A few years ago I wrote an article titled, “More Than Hot Grits (and an Iron Skillet), which appeared in an online publication called The Vine. The publication is no longer available but recent events made me dig this out again.
The statistics about domestic violence have not gotten better since this article was written in 2012—in spite of several high profile cases bringing attention to the pervasiveness and indiscriminate nature of abuse. Women and men of all socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds are victims of abuse by intimate partners. Recently, there also have been numerous reports of murder-suicides, brazen acts of violence (one woman was killed in the parking lot of a major retailer in broad daylight) and other instances that highlight the pervasiveness of domestic abuse. Earlier this week, a sister-friend, Rev. NaShieka Knight posted an article on her blog, Listening Aloud, about an incident in Baton Rouge where a woman was bludgeoned to death by her estranged husband, despite the fact that she had a restraining order. Her blog, “Maybe Being Seen Will Save Her,” reminded me of the urgency of ending domestic violence—now. Today brought the troubling news that a woman threw hot grits on a male partner who was asleep. While the reports don’t say the reason, I’m guessing it had something to do with this notion that hot grits (and sometimes an iron skillet…or, a baseball bat in this case) are for more than “good eatin’.” But, hot grits will never solve the problem of domestic violence or any other relationship problem for that matter (I should note that details of this case are still emerging and it appears that the male partner may be the victim in this situation). So, let’s leave the hot grits for Sunday brunch and keep the iron skillet in the kitchen cupboard except for meal preparation, where they belong.
There is some hard work ahead of us to end intimate partner abuse. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in America. Twenty (20) people every 60 seconds. That means for millions of women, men and children, home is probably the most dangerous place for them to be. I’m not sure what we need to do first to begin the process of putting an end to this violence. Yet, I remain hopeful that raising awareness about domestic violence, is at least one step, no matter how small, in the right direction.
Following, with minor edits, is what I wrote three years ago entitled, “More Than Hot Grits (and an Iron Skillet).” It examines the important role churches can play in supporting victims and survivors of domestic violence. Some of the information was taken from my doctoral dissertation, which focused on clergywomen’s experience with domestic violence. As I mentioned, the original article is no longer available online. I’m re-titling this version posted below, “Hot Grits Are Good for Eating.”
At a high point in his career, R&B singer Al Green was assaulted by a girlfriend who threw hot grits on him. This incident is often the butt of jokes when people talk about how to respond to domestic violence. In a seminary class for my doctoral work, for example, the issue of domestic violence came up in a discussion about how the church should deal with social problems. The professor joked that all that was needed to deal with domestic abuse was a “pot of hot grits,” referring to what happened to Al Green who changed his life and became a pastor after this incident. The idea of throwing hot grits on an abuser was even a part of a scene in Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Family Reunion” movie where the wise Madea garners laughs instructing her niece on how to handle her abusive fiancé.
But, domestic violence is no laughing matter and the solution to the problem is not as simple as having an iron skillet and a pot full of hot grits as Madea suggests. In fact, many victims of domestic violence get into legal trouble by using this as a solution, according to Dr. Shauna Moore, victim witness program specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice and a survivor of domestic violence. “I know of five cases right now of people who used grits in a domestic violence situation. People think it’s a solution but it makes the victim the perpetrator and a lot of victims end up in jail doing that,” said Dr. Moore.
If the statistics hold true, one out of every four women who reads this article has been or will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. The most recent statistics (as of 2012) show that approximately 1.3 million people are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year, with a disproportionate 85 percent of the victims being women. However, most incidents of domestic violence are not reported and experts believe that domestic violence incidents with men as victims, in particular, are largely unreported.
Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in which a person uses coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation, and/or force in order to establish and maintain power and control over that person’s intimate partner or former intimate partner. There are different types of abuse including verbal, emotional, physical, financial and even spiritual abuse. Sometimes abusive partners start out being verbally abusive and their behavior escalates until they become physically abusive. Regardless of the type of abuse someone experiences, the Church plays an important role in making sure that domestic violence, in all its forms, is not tolerated. Unfortunately, we have not done such a great job at this. In fact, studies have found that the church and pastoral leaders are the least likely place that a person will turn to for help when they are in an abusive relationship.
“A lot of times when victims turn to pastors, first ladies or other church leaders, they tell you to go back home and work on your relationship,” said Moore. “[But] the person doing the abusing has to want to change. You working on your relationship won’t help and going back home can be dangerous.”
Indeed, part of the reason why women survivors of domestic abuse do not go to the church for help is because of the misrepresentations and manipulation of scripture that has been perpetuated by some churches. Theological misconceptions about issues such as suffering, submission and silence–the “S” words–undergird the cycle of violence and leave many women vulnerable. Some women have been led to believe that abuse is acceptable, while others avoid the church and church folks altogether because they think they will not be believed or they will be blamed for the abuse.
