By ignoring domestic abuse, Christians can stigmatize victims— an example from Dallas Theological Seminary
Raising Children in a Sex-Saturated Society, Part 1 is a video made by Dallas Theological Seminary. It is from their weekly Table Podcast program which “treats key topics related to God, religion, Christianity, and Culture.” It is a public education program that DTS produces for any Christians, not just for DTS seminary students.
As a discussion on how Christians can raise their children in a sex-saturated society — how to help children develop healthy, ethical, biblical attitudes about sex — this video is pretty good for a general audience. However, like many such presentations, it does not even touch on the topic of abuse or mention anything about how abuse might affect the raising of children.
It appears that abuse did not enter the minds of the four people on this panel discussion who are all counselors and/or academics at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Here is an excerpt from the transcript of the video. I’ve bolded the parts that grated on me.
23:50 Darrell Bock: What do we do when we’re in a situation where we’re dealing with a single parent family, and perhaps, some disfunction in the background that’s impacting what it is that the children see. And who wants to take that [issue up for discussion]? That ball’s on the ground.
Gary Barnes [note – the transcript incorrectly said Darrell Bock was the speaker]: One dimension of that, that I want to start off with is, just the fact that you would be working with a one-parent situation makes it very possible that there’s personal unresolved things for that one parent. And there’s a likelihood for shame and guilt that’s still carried over. And the big message that would be great for kids is to see from your own life how God can redeem any bad situation. . . .
27:28 Debby Wade: And, Darrell, I think so much what keeps us, or keeps someone from sharing is the sexual shame maybe that they still carry. And how important that is to work through that for yourself before introducing the topic to your kids, so you’re not bringing the shame into it.
There are a number of reasons for single parenthood and this panel needed to do a better job of differentiating them. There is domestic abuse, widowhood, and pregnancy outside marriage — which may be intentional or unintentional, and with or without any committed relationship. DTS needed to do a better job of clarifying and classifying the various reasons for single parenthood.
Furthermore, conversion to Christianity can occur before or after a person becomes a parent. People who suffer domestic abuse or widowhood may have been Christians since before they married and started a family. They may never have committed sexual sin.
I think when these panelists were talking about shame, they were only thinking of where a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, and had shame from that. What a narrow and naive focus. They never mentioned or even seemed to be aware of abuse as a reason for single parenthood. Nor did they mention widowhood as a reason for single parenthood. How blinkered. How prejudiced! How hurtful to ignore those who became single parents without having ever engaged in extra-marital sex!
Thankfully the speakers each softened their statements with qualifiers (‘very possible’, ‘likelihood’, ‘maybe’) to show that they were not necessarily sweeping all single parents into the shame bucket. But despite their qualifiers, I find their statements disappointing. And on behalf of all the victims of abuse I advocate for, I am offended that this panel of four so-called experts & counselors would not mention the fact that many single parents are single parents because they have divorced an abusive spouse and that they bear NO SHAME for that.
- Why mention that single parents are likely to have shame and guilt for their past, but not mention the single parents who are survivors of domestic abuse who battle stigma and have to reckon with the false-guilt that Christians lay on them?
- Why no mention of the fact that guilt can be false guilt or real guilt, and that it’s essential to differentiate between the two?
- Why no indication that false guilt needs to be dissolved and washed away with good doctrinal teaching that shows what notions in a person’s conscience are biblical and what notions are sub-biblical, or plain un-biblical.
- Why no mention that when single parenthood is a consequence of abuse, the children might be healthier than they had been in a two-parent household, because if the kids are living with the good (non-abusive) parent, they can recover from the trauma of having lived under the control, deceit and manipulation of the abuser.
It seems to me that his panel discussion casts the grey cloth of shame and guilt over single parents without any thought as to whether or not the single parent may or may not have been responsible for the breakdown of the relationship with the other parent. I believe that the panel’s statements were not sufficiently softened by the few vaguely qualifying words that the speakers have used.
What ought to have been included is an explicit mention of widows and widowers, and an explicit two-part statement about domestic abuse:
- domestic abuse is one of the big causes of single parenthood, and
- the guilt for domestic abuse must be attributed solely to the abuser, rather than being vaguely attributed to both abuser and victim, or left hanging in the ether, unstated.
Widows and widowers get reasonable recognition by the church most of the time (though it could be improved). But Christian survivors of domestic abuse are treated as the unmentionables, as if they did not exist. This hurts! It is so unfair. In this day and age, when society has increasing recognition of the issue of domestic abuse, it is abysmal that so many generalist Christian teachings ignore domestic abuse and act as if the victims are non-existent or at least unmentionable. This needs to change!
Christian single parents who are survivors of domestic abuse need Christian experts who affirm and reaffirm their freedom from guilt for the breakdown of the marriage.
Affirmation and vindication are vital for breaking down all the stigmatizing attitudes against single parents in the Christian community, of which this video by DTS is a mild but nevertheless hurtful example. But the experts at DTS seem to be ignorant of this. And the only reason I’m targeting DTS here is because we’ve had a bit of heat from that seminary because of our Sexual Issues book review post recently. I could probably be writing this kind of post about the generalist teachings from any number of other seminaries and para-church organizations. But DTS caught my attention because of that recent flurry, so I poked around on their website and found this video.
Let us hope that DTS and other organizations will take some lessons from the range of resources and testimonies at this blog. It is time for all counselors, pastors and academics to start including and acknowledging domestic abuse in their generalist presentations. If these people knew they were ignoring a sizable cohort of the church, if they knew they were carelessly or inadvertently besmirching survivors of domestic abuse with inappropriate shame and stigma, would they want to continue doing it?
Some may say that you can’t cover everything in a generalist discussion. Agreed. But that’s not an adequate excuse for the perennial ignoring of domestic abuse victims. I have sat under one pastor who preached exegetically through books of the Bible and whenever his sermon touched on issues that would pertain or have relevance to domestic abuse, he would mention that relevance and cover it adequately, not in a off hand or patronizing manner, nor in a wade-in-up-to-your-thighs manner which would have been off-putting to the rest of the congregation, but with just the right amount of application so that abuse victims in the congregation would feel acknowledged and included and would see how the biblical text applied to their situation. It can be done. It’s not that hard. It’s just that we have seen so few people model it that we can’t imagine what it looks like.
Survivors of domestic abuse need to be recognized, and not in a patronizing way. Although survivors of abuse are unique individuals, they share a great deal in common because of the commonalities in the way abusers behave and the way many churches behave. This means that when a general principle applies to non-abused people, often the inverse of that principle applies to us survivors and our kids. It’s time that the academics and counselors realized this and humbled themselves enough to learn from survivors who have come out of the fog and are able to articulate this well. We can help the so called ‘professional experts’ improve their presentations; we can show them how to not be narrow and naive and inadvertently hurtful — if they would listen and learn from us. Oh Lord, may it be so!