I gave this message in chapel at Biola University last week. I pray every Christian educational community does such great work engaging students about sexual violence prevention. #StopTheSilence #ItsOnUs
Jesus once told a parable of a woman who didn’t lose heart in a struggle for justice. The story is about the woman’s pleas for an unjust judge to make a wrong situation right. Evidently, the judge doesn’t fear God or respect people, but the woman asks again and again for him to call her opponent to justice. After many refusals by the judge, and pleas by the woman, the judge finally rules in favor of justice.
The woman’s persistence has paid off! And Jesus drives home the point: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:1-8).
At the close of the story, Jesus reminds us to pray always, have faith, and never lose heart because God is the God of justice.
Victims of abuse can be encouraged by this story—God is the God of justice! Those of us working to overcome abuse and violence in our communities can have hope. Even when circumstances look impossible, we can confidently expect that God is working to right what is wrong and repair what is broken.
Today, I want to share with you the reasons I have for believing that abuse and violence don’t have to reign in our communities. We are about to dig into some painful realities. As we do, let’s remember that shining light on what happens in places of darkness is necessary before there can be healing and wholeness.
Let’s hold to the same hope the prophet Jeremiah had: “Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you!” (Jeremiah 32:17)
Above all, let’s remember that Jesus has already done the hard and heavy work of overcoming sin and death—as we pray, have faith, and never lose heart—because God is working to redeem us and the world.
During seminary, I became involved in an organization called Peace and Safety in the Christian Home, or PASCH. PASCH reflected the Jewish understanding of Passover, which is the time of new beginnings. Assisting a professor, Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger, I realized that many Christians experience horrific treatment behind closed doors. It shocked me to learn that abuse and violence happen just as often in Christian communities as in secular society:
- One in three women suffers sexual and/or domestic violence and/or stalking over a lifetime.
- Every year, more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the U.S. involving more than 6 million children.
- One in five high school students reports being physically/and or sexually abused by a dating partner.
- One in eight college women is the victim of rape; one in four experiences attempted rape.
- 3% of women and 1.4% of men have reported being raped at some time in their lives.
- 95 percent of rape victims made no report to officials according to one study.
- 80% of rape cases are date rape.
- Victims of rape can be male or female; attackers may also be male or female.
- 78% of the time, a victim knows the attacker and may or may not be dating him/her.
- No faith community is immune. On any given Sunday morning in North America, at least 25% of people sitting in church have been abused.
Traveling to conferences to promote Peace and Safety in the Christian home, I spoke with hundreds of people. Most had no idea of the prevalence of abuse and violence in society, much less of the suffering that victims face. Others could hardly believe that abuse and violence occur so often in Christian communities. I also met victims who opened up about their stories, many for the first time. Listening to them taught me that statistics are more than numbers; they point at real people who suffer, often in silence.
A couple years ago, when I spoke at a conference, victims poured forward to tell me their stories. Some expressed relief over breaking their silence for the first time. Many shared amazing stories of God’s care for them in dark and hopeless places as Christ’s spirit walked them through horrific circumstances. It grieved me that so many people suffer alone. And I came to see that breaking the silence in a safe community is a necessary step toward healing.
Knowing that victims need safe places to tell their stories, I started an initiative called Stop the Silence, Start the Healing. In 2014, I worked with women, and one man, to prepare their stories for anonymous publication through SheLoves Magazine.
Each month, I edited and published one story showing different kinds of abuse (verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and others). We changed names and identifying details for the sake of privacy and safety. I wrote resource pages to help make sense of what Scripture says about different kinds of abuse.
I hoped the Stop the Silence project would turn into a collective voice calling faith communities to respond with the just and healing hands of Jesus. There are links to the stories and resource pages on my website at AmyRBuckley.com.
Today, I’m grateful to you—the Biola community—for responding. And I want to share part of a story with you. The woman who wrote this was a student here at Biola over twenty years ago. And she has given permission for me to share it. Today, this woman is a counselor and advocate for abuse victims. Her story touches on sexual assault and marriage to an abusive man she became engaged to on this campus:
“Both my best friend, and college roommate, had expressed reservations about how John treated me: He possessively isolated me from friends and family. He acted sulky, self-centered and easily offended. I spent much time trying to understand him, comforting or cajoling him out of extreme moodiness. John. proposed after dating only a couple months; despite my reservations, he insisted on a short engagement. John pressured me sexually; after he violated my boundaries, I felt obligated to marry him.
