Intimate Partners, Violence, and Other Related Things

There is a misconception that abuse is limited to physicality (or heterosexual relationships) but it’s not.  I believe emotional, psychic and psychological abuse is also unacceptable and just as damaging.

There is so much worth rehearsing in our heads, pushing into our ways of being, and practicing in our relationships in those words and in the post below.  I’ve been encountering more conversations about intimate partner violence, relational abuse, domestic violence, whichever brand you’re familiar with.  And among the many things I question and consider, I come back to how I’ll raise my son to live in the world.

But I’m a pastor and a teacher, and I always (and almost immediately) question what I’m saying and showing and putting forward for the people who are a part of my spheres of ministry and influence.  I hope the men especially that I know are doing the same things as they listen to the news, watch television, and engage in barbershop talk.

The sinister evil of abuse is in its pervading, serpent-like ability to creep and dance and stand in culture as if it belongs, as if the world is as it should be when people harm one another.  Of course, it is a part of my faith structure, my theology, my talk about God-in-relation-to-God’s-stuff to say that the world is not exactly the way it should be and that such violence is only a grand, bold, and startling show of how bad the world is in these instances.

Relational violence is a narrow version of violence, and violence in its broadest sense is wrong and misdirected and worth our being troubled over and changed by.  But this type of violence, this violence that happens between people who supposedly love each other, people who are related to each other, is so destructive.

I tell couples in my church who are preparing for marriage that marriage is so potentially and actually effective, for good or bad, because marriage is one of those mystical vehicles that God uses to initiate, enrich, or nurture grace in our lives.  Of course, I can say about other vehicles and not marriage alone, but my point is to say that the impact of marriage is in its strong placement in our lives.  We do marriage daily, and when we give ourselves to certain practices daily, those practices–loving practices, misshapen practices, and so forth–eventually because the ways we get whatever we perceive God has for us.

Further, or in other words, marriage specifically and loving relationships more broadly construct how we understand, accept, and exhibit love.  Those relationships influence and shape us.  So when those relationships are inherently and historically violent, we attach all types of meanings to that violence in the context of a relationship, right?

We think that relationships are supposed to be violent and that when violence isn’t present, the relationship is off.  We believe worse things, too, like our prospects for better love or different love are low.  We set ourselves into a theological or psychological framework to judge our love and our promise-keeping by our settling with abuse.  We believe our faith demands that loyalty and commitment be expressed through the daily submission of our whole selves to the foolish presentation of hatred through words and gestures and the lack of good words and good gestures.

I’m grateful for all the good teachers and tutors who help me walk through the conversations (hushed though they may be) happening in the media these days.  This post–and perhaps all the posts over at the Crunk Feminist Collective–needs to make its rounds.  Read the full post here.  And share it.

Guest Post: Dreams For My Father

I asked Aja Carr, a colleague and editor of mine, to write a post for the blog.  She’s a faithful coach and encourager in my own life, though the best word that describes her is friend.  I’m glad to offer you this post, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Dreams For My Father

When I was a kid, I dreaded those days when the teacher asked everyone in the class to stand up and talk about their parents’ occupation. I was proud of my mom, a nurse who’d worked long hours and double shifts to cover our mortgage and private school tuition. But, I was in no ways proud of my father, a man who’d been only a few points away from the intellectual label of, “genius”—when he was forced to undergo that sort of testing prior to his incarceration.

Everyone knew my father was smart. So smart, in fact, that he’d earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from Columbia College and nearly finished a Master’s degree prior to leaving the penitentiary. As a child, I had no frame of reference for his intellectual abilities. Up until the age of twelve, I’d only known him through letters and occasional phone calls. I’d seen him maybe 4 or 5 times before I went to high school…that was it.

