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Breaking the silence: Talking about domestic violence

Posted: October 6, 2013 - 12:05am

October is a busy month for observances. It is the designated month for over 80 of them. It is church library month, whole grains month, dental hygiene month, vegetarian month, class reunion month and organize your medical records month. It’s a month for squirrels, spinach lovers, self-promotion, free thought and window covering safety. The month’s most necessary and sobering observance, however, is National Domestic Violence Awareness. The statistics are staggering. In Juneau, 47 out of 100 women have been subjected to intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Across the nation, there are over 1600 intimate partner homicides a year. There is much work to be done to end the scourge of domestic violence.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that the annual October observance grew out of a Day of Unity first held in October 1981. It was designed to link advocates throughout the country who were working to end violence against women and their children. By 1987, monthly observances were in place. Each year, activities are developed that focus on honoring those who have survived domestic violence, mourning those who have died as a result of domestic violence, and connecting those who work to end domestic violence. Programs and observances in 2013 in Juneau include a fifth-grade poster contest, wearing purple ribbons to show support for domestic violence survivors, this weekend’s film and discussion about human trafficking, and women’s self-defense training on Oct. 19.

I serve on the Juneau Sexual Violence Prevention Team and the AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies) board of directors. I am grateful for these opportunities to serve and believe it is especially important for me to do so as a clergyperson. Too often, religious beliefs have served to minimize or excuse domestic violence. Some traditions teach that the “man is the head of the household,” which can foster the view that possessive, controlling behavior is acceptable. Taken to an extreme, this belief sees violence as a male prerogative. Under the guise of Christian doctrine, some women have been encouraged to forgive their abusers and remain with them in a dangerous environment. Violent behavior should never be condoned. Women should not be counseled to stay in unsafe situations. It is essential that religious communities challenge distorted teachings that might serve to justify abuse.

A more subtle but still problematic response of some religious communities is silence. In the 1970s, clergyperson Marie Fortune founded the Faith Trust Institute, an organization that provides training and resources to end domestic and sexual violence and abuse. In her work she has discovered that the problem is not only religious communities that minimize domestic violence or promote unhealthy controlling behavior. It is congregations that don’t talk about it because it is too uncomfortable. She has reported that many clergy tell her that “no one ever comes to me with this problem.” She further cites a Georgia study of domestic violence victims. It revealed that most were members of churches, but very few talked with their ministers about their plight. Fortune calls upon religious leaders and communities to break the silence. As she observes, ministers won’t hear about it until they start talking about it. The Faith Trust Institute has developed a resource about what religious communities can do to respond helpfully to domestic violence (http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/resources/articles/What-Religious-Com...). Among the possibilities are posting information about where those suffering from domestic violence can get help, offering space for training sessions and community meetings regarding domestic violence prevention and intervention, and including educational resources in newsletters.

I pray for the time that Domestic Violence Awareness month is no longer necessary because there is no more domestic violence. Then we can leave October for the squirrels, spinach lovers and dental hygiene education. But until then, all people of goodwill have work to do to end intimate partner violence and make our communities safe, loving and respect-filled places for everyone.

• Phil Campbell is the pastor of the Northern Light United Church

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