The Common Good

Creating a Port in a Storm of Domestic Violence

I had a chance to play the role of Bad Pastor Phil last week.

Domestic violence word cloud, kentoh /
Domestic violence word cloud, kentoh /

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The occasion was a conference at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis. called “Your Congregation: A Port in the Storm for a Victim of Domestic Violence.” Bad Pastor Phil did not provide a very good port in the storm.

The group of people from some 25 parishes and congregations in the greater Madison area had just witnessed a squirm-inducing scene where Sam came home from work the day after he had hit his wife, Mary. She had prepared his favorite meal, hoping she could make him happy.

Nothing could make Sam happy, of course, other than feeling that he was totally in control of Mary. So he demeaned her, ordered her around, threw the drink of imaginary Scotch and water she had prepared for him across the room, and finally stomped out of the house.

Sam was played by Darald Hanusa of the Midwest Domestic Violence Resource Center, a social work therapist with three decades of experience treating men who batter women. Mary was played by Terry Hoffman, who earlier in the day told a gripping story of the real-life abuse she experienced at the hands of her now former husband.

So now Sam and Mary were on their way to see their pastor. We have a problem communicating, they told me. Sam said it was all Mary’s fault. Mary tried to explain that she was trying to do the best she could, but I asked her what she was doing that was pushing Sam’s anger buttons. She tried to reply, but I kept turning the conversation back to Sam.

I reminded Mary that in the New Testament of the Bible, there were two letters from Paul that said a wife should be submissive to her husband. I ignored the fear that was all over her face.

I was acting out the role that all too often churches have played in real life. Perhaps they are not as crude as I portrayed it, but getting faith-based communities to focus on domestic violence is a growing theme these days.

The Rev. Charles Dohm, a Dominican priest who earned his doctorate in political science at UW-Madison in the 1970s, now is one of the nation’s leading voices for churches providing the kind of safe harbor that victims need. He has established great models of this in the Chicago area.

“Religious communities’ involvement in domestic violence has not been at the cutting edge,” he said sardonically at the opening of the conference. “We’ve sort of been at the tail end. … Victims of domestic violence are right in front of us, they are all around us, and we don’t know it.”

The priest noted that on this topic, the Catholic bishops — not known for taking marriage issues lightly — actually have taken a strong stand. In a letter first written in 1992 and revised in 2002, the bishops say very clearly: “We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”

Yet Dohm says that far too often in church settings, the message to women is that “you’ve got to go back, you’ve got to forgive, this is your cross, go to marriage counseling.”

Dohm is working hard to change that and the conference at St. Mary’s was part of the work faith communities here are doing to create those safe harbors.

Bad Pastor Phil did get a chance to redeem himself in Act Three of the role-play. This time, he created space for Mary to express her fears, he reminded Sam that Paul’s oft-quoted admonition about wives being submissive is followed by this line: “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.” He helped Mary connect with groups that could support her and nudged Sam into seeking treatment to deal with his violence.

Did they live happily ever after? That was beyond the scope of this role-play. But the little drama and the wealth of resources available in the Madison area were reminders to faith communities that they can play a role in creating a port in a storm. The work goes on.

Phil Haslanger is a pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., a suburb of Madison. This column originally appeared in The Capital Times in Madison.

Image: Domestic violence word cloud, kentoh /

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