I rarely received gifts from my father. The very first thing he’d ever given me was a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It had no value to me back then. But, when I weigh it’s worth in the life of someone who has since spent 11 years in publishing—its value is tremendous. Sometimes, I think of what it must have cost him—how he might have had to barter or save in order to buy a book and then mail it from prison, and what the gesture predicted about who I’d become.

When my father left prison, I had hoped it would mean that my parents would get back together. My hopes daunted, my mother re-married (my step-father is the most remarkable man you’ll ever meet). However, what I would learn (later in life) was that my father had beat my mother in times past. Armed with this knowledge, I was a little embarrassed to have hope for their reconciliation.

My father was released from prison in 1995. It was a bittersweet reunion. Bitter, because I had no desire to know him. Sweet, because the little I had come to know about him answered so many questions I had about myself. His love for books. his love for desserts, his genuine need to be in charge—all things I’d mimicked—even without fully knowing him.

I will never forget sitting at my desk, preparing to work on some pressing project, when I received a call that my father was in the hospital. That was a Monday night.  By the next Sunday, I had watched him lay in bed unable to breathe on his own.  He was unconscious, unaware, unmoved.

This was last November, and by that time, we’d become friends. By that time, I knew that he loved me, and he knew that I loved him. Still, it didn’t hurt any less. The most I’d ever done for my father happened in the 7 days leading up to his death. I was his next of kin (his wife had taken ill the same day he was admitted to the hospital). In those moments, I began to dream about all the things my father could have been and could have done—things he will now never be and never do. I’d come to learn that he was a high-ranking member of the Masonic Order in our city (something I knew nothing about). Watching those Masons keep a vigil at his bedside—one after the other— I knew he had been well loved by them.

My dreams for my father involved being loved in that way by his own children. We loved him, but not the way they loved him. We’d experienced too many absences on his part, too many lost moments, and too many missed birthdays to love him the way that they loved him.

I can’t remember what pressing matters had captured my attention the day I received the call to come to Roseland Hospital. But, I do remember how my father looked in that hospital bed. I remember all the things I wanted to say.  I remember the things that went unsaid.  I remember the things that would have likely gone unheard even if they had been spoken.

When I was a kid, I dreaded those days when other kids would talk about their parents’ occupation. My father went on to become an adjunct English instructor at several city colleges. He even received awards for excellence in the classroom. These awards and his recognition were good for him and for me.

In my dreams, my father was a real father—one who came home everyday. One who wondered what we might be having for dinner and how he could juggle his work assignments so he could be at my dance recitals.

I still dream about him. I still stop in my tracks when someone mentions the Elements of Style. I still brace myself before passing the hospital where he died. I’m still challenged by the thought of his passing. Now, I’ve come to realize that I love him they way they loved him. I just realized it too late.

Relationship Abuse & Faith pt 2

Religion does great good and great harm and the deciding factor between the two options is often tied to how a person interprets that religion’s sacred text.  That is true for my faith and probably every other faith.  How I interpret and interact with the Christian scriptures will influence and shape what I do with those interpretations.  Another way of saying that is that theology effects ethics.  How I live is influenced by what I read.  And so on.

When it comes to intimate abuse or domestic violence or abuse in relationships, this has great weight.  For people of faith, relationships are often viewed and embraced through the lens of faith.  When religion or faith works (i.e., when faith is working on you), everything changes because of that religion or faith.  Everything excludes nothing.  How you engage in and develop relationships will be adjusted or approached through the experience and understanding of your faith.  I think this relates to relationship abuse and interpreting our texts in the following ways.