Moore is familiar with the dichotomy of being a believer who is also a victim of domestic violence. She says of her experience, “In a way, the abuse led me to God. I began to pray more and seek God on a regular basis. I became more faithful… At the same time, faith kept me in the marriage a lot longer than I should have been.” The abuse began when she was pregnant with her daughter and lasted for 10 years. Pregnancy can be a trigger for some men to start being abusive to their partners.
But it was Moore’s prayers and the words from a woman at church that helped her to finally decide that she would no longer take the abuse. “A woman at the church just came up to me and told me ‘God does not want you to have this kind of pain. We’re not made to hurt like this.’ After that I had peace and knew I had to leave.”
Like many victims of domestic violence, it was still hard for Moore to end her marriage of 12 years. “I was ashamed and I didn’t want to fail. I was the oldest of my siblings and I wanted to be the example. It came down to my life and what I wanted for my daughter.”
Moore is certainly not alone. Many women victims of domestic violence stay in harm’s way rather than leaving abusive relationships, sometimes because they, like Moore, are embarrassed or want the relationship to work. Still others have children and want to keep their family together. However, studies show that boys who witness violence in their homes are twice as likely to become violent as adults.
Suffering Like Jesus?
Christian women also stay in abusive relationships because they believe that is what Scripture requires. Many Christian women who have survived domestic abuse have believed that they are suffering as Christ suffered. The violence and mistreatment that is perpetrated against them is just their “cross to bear.” Sadly, many churches have not done much to refute or dismantle this commonly held misconception. Suffering from abuse is not the same thing as suffering as Christ suffered. Christ’s suffering was for a specific purpose and it was something that He chose to do. Jesus chose to die for us. Not at all the same thing as someone beating you up because they had a bad day, didn’t like something you did or just cannot control their temper.
The Gospels also record that Jesus did not just allow people to abuse him (See Matthew 12:14-15, Luke 4:28-30 and John 8:59). He only accepted the suffering of the cross as a means to an end—to reconcile us back to God. Abuse is not salvific and has no divine meaning. It is not a badge of honor and accepting abuse is not an expression of Christian charity.
The understanding of submission also leaves women in harm’s way. Women are often told that they are to “submit” to their husbands. The Church has taught that the divine order is male headship and female submission. Unfortunately, this is often used to justify and rationalize abuse. However, God does not expect nor does God want us to submit to sin. Wives are to submit to their husbands as unto God and God is not abusive. God is loving, kind, longsuffering and full of mercy. That is the nature and character of God. Therefore, submitting to God and submitting to an abusive husband or partner is not the same thing. In addition, Ephesians 5:21 lets us know that in a marital relationship there is mutual submission between husbands and wives. And, just for the record, “boyfriends” or “girlfriends” have absolutely no biblical authority or standing in the lives of their partners.
Silence Can Kill
In addition, there is the issue of silence. Churches have too often encouraged victims of abuse to keep their experiences to themselves. This is especially true when the perpetrator of violence is a member of the same congregation or in a leadership position at the church, including abusive pastors. Let’s face it. Christians often boast to non-believers that life is much better with Christ. We sometimes spiritualize hardships and struggles and put on a “mask” whenever we walk into the church. We have sometimes painted a picture of Christians having a perfect life with blessing upon blessing, and certainly without struggle. If you just live right, God will bless you or some similar statement hangs as an imaginary shingle next to the church marquee. So, when a woman finds herself in an abusive relationship, she experiences shame, embarrassment, disappointment and denial, all of which contribute to silence. In this case, silence can kill.
It is crucial for churches to create safe and sacred space for victims of domestic violence to be able to break their silence, share their stories and get the help they need to get out of harm’s way. Our only response cannot be to go work on your marriage or to remind a victim of domestic violence that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).
“When I listen to people say ‘God hates divorce,’ I ask them to tell me where in the Bible it says a woman should stay in an abusive marriage,” states Moore, who conducts training for churches and community groups on domestic violence. In the end, she knows that it was her faith and studying the Bible for herself that brought her through. “Now, I use the testimony God gave me to help other victims of domestic violence and I hope that someone listens to me and gets out.”
The church has to get real about the impact that domestic violence is having on our communities. There are nearly 17,000 homicides due to intimate partner violence each year. One-third of the women who are victims of homicide were murdered by an intimate partner and children who witness violent episodes between their parents are more likely to be violent as adults. From generation to generation… Surely it will take more than hot grits and an iron skillet to change this. Churches have to provide training and educate their members about domestic violence—the signs of abuse and its impact as well as the resources that are available to help victims and survivors.
Responding to domestic violence takes more than a punch line to a joke. It takes understanding and commitment. It takes congregations doing the hard work of ministry and meeting people in vulnerable and difficult places in their lives. It is important work. It is necessary work. It is the work of the Church. Because when lives are hanging in the balance, hot grits just won’t do.
*Statistics for this article were taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and can be found here: http://www.ncadv.org/learn/statistics