach, and write about how patriarchal viewpoints have done great harm to members of our society, especially females. I remind everyone that when divine beings; sacred texts; and cultural, doctrinal, and familial teachings are continually misused to support a male dominant and female submissive worldview, then men and boys believe they have justification and, in fact, the right to commit abuse and violence against women and children without fear of accountability. And, the vicious cycle of violence will continue to flourish.
The greatest hope we have to end domestic violence, I state wherever I travel, is for us to focus on equality, mutual respect, mutual value, and mutual worth between females and males.