  1. Staying close to our sacred readings helps us define abuse.  When our readings build on a foundation of love or justice or hope, it is easy to locate abuse or violence when it happens.  In my faith tradition, love is seen in the personal life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus, in love, lived and died by love, because of love, and in order to extend perfect love.  There’s no way I can express faith in Jesus and not follow that example in my marriage.  That means I’m looking out for my wife’s growth and peace and nurture, not her harm.  Debbie Jansen, in the article I linked in yesterday’s post, says, “If a dysfunctional definition of faith allows one partner to destroy the talents and abilities of their spouse, it can only be labeled as abuse.”
  2. Relationships are places of redemption.  Jesus is not the only exemplar in my tradition.  There are others in our scriptures and there are others in our corporate faith tradition called life.  In other words, another source of how we think and talk about God is people (and the relationships we’re in).  We get to look at the lives of others and witness how God has used those good people to be redemptive in relationships.  So we look for women who use their identities as women to be redemptive, pulling the men around them to be something better, something different, something closer to the Divine.  Or we watch and learn from the men who hold their relationships with increasing gentleness because they have been redeemed or blessed or loved by God.
  3. The reality of abuse changes how we talk about God.  How we speak of God and God’s relationship to creation has always been important.  Always.  And the real and harsh truths associated with violence makes God-talk that much more significant.  For instance, growing up in a Baptist church, we learned to speak of God as a Father to the fatherless and a Mother to the motherless.  But those same Baptist communicators would shudder if I said to them that they were doing the same thing that my seminary profs taught me to do in acknowledging that God can be talked about in both masculine and feminine terms.  The presence of brokenness in the form of relationship violence makes those connections more important, particularly since everybody can’t always relate to the over-used and often destructive masculine images of God.  Those biblical images have to be paired with others that are fresh or new and still biblical.

Relationship Abuse & Faith

I was engaged during the last part of my first and all of my second year of graduate school.  Dawn was finishing the last month or so in Urbana-Champaign with my engagement ring on her finger. 

We were engaged for a year, Easter to Good Friday.  When we started our premarital counseling, we saw Rev. Harvey Carey, my wife’s pastor growing up at Salem, and one of the psychologists at the Wheaton College Counseling Center.  I was studying there, and Dawn would come out for the appointment and, afterwards, I would either return to Chicago with her or go to my next class.

During one of the sessions with the clinician at the Counseling Center, we started talking about my personality.  I can’t remember what he asked.  It was a general enough question.  And when Dawn answered, I got the distinct impression that she was describing a person I didn’t know, a person who was cruel, and, worse, a person who was mean.  The counselor looked over at me and said something like, “Michael, what are you thinking?” Or maybe it was, “Michael, how are you feeling as you hear Dawn?”  Whatever it was, I told him and them that Dawn’s description made me sound like I was abusive. 

The counselor said something like Dawn wasn’t saying that and he said that I was a good guy.  I thought he pushed the moment too quickly.  He was right that Dawn wasn’t saying what I heard, but I also felt like he moved that conversation along a tad too fast.

I remember that meeting, that session, at different points in my life.  I remember when my tone gets a little too preacherly, or loud, at home.  I mean too loud for the small space between me and the wife.  I have a voice.  It’s always been a useful instrument, and I tell people that the instruments and tools God gives us are usually the instruments that bring us harm when we’re not attentive.  So I think about that meeting when my voice rises.

The session came to mind when I saw something in my inbox from Christianity Today.  The subject line asked, “Does Faith Hide Marital Abuse?”  I knew the answer was yes without reading it.  I knew that the proper place for faith was, indeed, inside a relationship.  I knew before reading the article that faith–rather than being something to cover or hide abuse–should be the catalyst that sparks change and the vulnerability which precedes it, be it slow conversion or rapid transformation, in a relationship. 

Faith is belief in the unseen but well known.  It is the trust that something is present–something like health and wholeness–because of God’s generosity.  Faith should make abuse impossible.  It should make husbands, boyfriends, and significant others acknowledge our needs for grace.  It should give us permission to admit and accept hard words, particularly when what our partners say about us is true.  Faith should provoke us to be strong and weak or strong enough to admit weakness.  And faith should make us better.

October is the nationally recognized month where people all over pause and say something about violence between intimate partners, also known as domestic violence.  I’m writing at least another post about this but what do you have to say?