…no easy task, the broken woman
March 18, 2018
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Towards the middle of my last year in seminary I found I still needed a few credits in order to receive my degree at the end of the next semester. I knew my schedule for the spring semester was full and decided to take an intensive elective course during the January term. The course I chose was on the subject of Domestic Violence, and though it was only four weeks long it had a deep and lasting impact on me and on my outlook regarding this most insidious illness affecting so much of humanity.
For not only does it tap into and depend upon a certain degree of moral failure and a lack of love, it is also something that is in some sense part of who we are…and part of who we have been taught to be. To be sure, any honest study of the bible will find countless instances where the writers of those scriptures claimed to have been rightly interpreting the words of God but in fact only served to reinforce a system of extremely abusive social norms hurting or limiting women, words which they claimed were sanctioned by God…however, if that is true, then this is a God whom I do not recognize.
In other words there are several different views of women and their place in society contained within the scriptures; however the overwhelmingly vast majority of them are sexist and abusive. The primary instances to the contrary can be found in some of the words and actions of Jesus, who in his attempts to truly reveal the loving nature of God elevated the status of women throughout his discourse and ministry, even relying on them to explicitly support his ministry and message, and entrusting the story of Easter morning first to a woman…who of course was dismissed by the disciples as one speaking utter foolishness.
However, aside from Jesus, the men of the biblical account have an incredibly poor record of upholding and celebrating the talents, gifts, strength, and wisdom of fully half if not more of humanity…in fact one would do well to truly study the bible in order to see just how women should not be thought of or not be treated!
So there is an obvious moral failing and a deep lack of guidance within the biblical record when it comes to addressing and combatting domestic violence against women. However the problem goes deeper than that, in that there are many instances within our language itself that provide context for, and are even supportive of these harmful and unloving actions and understandings. A look at language in general as well as an honest look into the scriptures would yield new insight both into the depth of the problem as well as into how difficult it would be to dislodge this entrenched bias in most if not all cultures and societies. And in this time of more open dialog concerning the voices and rights of women across the board it is ever more important that we as Christians look carefully within ourselves and more specifically at our own ways of being and communicating to be sure that we are following a way that truly is inclusive and that demonstrates compassion for all of God’s children. In particular we must listen better to those whose voices or hearts have been forcibly muted or broken apart through the torment and trauma of domestic violence.
And as much as we all abhor the very idea of this behavior, I think it is far more common than most of us may realize…in fact on some level it happens more often than not…and involves more of us than would want to know or care to admit. And perhaps that is why I said that the seminary course not only impacted me deeply but forced a deeper awareness and a change of understanding on my part as well.
Our culture is patriarchal…meaning that men and not women are the ones in charge. The patriarchs are the ones who make the important decisions, the ones around whom everything else turns. To be sure there are many women who resist this structured and systemic oppression of them, but their resistance does not usually cause lasting change. Our faith history and historical record, and our language which relies upon a certain built-in level of male dominance all work together to reinforce and preserve this abusive social order and behavior. And just to be fair, the problem is also the other way around when dominant and abusive women prey upon men however the vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men upon women.
It is not really that surprising that in such an environment as this, where men are often far stronger physically and where force is deemed an acceptable means of control…where the culture and language have long supported male-centric thinking, and where there is unfortunately a broad spectrum of ‘acceptable’ behavior in the minds of many men that is actually abusive, that there is domestic abuse…in fact it is surprising that there is not more of it.
Or…is there perhaps more of it than any of us realize? Perhaps should we as men be asking what in fact constitutes abusive behavior towards the women in our lives? Where are the lines beyond which we are then relying on our dominance, beyond which we are depending on our strength? Where is it that we let go of reason and instead let our anger or forcefulness play a role in us getting our way?
These were the questions I found I was asking myself during the term of the January course I took. And I must admit I had not realized the scope of the problem or the role I myself played as a part of the problem. I did not have eyes to see that anytime I got angry, anytime I raised my voice, in short anytime I let my temper get the better of me, I was exerting dominance through threat and fear. And when I did see the truth in how pervasive this sort of dominance and control that was demonstrated through physical superiority was, and more, how often it was a default behavior; I was shocked and deeply humbled.
And I am not sure what was worse…the fact that I did at times raise my voice or let my temper flare when I was not getting my way, or my complete ignorance of the fact that in doing so I was part of the problem…part of a system as old as our history…which is a history of ‘lording it over women’ in order to establish and maintain a position of being in control. Perhaps however the most troubling thing was how far this was from the example and call of our Lord…a call to be and to do the exact opposite of ‘lording it over someone’ by instead ‘being as a servant to others’, by loving one another as Jesus gave his life in order to teach us how.
