Sally comes to church with an obvious black eye, covered with make-up. “Are you okay?” I ask. Fighting back tears, she says, “Yes,” and sits in a back pew. Tom yells at and then strikes his three-year-old daughter, who doesn’t want to get out of her car seat in the church parking lot. I hear her sobs through the window of my office.
Andrea confides that her husband comes home drunk and beats her regularly. She is terrified of him but will not leave because she has no job and no place to go. Most distressing, she often believes that she is causing the violence. Five-year-old Sam is frightened of being around any adult males because his father regularly beats him. He won’t come to Sunday school if the teacher is a male. I’ve seen the tragic effects of domestic violence. Every pastor has.
Ray and Janay Rice’s lives will never be the same. Video released last week showed former Baltimore Raven’s running back Rice bashing then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator last February in an Atlantic City casino, knocking her unconscious. As if it were not enough that their private life was exposed to the entire world, Rice’s $35 million Ravens contract was terminated a week ago, and the National Football League changed a two-game suspension to an indefinite ban.
Rice’s embarrassment and public humiliation was accompanied by the uncovering of a pervasive culture of denial and downplaying cases of domestic violence in the NFL, not to mention an open floodgate of women contacting domestic violence hotlines. Oh, the dangerous games we play with ourselves.
• We blame the victim for our choice to engage in violence.
Domestic violence is one of the best kept secrets in American life. Usually, it’s men physically abusing their wives and/or children, but not always. The excuse that the perpetrator is incited to violence because of the victim’s behavior is simply that, an excuse.
• We believe that if domestic violence is inflicted upon on us, somehow we deserve it.
Victims are NEVER to blame for their partner’s violence. Violence is never justified, no matter how intense the argument. Janay Rice tried to defend her husband by acknowledging her role in his decision to deliver a knock-out blow. Physically harming Janay was Ray’s choice, however. It takes a tremendous amount to courage and support for victims to admit the abuse and refuse to accept guilt for the violence.
• We make jokes about domestic violence.
Commenting on the video footage showing Rice savagely flooring Janay in an elevator, then pulling her out on the floor and simply standing there, the host of Fox News’ Fox and Friends morning program, Brian Kilmeade, said, “The message is, take the stairs!” Host Steve Doocy followed with, “The message is, when you’re in an elevator, there’s a camera.” Women don’t joke about such matters.
• We haven’t been too concerned that the NFL seems more interested in penalties for marijuana use, excessive touchdown celebrations and uniform violations than for domestic violence.
After investigating the April incident, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for two games. Since last week’s outcry over the NFL’s laxity around domestic violence, Commissioner Goodell announced a six game suspension for the first domestic violence incident and a lifetime suspension for the second.
• We naively insist that that glorifying violence through the games we play, whether video games, football, boxing or ice hockey, does not affect the culture of violence and guns in our nation.
Our collective American heads are in the sand. Why is football the most popular game in America, a game where men are paid millions of dollars to hurt other each other and are idolized for their brutality?
Why is gun ownership such a sacred cow in our country? Why is a nine-year-old girl allowed to learn how to shoot a fully automatic Uzi machine gun? The recent tragic death of her firearms instructor in Arizona because she could not handle the kickback of an adult weapon should remind us of the shadow side of our national obsession with guns.
• We use violent images in our speech without hesitation.
I cringe every time I hear someone say, “He deserved to be shot” or “Why doesn’t someone beat some sense into her?” One time I even heard a male preacher say in a sermon, “God wanted to slap me upside the head.” Imagine what kind of God he thinks he serves. Violence usually begets more violence.
• We believe it’s okay to verbally abuse others as long as we do not physically harm them.
Shaming, taunting, humiliating and bullying are all forms of violence that demean others and can cause lasting psychological damage.
• We refuse to gently but firmly confront those who express inappropriate anger or threaten others, even in our churches.
Not holding others accountable for excessive anger is an implicit acceptance of their behavior. Nervous laughter when crude jokes are told, silence when others are slandered and inaction when bullies verbally abuse others must be addressed clearly and lovingly, especially in our congregations. Churches are no longer sanctuaries when people fear the anger of others.
• We justify spanking our children as the only way to teach them to behave.
Children model the behavior of their parents. Children who are spanked, whipped or beaten learn that it is acceptable to physically hurt others if you don’t like that they do. Many are scarred for life by verbal and physical violence, whether experienced or witnessed.
In another unfortunate incident last week, Minnesota Viking’s star running back Adrian Peterson was deactivated from yesterday’s game after being indicted in Texas on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. Peterson admitted that he used a “switch” to spank his four-year-old son as discipline, saying that this was the same discipline he received as a child. The boy suffered cuts and bruises to his back, buttocks, ankles and legs, among other areas. Violence begets violence.
• We don’t push back when people justify domestic violence by literally applying biblical statements that since the man is the head of the house, he has a God-given right to keep his wife and children in line.
The insistence on male superiority in many of our evangelical and independent churches justifies violence as a male privilege in order to control women and children. Who will present an alternative world view by speaking up for the teachings of Jesus, who placed high value on nonviolence and treated all people as precious children of God, especially women and children?
• We accept the fact that “boys will be boys.”
More than once I’ve heard a man say to his son, “Be a man.” The implication is that men are to supposed to be aggressive and violent. Condoning domestic violence because it comes naturally to males makes a mockery of every human being’s responsibility to control their behavior. Three women are murdered every day in the United States by their spouses/partners.
• We believe that we are not responsible for anyone else’s behavior.
We may not be complicit in Ray Rice’s behavior. But what about our sons and grandsons? What about the children we teach in Sunday school, teenage boys that we lead in youth groups or athletes that we coach? Are we teaching them about healthy relationships, gender respect, equality and anger management, or do we let them off the hook because they may be star athletes? Do we ignore physical aggression or use it as a teaching tool about self-control in situations other than contact sports? Do we downplay sexualized depictions of women in video games, TV shows and movies or carefully monitor what our children and youth watch?
In many states clergy are among those professionals now specifically mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect.
In Ray Rice’s last public statement this summer he expressed remorse, “I let so many people down because of thirty seconds of my life that I know I can’t take back.” Ray admitted that he was drinking heavily that night and has sworn off hard liquor. He also said that he and Janay decided to become born-again Christians, were baptized in March and are being mentored. Last Tuesday Rice issued a statement saying that he’s trying to “work through this” and that “we have a lot of people praying for us.”
I, too, am praying for Ray and Janay, that they will get their life together and move forward into a bright future. I am also praying that God will use this incident to increase public awareness of the dangerous games we play with ourselves when remain silent in the face of the tragedy of domestic violence. May God grant all of us the grace to create a violent-free world.