“The best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”
I heard this phrase long ago and it has stuck with me. I was raised in a family that had this kind of love and respect, however, I clearly know that that is not the case in all families or in all households. During this National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I think it is important to restate once again my Church’s unwavering rejection of any form of violence or the threat of violence by men against women, both within marriages and in society at large. In the bishops’ document on domestic violence, it has been repeatedly stated that “violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form – physical, sexual, psychological or verbal – is sinful, often it is a crime as well.” (When I Cry For Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992.)
Alaska, unfortunately, leads the country per capita in incidents of domestic violence as well as rape and the physical and sexual abuse of children and young people. These shameful and destructive acts do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are the results of ideas about men and women that allow the perpetrators of violence to justify (if only to themselves) their violent and criminal behavior.
All of us, especially men, should take a closer look at the attitudes and ideas in our society that subtly and not so subtly justify male violence against women, that is, men who believe that they have a right to assault their wife or girlfriend. Some perpetrators believe that violence or the threat of violence gives them power and control. Many believe that women are inferior to men and that men have the right to dominate and control their spouse or partner.
Unfortunately, some men attempt to justify their violent and abusive behavior by resorting to sacred scripture, especially the letters of St. Paul. As a Christian religious leader in our community, I would like to address these attempts to misuse scripture to justify domestic violence and crimes against women.
Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament teach the equal dignity of men and women, who are called by God to relationships based on love and mutual respect and service. Yet some wrongly use specific biblical texts to justify and defend violence against women.
A single verse of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord,” may be misunderstood. St. Paul’s text goes on to address husbands saying, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”
The entire passage speaks of the mutual subordination of Christians, both men and women. St. Paul urges husbands and wives toward mutual love and mutual service, in imitation of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. Nothing in this passage ever justifies a husband or a boyfriend dominating his partner. Nor does it require as a religious duty that she tolerate domineering, abusive and violent behavior.
Sometimes well meaning but misinformed people will tell an abused woman that her suffering is “God’s will” or “part of God’s plan for her life,” or even “God’s way of teaching her a lesson.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! Acts of injustice, cruelty and violence are not part of God’s plan or purpose. Instead, they contradict the will of God, who is kind, merciful and loving. God does bring good out of even the worst situations, but sin and evil are never willed or desired by God.
Unfortunately there are still too many women who believe that they have a religious duty to remain in an abusive marriage. These women should do everything in their power to seek help. The sacredness and permanence of marriage does not require that women simply tolerate the men who abuse them. A woman who decides to distance herself from an abusive husband has not broken up her marriage – it is his violence and abuse that is responsible for such action.
Here in Alaska I am grateful for the statewide Choose Respect campaign seeking to end violence against women and break the cycle of abuse throughout our state. I commend all of those in our community who have worked for so many decades on behalf of the victims of domestic violence, those who work as advocates for women survivors of domestic violence, and also all those working to change the attitudes and behaviors of abusive men.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.