You may feel alone, abandoned and afraid. Maybe you are blaming yourself for the abuse you have suffered. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by shame. You may feel pressured to keep silent about all that has happened to you. What energy you have is consumed by keeping up appearances, pretending that everything at home is all right. You may feel let down by your church and misunderstood by your closest friends. If only you could turn back the clock. If only you could make things better. If only you could protect the children. If only the violence would stop.
You are not alone. Millions of women around the world, many of them Christian, have been hit or bullied by a man who promised before God that he would love and cherish his wife until death parted them. Still, most battered wives feel alone. Since abuse occurs behind closed doors, others in the community or at church don't see it happening. So victims feel faceless and nameless. Silence and secrecy abound.
Christmas was just around the corner. A women's banquet had been organized at our church as an outreach to abuse victims. Some were staying in a battered women's shelter; others had moved on to "second stage housing," apartments available to them for up to eighteen months. Christmas is a good time of year to make connections between the church and the community. It is an especially difficult season for those experiencing family turmoil or loss of intimate relationships. For a woman who is enduring violence or suffering at home, Christmastime adds pressure and heartache.
As I drove to the church, thinking about the talk I'd be giving, my mind was filled with questions: How can we church women strengthen our relationship with the shelter? What are some of the ways women of faith can offer support to abused women around us? How can my talk tonight be both a challenge to nonviolated women and a comfort to those who have been battered? And how can we all reduce family violence in our neighborhoods and congregations?
Beside me in the front seat of the car was an Amish doll that I had brought as a prop for the talk. This faceless doll with a wide-brimmed bonnet has no facial features—no nose, no eyes, no smile. Her face is simply a piece of plain off-white cloth. The design is meant to represent one of the hallmarks of Amish culture: submission of the self to the preservation of the group.
Somehow the simplicity of the doll linked in my mind to the story of the birth of Jesus, the reason for the evening's celebration. Mary, a young Jewish girl of ordinary circumstances, was chosen to bear the Christ child. I wonder how she felt. I wonder who she told. I wonder if she wept. There is a lot to wonder about.
As I drove, I imagined one of my daughters being in Mary's situation: an angelic visit, a teenage pregnancy, a long trip away from home, no room in the inn. Chosen indeed. Then I thought about the parallels between Mary's extraordinary story and a battered woman's tale: the disbelief, the unknown, the fear, shame, isolation.
Suddenly I flashed back to a day in my life as a student, years earlier. I walked into a cozy craft shop in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, a town in Amish country. In the center of the shop's basement was a large wooden frame supporting and stretching the top of a brightly colored quilt. Sitting around it were six Amish women, varying in age from about twenty to eighty. They were speaking German. Once they were aware of my presence, though, they fell silent; I was an intruder. Since I was making them uncomfortable, I cut short my admiration of their work.
On the sidewalks outside, young girls carried groceries in hand-woven baskets; older women held a bolt or two of fabric under their arms as they climbed into horse-drawn buggies; men tended the animals and gathered supplies for the farm. At first it was like a walk through a reconstructed historic village. But there is far more to the story of the Amish than such a quick glimpse can show. The people live by a series of principles and practices that reinforce submission of the self in the service and preservation of Amish culture. The blank stare of the doll and the silence of the adult women haunt me: so many stories hidden, tales not told, pains and joys not expressed.
Back in the present, sitting at a red light, I pondered how to communicate with strength and grace the notion of facelessness to the women at the banquet. One group of them—those who had experienced battery—would know from personal experience what the Amish doll represented. They too had been unable to look at themselves fully and completely, unable to gaze into the mirror of their life and record or remember precisely what they saw. In the case of Amish women, the mirror represents the forbidden. As a battered woman, you too may have avoided self-reflection because it evokes too much pain, too much despair. No doubt you understand all too well from your own experience the blankness of the gauze cloth covering the place where the doll's face ought to be.
The evening proceeded as planned. I set the Amish doll on the lectern. She illustrated Mary, the young woman chosen to bring to human life God's Son; she illustrated the anonymous battered woman whose call for help cannot be heard; she also represented the unnamed woman who reaches out her hand to help a sister in need.
When a family is in crisis, does anyone know? What does the cry for help sound like? What does the despair of a battered woman look like? Is there any way to identify women who are living in fear? When some women face life-threatening danger, they ask for help. Others suffer in silence. Some knock on doors; others wait for rescue to come to them. What have you chosen to do?