Throughout our marriage, John assumed a position of authority over me. He manipulated me with pity or anger, and used spiritual authority to bully me into seeing things his way. The fights he stirred up made me feel crazy. He showed no mercy, compassion, or any desire to understand my perspectives. I had no voice and felt utterly powerless. My self-image changed from that of a level-headed woman—with opinions and clear vision—to that of a weak, fearful woman, unsure of her perspectives and sanity!
I made excuses for his abusive treatment. Partly I felt ashamed. Partly I felt responsible. I wanted to love him unconditionally. I hoped to win his trust so he would no longer treat me poorly.”
-Intimate partner abuse is different from garden-variety conflicts that happen in a healthy relationship. Such a relationship is a two-way street between people who value each other and give and take. When conflicts happen, the partners negotiate a solution they both can live with. Although they don’t always treat each other well, neither attempts to have power and control over the other person.
Abusive relationships are far from healthy. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse and Violence, “Intimate partner abuse is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, and this often includes the threat of violence.”
Psychologist Lundy Bancroft describes the mindset of abusive people in his book Why Does He Do That, Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men: “Abuse grows from attitudes and values— The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control. Male perpetrators especially think of women as possessions they are entitled to control.”
Intimate partner abuse weaves a complicated web—normally it involves more than one form of abuse (emotional, verbal, sexual, physical, economic, and others). Often emotional abuse escalates into more recognizable forms like verbal abuse and physical abuse. All of these forms are used against women, men and tragically children.
Perpetrators of abuse use psychological or mental violence such as harassment, excessive possessiveness, isolating the victim from family and friends, deprivation of physical and economic resources, and destruction of personal property. Aggressive behaviors can range from shoving to punching to murder. I know it sounds unreal, but I’ve met a number of women who have nearly lost their lives.
Physical abuse often plays into sexual violence. In such cases a victim is forced to take part in unwanted sexual activity. Rape is never about losing control because of sexual attraction. It is always a crime rooted in abuse of power and control through a coercive sexual act. Even if a person has had sex with someone, she or he still has a right to say no to having sex again. Those who commit rape might also coerce a person into a sexual act:
- They might threaten to harm the victim or someone the victims cares about
- They might use an authority position, like being a teacher or boss, or even a pastor to coerce a victim into having sex. If a victim is under 18, it is Statutory Rape
- A perpetrator might also have sex with someone who can’t make a decision to say yes or no (this happens when someone is drugged or drunk or mentally incapable of agreement.)
Legal definitions of rape and date rape vary (depending upon laws in different areas).
Victims of sexual and domestic abuse suffer terrible wounds, often in secret. And healing is a long process. One woman who shared her story through the Stop the Silence Initiative has described the toll it took on her life:
“My memory was closed off to the experience for more than a decade and I always secretly hoped I would forget. Certain parts are burned into my brain, while others leave me asking, did this really happen? Did I make it up?
To be honest, I’ve spent years avoiding the subject. I’ve allowed shame to lock the box of darkness that holds my first sexual encounter.
Why? Because in the end, I felt like I allowed it.
I didn’t fight it very hard. I didn’t scream out from the top of my lungs for someone to save me. But my mind did. Inside, every piece of me was raging, throwing fists in protest. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
That afternoon, what was left of a bruised adolescence shattered into a million pieces. Without a conscious thought, I would come to believe that this was all sex was—what I was. Shameful.
Dirty. Forced-upon. An object. Entertainment.
For years, I’ve told myself it was my fault; that I have no right to talk about it, feel sorry for myself or desire comfort. I should have stopped it.”
Victims tend to second-guess what has happened and to blame themselves. And that’s often what abusers have groomed them to do.
Many never tell a soul and carry their burdens alone. Others who speak up face questions that only add to their suffering: “What were you wearing? Why did you go out alone? Did you lead him/her on? What did you do to provoke him/her to such anger or violence?”
It takes enormous courage for a victim to ask for help. Reporting an incident is devastating, and if a perpetrator hears of it, he might violently react. A victim must also be careful about going to faith leaders—church discipline can backfire for the same reasons if it’s not handled delicately.
