Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence is not primarily written for women who are recipients of abuse. I do not recommend it for women who are living in abuse and longing for their abuser to change.
The author, Sara Elinoff Acker, says in the introduction:
If you’re a man who’s just admitted to yourself that you are abusive, this book is for you. …
When I first started working in the field of domestic violence, I didn’t believe that abusive men could really change. Now I know that some can. Sadly, men who’ve committed to change are only a small minority of men who are abusive.
The author recognises the risk of publishing stories by men who are reforming — the stories “might kindle an unrealistic sense of hope among women experiencing domestic violence.”
While the book is written for men who have admitted they are abusive and are wanting to change, there is one chapter for women partners. That chapter is titled “When the man you love is abusive”. The subheadings in that chapter are:
- Many abusive men do not become nonviolent
- Attending a domestic violence intervention program is essential
- If he doesn’t “own” his problems he can’t change them
- Substance abuse is a separate issue
- Couples’ counseling is inappropriate
- Keep your guard up; change takes time
- Two steps forward, one step back
- Your own experience matters most
- Signs he IS changing
- Signs he is NOT changing
- Healing yourself no matter what he does
- You deserve a supportive community
- Commit to an abuse-free life
I could see that the men’s stories in Unclenching Our Fists might give hope to men who were genuinely admitting their abusiveness and committing to change. Of the eleven men whose stories are in the book, some of them seemed to me more awake and more committed to change than others, but that is to be expected. It sounded to me like all of the men were changing their behavior and attitudes to a fair degree, but I had the sense that some of those men might not persevere and stick at the hard work of changing deep down into their hearts.
I personally know of less than a handful of men who were abusers who have changed into non-abusers. Two of those are men who were not Christians and are still not Christians. Those two abusers both attended secular Men’s Behaviour Change Programs in Australia and kept repeatedly attending and working on their stuff until they deep down changed. They are now both working professionally in the Men’s Behaviour Change movement. One is Dave Nugent who now runs the Heavy Metal Group and was involved in the film Call Me Dad; you can see Dave talking to a group of Jewish men here. The second is Ivan Clarke who tells his story here. [This video takes time to load. Editors.]
The only other case I know of where an abusive man seemed to reform, is Dave Weir. He tells his story on pp.118-25 of Unclenching Our Fists. While serving a jail sentence for domestic violence, Dave was convicted of sin. He doesn’t recount that any Christian spoke to him, he simply says that he felt this from God. It sounded to me like Dave Weir became a genuine Christian while serving the two-year jail sentence. He says that with the help of some books and a few courses he “worked his own program”. After he got out of jail, he went voluntarily to a batterer’s program. His wife never lived with him again. The most compelling evidence for me that Dave did genuinely reform is the way his ex-wife Leta responded at the close of his life. By the time the author of Unclenching Our Fists interviewed Dave, he had cancer of the throat and was having difficulty speaking. The interview was recorded, but Dave’s speech was so hard to understand that the author couldn’t transcribe it. After Dave died, his ex-wife Leta volunteered to transcribe the interview, saying she was proud of the work Dave had done on himself (pp.186-7).
When an ex-wife is sure that her abuser has genuinely changed, and she has remained permanently separated from him (she has not put back on the rose-coloured glasses), but she chooses to have a friendship with him, a friendship that is mutually enjoyable, and she voluntarily does something to help his story get published after he has died, that is pretty telling, in my view.
None of the men in Unclenching Our Fists were what I would call “pseudo-reformers”, but some of them seemed to be “half-hearted reformers” — i.e. men who have made and are continuing to make substantive changes in their behaviours, but who have not (or not yet) developed deep and lasting empathy for their victims…men who are doing genuine reformation in their head, but not deeply in their heart. Some professionals who work in men’s behaviour change groups may think I’m free with my opinion without having enough experience of reforming men. So be it. I can only share my impressions and gut feelings.
I think Unclenching Our Fists could be worth reading for a woman who has been abused by her male partner, IF she is separated from the abuser and well on the road to recovery and building an abuse-free life. If you are such a woman, this book might help sharpen your discernment about how to discern different degrees of reformation in men. It might be especially worth reading if you are a victim who is becoming an advocate.
The cautions that the author gives to women who want to read the book need to be taken seriously. If you’re anything like me, you can easily think “I have shed my illusions; I’ve dropped the rose-coloured glasses, I have seen the abuse for what it was! — but there are still illusions to shed and false concepts to be brought to the light of truth.
Note: I was prompted to write this post because someone tagged me on Facebook while writing about Unclenching Our Fists. See here. The link goes to a private FB group run by another survivor-cum-advocate.
Some of this post is copied from my post Chris Moles has a Play Doh understanding of salvation which was published in August 2018.
In 2019, the SBC produced its ChurchCares Program. I wrote five posts about it. Here they are for ready reference.
Leviticus has several verses that forbid father-daughter incest. Despite this, the ESV Study Bible’s note on Leviticus 18:6-18 reads as follows (bold emphasis mine):
These laws prohibit sexual relations (approach…to uncover nakedness), and therefore marriage, between people who are too closely related by blood (mother, sister, granddaughter, aunt) or by marriage (stepmother, stepsister, stepdaughter, stepgranddaughter, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, aunt by marriage). The clause “to uncover nakedness” can at times merely refer to voyeurism (cf. Gen 9:22-23), but in the Old Testament it is most commonly used for sexual intercourse. No mention is made of the daughter, probably because that needs no comment (cf. Gen 19:30-38) and this prohibition is already well known in the laws of other cultures.