To find your voice
is no small feat
amidst the turmoil and the pain;
To listen to the words you speak
enables me to gain
The credibility I require
to silence your oppressors—
especially those inside your head;
So that once found
you never lose
your words or voice again.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces... but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
Opening our eyes to violence in the family setting is never easy Usually it comes with a cost. For some women, that cost is personal: when they attempt to see the suffering of others, the faces of their own loved ones come into focus. In agony they relive their own childhood or adolescent vulnerabilities. Such intrusive, painful memories threaten to interrupt or control, once again, their daily lives and future possibilities. For these women, violence can only be thought of as my abuse, as if there were no other story than one's own.
Others find it very difficult to picture violence in the family setting because they have not suffered the clinging tentacles of its humiliation. They want to understand and empathize, but their hearts are cold—not because they are callous or indifferent by nature but because they have never heard the heart-cry of a victim, told in the first person, face to face, with tears and long silences. These disclosures are so different from the news reports that flow from the lips of a broadcaster, or the clipped scenes of a television documentary. If a person has never heard or seen a victim disclose, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the shame, or the fear, or the impact.
As a victim of abuse, you need to realize that it is very hard for someone else to understand the full impact of your pain or its long-term consequences.
Mildred Jennings was a deeply spiritual person. She was described by her pastor as "a beautiful Christian, very active in the church." She had five grown children, all of them high achievers. But about three months after her minister had moved to the area, Mildred began to tell him some things about her marriage, and before long she revealed that things were not as they seemed.
She was regarded as a balanced person, but Russell, her husband, was a very controlling man. He hungered after power and status. To satisfy his desire for flashy goods, he was continually borrowing money, and as a result the family was going further and further into debt.
One day Mildred was talking on the phone with her eldest daughter, a physician in a neighboring region. Apparently, Mildred had gone to a hiding place in her home to retrieve some notes about past abusive incidents. Russell came home to find her on the telephone with the papers scattered on the desk in front of her. He flew into a rage—almost as severe as a time he had tried to kill her.
One Sunday morning Russell gave his sixty-year-old wife and her eighty-three-year-old live-in mother two hours to leave the family home forever. The pastor found a note on the pulpit asking him to meet with Mildred after the second service. They met, he listened to her story, and that afternoon he took the two frightened women to the home of a church family who were willing to host them for a few days. In the pastor's words, "I remember the very first day, when I was driving her... saying someday you'll see this was the best thing that ever happened to you. But it was a terrible time, terrible time."
The minister saw Russell's problem as his desire to control his wife. He controlled the money. He controlled where Mildred went and with whom. He tried to keep her from going to church, going to movies and going to visit her friends. When Mildred resisted his control, he would become very loud and threatening, or he would turn silent and refuse to talk to her, sometimes for up to a month.
As a result, Mildred felt she was worthless. In the pastor's words, "Her self-esteem was [already] low because she had grown up in a family where there was abuse.... She had seen her grandfather knock her grandmother out, leave her on the floor in a pool of blood. She saw her father treat her mother very negatively... so she had very low self-esteem." Russell, too, was a childhood victim of abuse; as a little boy he had learned to use his fists to get what he wanted.
After Mildred and her mother had been kicked out of their home, she spent the next four or five months feeling sorry for her husband. The pastor recalled, "Even though he was the one that put her [out] with two hours' notice, she felt that she was hurting him by having blabbed.... I felt so bad for her, she was so vulnerable. And he was always calling her... she would pity him so much. Pity him because he never knew what love was as he was growing up."
Mildred had turned to the minister for help because she knew nowhere else to turn. At her point of deepest need, she looked to the church and found that her pastor was willing to help her begin the long journey toward healing and wholeness. Mildred had many questions: Could God forgive her for leaving Russell? What about her marriage vows, especially the part that says for better, for worse, for the rest of your life? Why was God letting this happen?
What did her pastors care do for Mildred? "I did a lot of listening," the pastor confided. "I reminded her that she would have never have left that day.... It wasn't her... decision." Through counseling, the minister tried to challenge Mildred's incorrect beliefs—that she was at fault, responsible for her husband's misery, or that the breakup was her doing.
Safety Must Be the First Priority
Here Are Some Questions You Should Ask Yourself About Safety
- Is it safe these days for you to be home or to return home? Are your children safe at home?