To be sure I was not one to blindly abuse anyone physically; in fact I don’t even think I won any of the few childhood scraps I got into. But early battles I had with non-conformity due to a number of things including sporting a home-grown crew cut at the hand of my non-barber father, excess weight that appeared during adolescence, the need for glasses at the same time and a gentle spirit all made me a prime target for bullying, which in turn unfortunately enabled me to learn to imitate my father’s temper.
I know I have shared a number of times about my mother. And in spite of the fact that my father’s temper was fearsome to me and at times he was quite controlling and verbally abusive of my mother and us children, it was my mother who made it possible for me to continue to move forward and to continue to pursue the path most true to my nature.
In looking back, I must give thanks for how often I was comforted in those times of fear and uncertainty by this mama-bear of a woman who was quite the opposite from my father…quite the opposite of this man who was so frequently out of reach and isolated from the rest of us in terms of sharing his inner self and his inner turmoil. For my mother truly cared for and loved each of her five children deeply and without condition. And perhaps it was this remarkable presence in my life that encouraged my curiosity and enabled me to run with my imagination…to learn to sew and to knit, and even to bake bread like she did twice each week. Perhaps I was most blessed and enabled to learn “how to be me” under the care and compassion of this amazing woman.
But as I grew older I realized I still carried the baggage of a temper that on occasion made me regrettably similar to my father. And though I quickly apologized to my children whenever I said or did something out of line towards them I was still deeply broken and humbled as a result. However, it was not always so with my wife who more often than not got to see the real me whenever we had moments of disagreement. And it is those times, those words, those moments of deep anger simmering within that I most regret. For in looking at them I realize that I truly must have been fearsome at times, that I must have been scary in seeking to have my way be the way or my word be the final one. And for those times I am deeply sorry.
However, this is not just about losing your temper, as I am sure many of us do from time to time. But rather it is about the acknowledgement that as a member of the dominant gender in the dominant race, in the dominant culture and society, I must do better in resorting to love and reasoned compassion rather than letting age-old default behaviors have the upper and ruling hand in times of stress or disagreement.
I think that every man has at some point in his life resorted to fear or violence to get his way…some more that others, some more severely than others…but all of us in some way. And for this we must all repent and seek to be better examples of the one man who sacrificed his life for us. For truly there is no excuse…even though many of us have long hidden behind ignorance of our motives, and even though many of us have far too great a spectrum of acceptable questionable behavior when it comes to how someone else treats their wife or the women in their life. For far too long we men have self-defined ourselves as ‘good men’, allowing us to avoid feeling included within the cast of those who are obviously abusive.
But the time has come; indeed it surely came when a baby was born and laid in a manger long ago for all men to take a step back and to embrace the responsibility we have as children of our God to love one another without condition, no matter what the circumstances, and to realize and accept that anytime we resort to our strength or our temper, anytime we seek to gain the upper hand through fear of intimidation we are fully part of all those who resort to domestic violence in order to get their way. Those are just the facts, as troubling and as horrible as it may sound.
But all is not lost, for healing and new life must start with clarity of vision and a certain commitment to better imitate our Lord of love. The new wine that the Spirit of grace seeks to pour into our souls truly needs new wineskins, new understandings, new attitudes, and new levels of surrender in order to make its home deep within us and for us to draw closer to who it is that our Lord is calling us to be.
Domestic violence to some extent and at some level is a part of every woman’s life…somewhere, at some time and in some way they have been forced to accept the will of one who is intent on bending her to his way. And to the extent that any of us men have ever been that force of strength or intimidation even to what seems to us to be a small or insignificant degree, we need to repent and to walk in the light of the fact that all God’s children are equally loved, treasured, and cherished in his eyes. For all God’s children, men and women alike are gifted with strengths and talents which must be allowed to flower and grow if the ‘kindom’ of our Lord is ever to be realized among us.
Truly it is no easy task to be a broken woman…and it is no easy task to accept responsibility for being one who participated in the breaking either. But by grace it is possible for the healing love of Christ to bring down those high mountains of dominance and to lift up those low and broken valleys such that a new day of peace and healing might dawn among us.
Let us pray that we soon learn how to best love one another…
…for anything else is just too hard. amen