01 May 2008

Does God hate divorce?

"We seemed to be the perfect Christian family," said the banquet speaker. Nobody in her church could believe that her husband was abusive, and nobody in her church could understand what the secular counselor told her: the abuse in the family was the cause of her teenager's depression.

For over three years, Judy has been working for Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services, and I've attended the annual fundraising banquets ARMS has held in both Portland and Salem, Oregon. At each banquet, the speakers have included women whose pathways to safety, renewed faith, and healthy, Godly self-respect have included Her Journey study groups and materials provided by ARMS. (Men who've been helped by ARMS's ManKind program are also among the speakers at these events.) Again at last Saturday's Salem banquet, the "perfect Christian" wife reported the all-too-frequent experience of being counseled to submit because "God hates divorce...." (Malachi 2:16a, see context.) Here's the pattern in all its bitter irony:
  • The passage from Malachi is just as much about the community's unfaithfulness to God as about any individual covenant violation, but, too often the abusive husband (and his sometimes unwitting confederate, the usually male pastor) find it convenient to use Malachi's words exclusively to bind the victim.
  • In Malachi's time, most if not all divorces were initiated by men; the clear intent of the passage is to protect women from being selfishly abandoned, not to prevent women in violent situations from finding safety.
  • It's convenient for abusers and their confederates to emphasize only the first words of Malachi 2:16, "God hates divorce," leaving out the part where God hates it when a man covers himself with violence. Even if we accept the interpretation that "violence" here refers to the divorce itself, it seems self-serving to ignore the violence within an abusive marriage--and that the biblical caution is principally aimed at the man. Look at the tenderness with which Malachi talks about the ideals of marriage; compare that to the selfish domination of an abusive marriage.
  • The Bible itself doesn't support misplaced and selfish literalism. In God's name, Ezra commands divorce (Ezra 10:10-11) in the same sort of larger situation Malachi addresses--namely when Judah breaks faith and goes after daughters of foreign gods. In an abusive marriage, hasn't faith also been broken?
  • Malachi says, "... The Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her ...." How dare anyone cover abuse with public piety when God witnesses the true state of affairs, even though the church and the pastor might be clueless?
No wonder one of ARMS's most important initiatives is the training they offer for pastors and churches, so that these can become allies of God the witness and of victims, instead of unwitting confederates of the abuser. The Bible always contains the antidotes to its own misuse, when we learn how to let it speak for itself!

One thing that we've found from listening to so many stories of heartbreak and hope: domestic abuse is not confined to any social class or status, nor excluded from any. Domestic abuse occurs in every class, every income group, every level of supposed "sophistication." Despite my special scrutiny of the situation among evangelical church families, abuse occurs just as often among liberal or secular people. Two decades ago, Judy Brutz's research revealed that violence happens in liberal Quaker households--certainly a culture that honors equality and nonviolence. I don't suppose that even readers and writers of Quaker blogs are immune!

One of the reasons I'm personally so impressed by ARMS concerns its roots in the evangelical Christian community--the very community where the misuse of the Bible can have devastating effects on a woman, not to mention the cost to the church as a whole. Secular commentators and agencies can make excellent partners for faith-based programs by expanding links with shelters and other community allies. However with the best intentions, they can also be essentially inaccessible to some people inside the evangelical subculture--who may suspect, rightly or wrongly, that those secular resources do not understand or respect them. The material developed by Stacey Womack and ARMS is thoroughly biblical, and consequently it beautifully honors God's loving, liberating intentions for all people.

People involved with ARMS are sometimes asked, "Aren't women sometimes perpetrators, and aren't men sometimes victims?" As an honest question, it's perfectly legitimate to ask what the statistics and realities are ... and the answer of course is "yes." The question can also be a diversionary tactic to reduce attention to the sad reality that women are statistically vastly more in danger (physical, mental, spiritual) from men than vice versa. And "blaming the victim" is a popular tactic reported over and over again, with all sorts of creative variations, in the stories of people helped by ARMS. Furthermore, victims themselves sometimes become secondary perpetrators, and ARMS provides classes specifically for that situation.

Witnesses, pastors, law enforcers, caregivers should not be ideologically blinded to any possible variation in patterns of abuse in particular situations, including males abused by females. But it's interesting that one of ARMS's biggest donors was a friend of ours, a man who experienced abuse from women. He was able to see past his own experience, bad as it was, to the urgent reality of the larger picture.

Just to let Judy and ARMS off the hook! -- Everything I've said above about ARMS and its ministry is my personal opinion or observation; nothing is official and nobody should blame ARMS for what they've read here. But if you like what you've read, support ARMS and get in touch with them directly!! Or find a local equivalent and support them.

In this spirit of witnessing to a more holistic evangelicalism, here's something a bit different from my normal blues dessert. Northwest Yearly Meeting is well acquainted with Bill Jolliff and Jacob Henry, a father and son bluegrass partnership known for combining Gospel and peace themes to reach new audiences. I was delighted to find some youtube examples of their approach, and here's one--"You've Got to Choose." Jacob is playing mandolin, Bill's on banjo. Bill is also a professor at George Fox University and compiler of a Friends United Press book of Whittier's poetry.

When war's on the horizon, are the Savior's words less true? ... You've got to choose.


Hannah said...

I really liked what you had to say!

LOL love the video as well!

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you. In return for your kind words, here's a link to your blog on emotional abuse.

Anonymous said...

I liked this post, so I referenced it in my latest blog post.