- Has your husband's anger ever frightened you or made you feel unsafe? Do you think maybe your husband could harm himself or damage your property?
- Do you have a safety plan in case you need to leave home quickly? Do you have access to a car at all times? Is there public transportation close to where you live, or a taxi service?
- Do you know how to contact the transition house in your community or another nearby community, in case you need shelter?
For the first few months the minister and Mildred talked every day. After that for over two years there was contact at least once a week, sometimes for fifteen or twenty minutes, sometimes for over an hour. Russell, meanwhile, blamed the abuse and its heartache on Mildred, on other people, on everyone but himself. He was unwilling for the minister or anyone else to offer him assistance. He preferred to be left alone.
Mildred received care and counseling from her pastor for quite a long time. The minister also talked with other professionals so that they could understand Mildred's situation better. Her lawyer, for example, couldn't understand her Christian values, especially how she could so easily forgive this abusive man. With Mildred's permission, the minister explained her values to the lawyer, even as he tried to challenge them through counseling. He actually encouraged Mildred to be less forgiving, helping her see that God was not asking her to ignore the pain and the abusive events but to hold her husband accountable for his behavior.
For Mildred and her mother, rescue was the first need, but on the road to healing and recovery, spiritual needs were primary. Mildred's mistaken religious beliefs could have kept her from growing into wholeness. Faulty religious thinking can be best challenged by a pastor or someone else with spiritual credentials. As for many Christian women who are abused, the language of the spirit, God's word of help and encouragement, was what Mildred needed to supplement the language of contemporary culture.
Brenda Steppe, in her early twenties, a recent graduate with an accounting degree, was in the fifth month of her first pregnancy. She was living with a man, Carson, who was younger than she in both age and maturity When Ruth, the pastor of the local church, first saw Brenda, she was standing alone on the side of the street, one shoe missing, deeply distraught. "There was a pregnant lady standing on the side of the street in the rain, bawling her eyes out. And the reason she was bawling her eyes out was because her common-law partner had just come home drunk and bonked her down on the floor and proceeded to kick her in the stomach. Okay. That's how I got involved. That's how I intervened. I chose them. They didn't choose me."
Ways To Protect Yourself
Find the phone number for the local shelter. When you are able, call them and ask about their services. Then if you ever need their help, you will already know what services they offer.
Remember that you can call 911 any time you are in danger. Also you can call the shelter and get information from a worker even if you are not planning to seek refuge there.
This is a story of two women who enter each other's life and are never quite the same. Brenda was discovered with a multitude of emotional and physical problems and dilemmas—by all counts she was needy. Ruth was motivated by compassion, fueled by spiritual zeal, to make the world a better place.
It was the Christmas season, cold and snowy. The pastor had been walking in the downtown area of a small city when her eyes fell upon Brenda. She approached and cautiously asked what was wrong. At first Brenda did not want to speak with this stranger, not knowing that she was a pastor and could help. But Ruth persisted, having noticed the bruises and then the pregnancy Brenda's abusive boyfriend had driven her out of the house without any warning. She had lost one of her shoes running out the door as he threw a beer bottle at her. The pastor recounted how Brenda wanted her to buy a pair of sunglasses before she got on the bus. Brenda's first reaction was to hide the shame, to block her pain from view and cover over her feelings of failure.
Once the glasses had been purchased, the pastor accompanied her on the bus. When they arrived at the place Brenda called home, she wanted to clean up the mess Carlson had made when he hurled his supper at her. Fragments of food and china were strewn everywhere.
Why would a battered woman return to clean up such a mess? From Brenda's perspective, Carlson didn't know how to take care of the house, and furthermore, he was unable to complete the final preparations for Christmas, such as wrapping and delivering presents on time. "She would have moved right back into that hellhole," Ruth said later, "with herself about ready to have a baby." It was difficult—almost impossible—for Brenda to leave the abusive relationship because she felt as if she was abandoning him.
Two women, Mildred and Brenda, who have experienced intimacy laced with violence. One is old; one is young. One has lived in comfortable surroundings, the other knows poverty. One has a dependent mother, the other is pregnant. Both are frightened. Both fear the future. One speaks, the other is trying to find her voice.
Their true stories help us to dispel some of the myths surrounding abuse—when it occurs, to whom it happens, how it can be stopped. From their stories we learn that abuse can happen to anyone.
