Violence against Women: Tackling a Centuries-old Problem

March 5, 2015
Nancy Nienhuis

About one in four women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.

However, battering is far from being a recent phenomenon, and the historical and contemporary Christian narratives of battering often reveal striking similarities in their religious arguments that praise the suffering obedience of the victim and minimize the culpability of the batterer.

HDS professor Beverly Mayne Kienzle and HDS alumna Nancy Nienhuis, ThM '93, ThD '02, Dean of Students and Community Life at Andover Newton Theological School, discussed their research on the topic during an event, titled "Battering of Women in Historical and Contemporary Christian Narrative, A Theological Perspective," co-sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The event was moderated by Robert Hensley-King, a visiting scholar at HDS.

Prior to the discussion on March 9, HDS caught up with Nienhuis for insight into this centuries-old problem.

HDS: In your research, you've pointed out that "the experiences of contemporary women are remarkably similar to those of their medieval sisters; they follow the advice of leaders who tell them to stay in violent marriages out of Christian duty or service to Christ." How is it that contemporary women are still having experiences similar to those of battered medieval women living centuries ago?

Nienhuis: It's truly hard to believe that the same things could be happening centuries later. It is sexism that enables some religious leaders to interpret scripture and theological ideas in ways that blame women for the violence they experience from spouses and make it their job to change. Unfortunately, this sexism is still alive and well.

In one interview I did, a woman told me that when she went to her pastor for help from her abusive husband she was told that what happened in the marriage was a "private matter," and she had no business airing her dirty laundry in the church. He also told her the violence was her fault and implied that it was punishment from God because she'd been pregnant before she married. Fortunately, once she got out of that marriage she spoke to a different pastor who assured her that God didn't want anyone to suffer, that the violence was not her fault, and that she was right to leave the marriage. There are many women walking around today who have received advice like the first pastor's—things are changing, but not fast enough.

HDS: How does Christianity preach love thy neighbor when religion often underlies arguments that can lead to rationalizing violence in relationships?

Nienhuis: Abusers who are Christian are not really interested in Christian tenets like "love thy neighbor"; they're interested in using whatever they can to justify their abusive behavior. They are opportunists who feel entitled to have their needs at the center of their worlds. So they trot out verses like Ephesians 5:22, "Wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord," and demand that their spouses obey them, saying that God put husbands in charge of wives.

Sometimes what abusers and victims hear in their mosques, or temples, or churches reinforces hierarchical understandings of marriage, dehumanizing women and justifying a kyriarchal theology that suggests that men are responsible for women and have a level of ownership of them. We can also see these theological understandings operating in hagiography.

HDS: Church leaders are often viewed as counselors for marriage or personal issues, so why do they lack the necessary skills to respond to the problem of battering?

Nienhuis: Unlike with doctors or lawyers, most people have little understanding of the training that church leaders receive. People think pastors are counselors, but the reality is that very few seminaries or theological schools require a pastoral counseling class, and if they do, they rarely require more than one.  And in the vast majority of cases, that pastoral counseling class does not discuss domestic violence.

Pastors are not trained counselors and may not know any more about intimate partner violence (IPV) than the average person on the street. They breathe the same air everyone else breathes, and that air is filled with myths and stereotypes about who abusers are, and about who gets beaten and why.

For example, many survivors have had pastors recommend couples counseling, which is very dangerous when there is violence in a relationship. It isn't safe for the victim to speak in the presence of the abuser, and if she is truthful about what's happening she will pay for disclosing the violence when they get home.

Even licensed counselors need to have studied domestic violence specifically to work with a survivor, and abusers really need to attend a certified batterer intervention program, like Emerge in Cambridge, if there's any real chance they can change. The dynamics in domestic violence are extremely complex and the risk of harm to the survivor is very high, so pastors and counselors need special training to be able to be helpful.

HDS: Do these narratives and solutions you've studied through your research lend any insight into violence at a larger scale, such as violence between societies or different religious groups?

Nienhuis: What we see repeatedly is that violence is easier when the party perpetrating the violence systematically demoralizes and dehumanizes the person or group they want to control as a way to justify their violence. If the person I harm has diminished moral standing, i.e., is not human in the same way I am or not human at all, then I can justify attempting to control them even if it involves violence.

We see this very clearly in the American history of enslaving Africans—justifying the enslavement by arguing that enslavement was good for Africans because they would be "Christianized." We see this in medieval documents that speak about the immoral nature of women, and thus the need for men to keep them under tight control and in any way necessary. Beliefs like that of St. Tertullian—that "women are the devil's gateway"—are not hard to find in the writings of church fathers, and the legacy of such beliefs haunts us still.

HDS: You argue effective public policy and ministry must be taken into account to fix the problem. What makes for effective ministry and public policy for this issue?

Nienhuis: Knowledge is key. To effectively address intimate partner violence—on either a personal or public level—leaders need to understand its roots, the present problem, and the dynamics involved. Otherwise, personal interventions will lead victims into more danger, and public policies will miss the mark.

In my HDS dissertation I studied the impact of poor public policy on and theological understandings of poverty levels of survivors of IPV, particularly as it related to the 1996 welfare reform legislation President Clinton signed into law. The legislation imposed work requirements on all recipients after two years on welfare. Legislators never took into consideration that most women were poor because of IPV. So when their armies of staff went across the nation to impose these requirements, reports started to come back that huge percentages of female recipients were too disabled from abuse to probably ever work. That's an example of national public policy that didn't work because legislators ignored the prevalence and impact of IPV.

This is a problem of epidemic proportion. IPV is the leading reason women visit emergency rooms for treatment for injuries. Thirty percent of women who have ever lived with a man have experienced this violence, and levels are similar in gay and lesbian relationships. One out of three women, one out of 12 men, and 50 percent of transgender individuals will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. This violence costs billions annually in lost work due to sick time, in health care costs, and as I said previously, many times the survivors have lasting trauma that precludes them ever being able to hold down a full-time job.

HDS: What must be done to address the problem of battering?

Nienhuis: The short answer is feminist education—whether one is training for a career in law, medicine, social work, theology, government, or other fields where you'll be working with people. Such education will demonstrate the lasting influence of kyriarchal attitudes toward women and men and power, and perhaps spur us on to work for a world where such systems of injustice are a thing of the past. Education can change pastors who were roadblocks to faith and safety into resources who empower. Education creates advocates who open the prison doors of dehumanization and holds batterers accountable, setting survivors free.

—by Michael Naughton