To demonstrate that Leviticus has verses forbidding father-daughter incest, I will mostly be citing the KJV. I am citing the KJV because it uses the term “uncover the nakedness” whereas many modern translations use the term “have sexual intercourse”. I think “uncover the nakedness” is a better term because in addition to connoting penetration of a person’s bodily orifice (e.g. mouth, vagina, anus), it also connotes voyeurism, indecent exposure, etc.
You might find it helpful to bear in mind that when the KJV uses the word woman or wife in the verses I will be citing, it is translating a Hebrew word that can mean woman or wife or female. When translating the Hebrew Bible, the translator has to decide whether to render that word as “woman” or “wife” or “female”.
I will also be citing the Apostolic Bible Polyglot (ABP) which is an English translation of the Septuagint. When I cite the ABP, I will give a link so you can check that I’m not pulling the wool over your eyes.
19:29 ABP (link) You shall not profane your daughter to fornicate her. And you shall not fornicate the land and the land be filled of lawlessness.
19:29 KJV Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.
20:14 KJV And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.
20:14 ABP (link) Whoever should take a woman and her mother, it is a violation of the law; in fire shall they incinerate him and them, and there shall not be a violation of the law among you.
Lev 18:17 KJV Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, neither shalt thou take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; for they are her near kinswomen: it is wickedness.
18:15 KJV Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy daughter in law: she is thy son’s wife; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness.
19:20 KJV And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.
Note: by extension the above verses could be applied to father-daughter relationships. In “quiverful theology” the daughter is not free of her father’s authority until he hands her over in marriage to a husband. The daughters are akin to servants and bondmaids in such families.
I would argue that daughters who are subjected to father-daughter incest should NOT be ‘scourged’ or punished, because those daughters were not willing participants in the sexual relationship — rather, they were coerced, controlled, intimidated, and assaulted (see here). The punishment ought to be laid on the father, not the daughter. Paul did not say that the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife should be incinerated; rather he said that the man should be put out of the church, handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. (1 Cor 5)
The ESV is notorious for its bias in favour of male headship and for translating in ways that oppress women and which obfuscate the legitimate needs and dignity of women. In my opinion, the ESV Study Bible notes need to be read with caution. The notes can be valuable when giving historical background; but when it comes to abuse and gender issues, the notes can be dangerous.
It’s estimated that almost one in 10 Australian women has experienced sexual violence at the hands of the person she’s meant to trust most – her intimate partner.
The crime scene may be her own home, her own bed.
Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (IPSV) is little understood, with insidious consequences for the women exposed to it. But thanks to survivors coming forward, research led by the University of Melbourne is now going beyond the silence.
CONTENT WARNING: These six articles discuss multiple forms of trauma, including sexual violence and assault, abuse and harassment, as well as the effects of this trauma on mental health.
Find out more — this link takes you to a list of the six articles.
Individual links to the six articles:
Note from Barb Roberts: I have not yet had time to read these six articles. But I trust they will be good because I have respect for the people who have done the research and the articles are based on the reports of survivors.
Intimate Partner Sexual Violence: A Multidisciplinary Guide to Improving Services and Support for Survivors of Rape and Abuse [*Affiliate link]. Barbara Roberts wrote the chapter ‘Pastoral Responses to Christian Survivors of Intimate Partner Sexual Violence’ in this book.
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
The bottom line: the Bible does NOT force a woman to marry her rapist. Rather, it holds the rapist accountable for everything he’s got.
— George Athas
George Athas says it is wrong to claim that the Bible forces a woman to marry her rapist. Below are the opening paragraphs of his blog post Does the Bible force a woman to marry her rapist?
It’s sometimes claimed that the Old Testament forces a woman to marry her rapist, and that this demonstrates just how repugnant the Bible can be. The claim often forms part of an argument that seeks to disqualify the Bible from moral discourse in our modern world, or at the very least limit it.
Those wishing to defend the Bible against such a vile stance are often at a loss. There is sometimes an attempt to “soften the impact” by arguing that the laws do not deal with rape (non-consensual sex), but with seduction in which one partner brings the other around into consenting to sex.
Neither angle really grapples with the issues or the logic of the biblical data.
The relevant laws about sexual misconduct come from Deuteronomy 22:13–30. These laws deal with a range of circumstances, and rape is certainly among them. The reference to “rape” is conveyed by the use of the Hebrew word תפש (tapas), which means “to hold onto” or “to hold down.” This is not a neutral word referring metaphorically to someone convincing another to their point of view, as perhaps a conniving seducer might convince a would-be partner to sleep with him. It is the language of violence, and it does not allow for consent. The word is used to describe the action of Potiphar’s wife on Joseph — not of her words to persuade him to sleep with her, but of her grabbing his clothing without his consent, and which he then had to abandon as he fled from her. She was not letting him go, forcing him to squirm out of his clothing and run off naked to escape her.
Nonetheless, the claim that the Bible forces a woman to marry her rapist is incorrect. It misunderstands the purpose and contours of the laws about sexual misconduct and, unfortunately, twists them into the rhetoric of misogyny… click here to read the full post.
George Athas published this blog post in 2018. It is an excerpt from his book Deuteronomy: One Nation Under God (Aquila Press, 2016).
George Athas is Director of Research and Lecturer in Old Testament at Moore College Sydney. Read his bio here.
What about sexual abuse? – an FAQ at this blog
Do you tell others about the sexual abuse? (there are 280 comments on this post!)