Many victims have a hard time when they disclose abuse to family, friends and faith leaders who believe in subordination of women to men. Please know I do not mean that all people of this theology are abusive. But in the hands of abusive men, this thinking gets twisted into a weapon to justify authority, power and control over women. I hear it from victims with disturbing frequency. The only difference between the beliefs of secular and religious men who commit abuse is that religious men tend to use the Bible to back it up.
Abuse is devastating; it’s even worse when it’s ignored or covered up by people the victim looks to for help. Many victims feel harmed by church leaders; most struggle with their relationships with God; and many—tragically—no longer want anything to do with churches or God.
In the long term, victims experience mental or emotional reactions, including depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Professional counseling, from a specialist in sexual and domestic abuse, can help a victim recover from the trauma. But it’s a long process.
We’ll take some time now to look at what God’s word says about sexual and domestic abuse and violence. Abuse of human power is nothing new. It has always led to exploitation and breakdown of communities. Adam and Eve’s son Cain killed Abel. And the earth grew increasingly violent before Yahweh wiped the sinful violence away with the flood. Even after Yahweh promised never again to wipe out the face of the earth, abuses of human power continued in families, institutions, governments and communities.
In the Old Testament, the corruption of most of the judges and kings—who disobeyed God’s commands—led to the injury of the weak who should have benefited from their leadership. The resulting disunity caused Israel to fall into hands of invaders.
God’s Word compares rape with that of attacking and murdering a neighbor: Deuteronomy 22:25 (NIV) makes this clear: “But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin . . . This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor . . . ”
In cases of abuse and violence, God recognizes the innocence of victims and calls for justice. Perpetrators have committed grievous sins warranting serious penalty.
The rape of Dinah by Shechum in Genesis 34 outraged her family. Scripture says that his sinful act devastated her in every possible way. Shechum’s act of violence against Dinah led to terrible bloodshed. In the end, her brothers tricked and murdered him and many in his community. God’s word clearly condemns sexual violence and the tragic ways that it tears down people and communities.
And God calls on us to deliver victims who are precious to God from violent oppressors. In Jeremiah, God tells us to pursue justice. This involves defending victims and holding abusers accountable.
We must refuse to tolerate abuse within our communities. It is never right to offer mercy to those who have committed crimes of sexual and domestic violence before they have embraced the full legal and spiritual consequences of their actions. Professional intervention, rehabilitation, and ongoing therapy must determine the appropriate course before there can be reconciliation and healing.
We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves about abuse so that we are able recognize it, and respond in helpful ways. In an article for RELEVANT Magazine, I have covered “What Not to Say to Victims of Abuse.” In it, I suggest how best to Support victims. Whether or not your life has been affected, please:
- Educate yourself to recognize signs of abuse.
- Believe victims. Don’t ask judgmental questions.
- Urge victims to take precautions to keep themselves and their children safe.
- Refer victims to professional abuse counselors and shelters that usually have better resources for responding to immediate needs than faith communities.
- Encourage victims to seek continued prayer support, loving fellowship, and spiritual guidance that so many churches have to offer.
- Proclaim from the pulpit, small groups, and other ministries that the Bible condemns abuse—whether physical, verbal, emotional or sexual—over one hundred times.
- Wrestle prayerfully with the biblical, theological, and practical implications that relate to unique people and situations.
- Remember—while Christ’s love for the church should be the model for Christian marriage, an abusive marriage does not reflect that plan.
If your life has been impacted by abuse, and if you have never told someone, please don’t suffer alone. Professional abuse counselors offer the safest places to tell your story. If you open up to a friend, family, or faith community leader, please be sure that person understands enough about abuse to offer you the support you need. There is a link to an e- bookstore through my website that offers many helpful resources.
Most of all, let’s remember to pray always, have faith, and never lose heart—because God is the God of justice. Even when circumstances look impossible, we can be sure that God is working to right what is wrong and to repair what is broken. We can be sure that God is working to redeem us and our world.
 Excerpt from “A Woman After God’s Own Heart, the Legacy of Catherine Clark Kroeger,” Amy R. Buckley, Strengthening Families and Ending Abuse: Churches and Their Leaders Look to the Future (2013), 6.
 Wilson, When Violence Begins at Home, 1997, 179.
 Amy R. Buckley, “The Tension of Powers, Overcoming Domestic Abuse Through a Theology of Redemption,” presented at the Peace and Safety in the Christian Home Conference, 2005, Orange County, CA.