Before I turned fourteen years old, I had defended myself with a knife against a forty-something year-old male who liked to use his fists in places it didn’t show.
I had watched a tea-tray thrown from the top of a three-storey house because his cup was not placed on it – and it wasn’t a leap of my imagination to suppose he would push my mother out too.
I always, always invited people over to stay on the weekend. Because then, possibly, the man of the house, this second husband who professed love for my mother, would keep his societal mask in place and keep his fists off her.
One night I crept downstairs to see her crying in a chair. She said to me: “What will I do if he hits me again?” Again? My brain could not compute that she did not have an answer. All that I saw, every school anti-violence message, every teen-pop magazine I had read told me one thing: there is always an again. No matter the tears, the apologies. So the answer was quite clear: “We leave,” I told her.
Yet still it took months – I suspect now he had her financially isolated – and in the time between my articulating it and the reality of our departure, I lived in a ratcheting high tension.
My grabbing that kitchen knife was a turning point. Perhaps my mother saw murder in my eyes and finally, finally, saw the motivation for change. A 6′ 6” (198 cm) bully turning tail, scampering up the stairs, locking himself away in the bathroom, with me, far shorter, far lighter, in pursuit. After rattling the door knob for good measure, I went back down the stairs, calmly put the knife back in the knife block and walked to school. Shortly after my Mum and I moved in with friends.
All this whilst attending an prestigious private school, where no-one had a clue. He was a fine, upstanding Rotary club member, after all. We were acting out the perfect blended family.
I can’t speak for my mother. I have no idea why she stayed, and why I, the child, had to encourage her to leave. Why it took teenage fingers wrapped around a carving knife hilt to prompt action. What I know is this: as soon as people knew, we were helped and supported. Which is why the recent finger pointing at church institutions for ‘condoning’ domestic violence, for encouraging wives to stay with abusive husbands through some warped reading of ‘biblical headship’ has pressed a few of my buttons.
If a pastor has ever intimated you should stay, he is wrong. For anyone who points to ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ as a biblical directive to stay in an abusive marriage, please respond: ‘love your wife as Christ loved the church.’
All the pastors and Christians I have met in the past year would be helping you pack your bags and more. God certainly does not wish for you to stick it out. As Phillip Jensen articulated in 2012 (bold type is mine):
“While the Bible calls upon the wife to submit it never calls upon the husband to subjugate or subdue his wife. It is never his prerogative or responsibility….All forms of coercion—physical, economic, social, psychological, spiritual—are inappropriate and wrong for a husband to use on his wife. Some, such as physical abuse, are criminal and should be dealt with by the courts. The Christian husband’s duty and solemn vow is to follow the example of his Lord and lay down his life for his bride. This will always put her interests before his own at whatever cost it is to him. This will mean never using or even threatening force. To subjugate his wife is a complete denial of what he promised.”
There is no reason to believe that the rate of family violence within Australian churches is any lower than in the general population. It is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45. The Easter period last year marked the deaths of six women and children in a single week. One in three women is affected by family violence, one in four children, and one woman a week dies.
Please re-read my bold type above. Coercion rarely starts in the physical. It’s the wearing down – “you stupid cow, can’t you even sort the laundry properly?” – the gradual, dangerous dismantling of a woman’s sense of self-esteem. My step-father would be apoplectic over a coloured shirt in the white wash.
Physical violence is the escalation. Your husband or partner may never have raised his hand against you, but if you spend many hours of the day thinking about how he might possibly react to everything you do, second guessing how some of life’s simplest choices might upset the balance at home? Get help. Plus – as I chillingly read in another article on family violence – if you are reading this, recognise these signs and share a computer with your husband or partner: please delete your browsing history.
Abusers abuse. To blame it on Christian doctrine narrows the lens too dangerously. As does saying it could never happen in a church.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.