Myths to be dispelled:
Around the world, and in our own backyards, countless women are suffering the long-term consequences of violence in the family Most often the abuse is caused by someone who is, or has been, loved and trusted. We can be very deeply hurt by those we love. Sometimes the wounds are inflicted by words that break our hearts; sometimes the wounds are inflicted by fists that break our bones.
Ask Yourself Some Hard Questions
- Do you live in fear?
- Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells?
- Are you afraid about what your children are hearing and seeing at home?
- Has violence been getting more intense and more frequent?
- Do you fear harm to your property or pets?
- Is it time to get help?
Those of us who have never experienced violence in our home find it hard to believe that abuse is so common. Even those of us who are victims can find it hard to believe, for we feel isolated and alone. But the truth is that about one in four women worldwide has been the victim of some form of sexual or physical abuse. Countless more have suffered emotional or psychological abuse. Teenage women who are raped on a date, young pregnant women who are hit across the face by their husband, middle-aged mothers who live in fear, elderly widows who have their assets stolen—violence takes many ugly forms in our communities, and sadly, in our churches too.
Churches claim that their mission is to heal the brokenhearted in the name of the gospel. Women and men of faith share this calling. The healing touch is extended in acts of compassion by ordinary people. Perhaps you can think of several examples of such compassion in your own life. As we extend God's healing touch, the world is changed, one family at a time.
Christians say that the family is very important to them. They even talk about "the church family," extending the warmth and nurturing of the home environment into the life of the congregation. This means church people have a special opportunity to put their energies into making every family safe. But it also means that when violence touches families of faith, victimized women and children can feel especially isolated from other believers.
Some women ask for help; others suffer in silence. Recognizing one's need for help is usually the first step in the healing process.
An abused woman tottered unsteadily under a blazing sun. An oasis rose in the distance, promising shade and water. Struggling with exhaustion, weak from her injuries, she navigated with shaky steps and at last sank down beside the well.
She had no idea what her next step might be, her strategy for survival. She only knew that she had made it to the well. Any planning beyond that would require more energy than she had. Friendless, homeless, pregnant, beaten, an unknown foreigner, she had few options. And she didn't have the emotional strength to be objective about her situation. One can't survive long without food and shelter—or without a sense of one's own worth.
Of all the persons introduced thus far in the book of Genesis, she is the most insignificant. We don't know anything of her family or spiritual background. Probably she was one of the slaves traded by Pharaoh in return for Sarah, Abraham's beautiful wife. When the patriarch allowed his wife to be received into Pharaoh's household, he was given sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants and camels. The property list places the slaves in between the male and female donkeys (Genesis 12:16). Hagar was thought no more significant than the animals.
This was how she had come into Abraham's household, and when Sarah was returned to her husband, Hagar remained as their slave. Pharaoh commanded Abraham to take his wife and leave Egypt, and so Hagar was transported to a strange country that bore no resemblance to her homeland.
But still Abraham and Sarah did not have what they wanted most—a son. Finally Sarah despaired of ever bearing a child and turned to what she considered the next best arrangement. In ancient Near Eastern law, a woman could give her husband her slave girl as a concubine, and if the slave conceived, when the child was born it was considered to belong to the mistress. So Hagar was used as sexual property, as a breeder for a desperate couple. Abraham was reluctant at first, but finally he gave in to his wife's insistence.
Hagar became pregnant, and she was pleased. Though she had been abused and exploited, at least she was capable of bearing a child when Sarah couldn't! Sarah noticed her complacency The slave who had been nobody was now somebody, the mother of the master's child. Sarah keenly resented the slave's newfound assurance, her pride and joy in anticipating motherhood.
With Abraham's consent, Sarah found ways to turn the slave woman's life into a living hell. When Hagar could no longer endure the misery, she decided to run away. Desperation drove her into the desert, and she started along the way back to Egypt.
This was surely understandable, but it was terribly risky There was no shelter for abused women, no place where she might go for refuge, no way to get food or water, no one to care for her during labor and delivery.
Before this, Bible history has been concerned with chieftains, heads of clans, patriarchs. And now into the center of the stage comes a nobody, a homeless African single mother who has been abused and exploited.
Hagar's first step had been to recognize that she was abused and needed to escape. At last she had found a well beside the road and collapsed, tired, thirsty, pregnant and scared.
Suddenly a voice called out, "Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from, where are you going?" Someone knew her name and was expressing concern. She was a real person to the stranger, whom she soon recognized as a messenger from God.
