Progressive religious publications offer us incisive articles about the pressing social issues of our time, informing us about the human suffering behind the statistics and calling us to action on behalf of the victims of war, poverty, and AIDS. The best of our religious leaders and churches steer us toward that risky prophetic edge, leading us to place our bodies on the line to protect others from military violence or to prison for protesting one of the many ways multinational corporations harm indigenous people and the environment.
Take Action on This Issue
Yet on the issue of family violence in the United States, which has a devastating impact on the lives of millions of children and adults, the leaders within the peace and justice community, and our churches, are mostly silent. (The related issue of clergy sexual abuse, particularly how it has manifested within the Catholic Church, has been of course headline news for the past several years.)
The victims of family violence live among us wearing the masks of Sunday school teacher, committee member, co-worker, elderly neighbor, nursery school child, youth group member. Their wounds are not visible like those inflicted by guns. Nor do they heal as quickly. The likelihood that a victim of sexual assault will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is greater than that for soldiers serving in combat.
At least one in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually abused before the age of 18. The majority are abused within the circle of "family and friends." One in three women is battered by an intimate partner.
Clergy in middle-class suburban congregations often refuse to believe that these statistics are reflected in their parish. There is a prevailing myth that incest primarily happens within poor or obviously dysfunctional families. The truth is that children are sexually abused by parents who are doctors, teachers, and clergy. Women (and men) are battered by spouses who personify Dr. Jekyll in public - and murderous Mr. Hyde at home. Family violence is no respecter of race, class, or religion.
MOST CLERGY ARE not trained to recognize and appropriately respond to victims and to hold perpetrators accountable. Few understand the dynamics of power, control, denial, and secrecy within families that create the conditions that allow abuse to continue, sometimes for many years. Others are afraid to preach about family violence or hold up justice and healing for the victims in prayer because they fear opening a Pandora's box. What might it mean to confront a perpetrator who is a major contributor? What might it mean to pastorally accompany a victim of torture who grew up in a war zone hidden in a handsome house on the same block as the church? What might it mean to call Child Protective Services when the teenage daughter of the vestry president says her father has sexually abused her?
Our concern for human rights, justice, and protection of the vulnerable must not be confined to the political front. We must take seriously not only the wars where bullets and bombs bring death and destruction upon the innocent, but also the "secret" wars that so many people suffer within their own homes. We need sermons on incest. We need to educate and train religious leaders. We need articles in progressive magazines about familial and institutional structures that allow the abuse of power to go unchallenged.
Family violence is the elephant in the living room that we tip-toe around but do not acknowledge. The cries of the victims of rape, incest, child sexual abuse, and battering are too often only heard by God. We need to open our ears and let those cries compel us to action.
Linda Crockett directs "Walking Together: Support for Survivors of Family Violence" for the Samaritan Counseling Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Deepest Wound: How a Journey to El Salvador Led to Healing from Mother-Daughter Incest (Writer's Showcase, 2001). Visit www.scclanc.org and click Projects for more information.