Unlike many others, Hagar was able to answer God honestly: "I am running away from my mistress, Sarah."
"Return to her," said the Lord. It sounded cruel, but in Sarah and Abrahams household she would be cared and provided for.
Like many another abused woman, Hagar found no option other than return. Although in the end she would gain her freedom as the proud mother of a free son, there were practical considerations first: food, shelter, care during the delivery and infancy of her son. God counseled her to return for the present, but she went back equipped with wonderful new resources.
First, she had a promise not only of a son but of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Just as Abraham had been promised descendants so numerous that they could not be counted, so too Hagar was to become the ancestor of a great nation (Genesis 16:10). If Abraham was to become a patriarch, she was to become a matriarch in her own right, with honor and dignity. Hers was a special covenant with God. God promised, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." It was the very same promise that had been made to Abraham. She too was to be founder of a mighty people.
Then came the prophecy of her son's freedom:
Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man. (Genesis 16:11-12)
"Wild ass of a man"—what does that mean? It means that he would be free. In Job we read that no one can tame the wild ass nor bring it under the yoke into servitude (39:5-12).
Just as God knew the mother's name, so too a name was given to her son. The boy was to be called Ishmael—"God shall hear"—because God had heard Hagar's misery, both in Sarah's tent and there beside the well. She learned that God hears the cries of abused women.
Hagar dared to enter into a more intimate communion with God than most of the other Bible characters. "Have I really seen God?" she asked. And she did something none of the other people in the Bible had done: she gave God a name. "You are El-roi," she said, "the God who sees me." From that day on, the well was called Beer-lahai-roi, the Well of the One Who Sees Me. Hagar never forgot that she walked in God's sight.
She returned to her mistress, buoyed by the knowledge that God had both seen and heard her, and Abraham did name her baby Ishmael, "God shall hear." In her heart Hagar treasured the Lord's promise through all the difficult days of servitude and unkind treatment that followed.
In time Sarah herself conceived and bore a child, and at last she insisted that Ishmael and Hagar be evicted from the home. In point of fact, all of Abraham's sons by concubines were compelled to leave (Genesis 25:5-6). By sending Hagar away, Abraham was both freeing her and divorcing her. But God would use even this eviction for Hagar's healing.
If she and her son walked out of the camp as free human beings, that wasn't very comforting at the moment. The rope on the water skin dug into Hagar's shoulder. She had some water and a little bread, but before her stretched an enormous desert. The weight of the water slowed her down, as did the child who stumbled beside her. The water that she used to quench his thirst did not last long in the searing heat.
At last it was no use: the lad could go no further. Laying him under the shade of a scraggly bush, she sat down to mourn the impending death of the precious child God had given her. All the promises of God were coming true for Isaac, while her life and that of her son were about to be lost because of Sarah's spite. They would die like animals, as non-persons, with no meaning or dignity.
Hagar was a victim if ever there was one. She wept, and Ishmael wept. And God heard and called out, "What is the matter, Hagar? Don't be afraid, lift up the boy and take him by the hand."
She was divorced, homeless, desperate, exhausted—and God was telling her to stand on her own two feet and lift up her son, "for I will make of him a great nation." The promise again, but how could it possibly be fulfilled?
Then God "opened her eyes," and she saw a well that she had failed to notice before. She now had access to a life-giving resource. It became for her a well of enablement. There they were able to establish a new life before God, for "God was with the boy."
Ishmael grew up and became a hunter. Hagar found herself a new person, able to direct her son's growth and to make important decisions. She chose a wife for him, according to cultural custom, and in time there was a great family.
We are told that whenever something happens for the first time in the Bible, it has great symbolic meaning. When God enabled her to use her own eyes, Hagar found the water, and it proved her salvation. In the desert environment of Bible times, water was not taken for granted. Again and again in the Bible, water is a symbol of spiritual life and of refreshment for the soul. God's people were invited to come to the waters (Isaiah 55:1). We read of joyfully drawing water from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3), of finding rivers of water in the desert.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isaiah 35:6-7)
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water. (Isaiah 41:18)
God has promised to lead us beside springs of water (Isaiah 49:10) and to grant abundance to each believer. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land (Isaiah 32:2).
Hagar became that shelter from the tempest, able to shelter both herself and her child, able to think clearly and act decisively She had found the springs of living water.