October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Over the years, I’ve come to see how similar many of the underlying dynamics and tactics are between domestic violence and abuse of power in religious contexts – the grooming, verbal assaults, emotional manipulations, implanting of lies, quenching of hope.
My awareness about survivors of domestic violence began earlier than my understanding of spiritual abuse. It started 40 years ago with what I learned from my sister, Romae [pronounced like row + MAY], who had friends who were survivors of domestic violence. She stepped into roles of support, advocacy, and activism, and taught me all along the way.
Then, 10 years later, I helped “Janet” – one of my own friends who was a survivor – edit the story of her experiences. I recently got in touch with Janet, to thank her for making a difference in my life by sharing her story with me.
Both my sister and Janet brought light into dark places to the people around them. Their role-modeling of advocacy and activism helped me learn how to come alongside those who were lurking in the shadows, or emerging from them, and offer them whatever support I could. In honor of Romae and Janet, I decided to share two short pieces I’d written. Part of the tribute to my sister is from the obituary I wrote for her memorial service. The piece about Janet I edited from a comment I posted earlier this year on David Hayward’s post about “Abuse and the Privileges of Power.”
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1. Things I Learned from My Sister About Advocacy for Survivors of Abuse
Since before Kindergarten, I’ve been aware of how we can inflict damage on one another, even when we’re trying to be good. So, the practical reality of being a sinner never exactly caught me by surprise.
Since high school, I’ve become increasingly aware of how it makes a difference when we stand up for those who’ve been victimized or marginalized. Maybe because my parents and other extended family members exhibited a lot of the characteristics of what Jesus called “people of peace,” a leaning toward justice was just natural.
Since college, this form of advocacy has taken on deeper meaning as a type of spiritual transaction that brings personal and social transformation. I learned much about this from my sister, Romae. She embodied the same spirit of compassion and service as shown in Jesus’ account of the Good Samaritan: When seeing people in desperate need, Romae would not merely pass them by, as is so easy to do. Even if all she had was strength to pray, she would. To her, there was no such thing as “invisible people.” In this, Romae was what the Bible calls a “person of peace.” She welcomed all, showed whatever hospitality she could, and urged people toward growth through her words and her example.
For instance, Romae was a ceaseless advocate for overlooked people. In the mid-1970s, she began supporting survivors of domestic violence – at a time when bullying was not on the “social radar” yet and work with domestic violence survivors was still in pioneering stages. It began when a friend asked her for help in escaping an abusive relationship. That led to Romae working tirelessly over 40 years on intervention, education, and prevention of abuse, seeking change in both churches and the community. She served at advocacy groups and safe houses for survivors of domestic violence. She staffed rape crisis counseling hotlines. She trained leaders and laypeople, principals and parents in child sexual assault prevention.
Romae also served on the preventive side of the issue, by being a Girl Scout leader for four decades. There she helped girls and young women develop confidence, strong identities, and kindness. That was as much a part of her passion for personal transformation and peace as her other efforts to make a difference in people’s life.
I listened over the years to her stories, along with those told by people Romae had served and by those she served with. I also heard the stories of my own friends who’d had to deal with domestic violence. This all instilled in me a better understanding of the general dynamics of abuse, a deeper sense of outrage at the damage, and a stronger desire to do something myself to make a constructive difference. It seemed to me that activism with survivors of abuse was exactly the kind of thing Jesus Christ would do in today’s world. And, given how pervasive all sorts of bullying, abuse, and violence are in both Church and community, what a great place to make a Kingdom kind of difference!
Some of my sister’s passion is carried on in what I do to be of help to survivors of toxic systems, malignant leaders, and spiritual abuse. I’m grateful to her for that gift.
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2. The Story Behind the Book, “He Hits!”
David Hayward’s post for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of 2015 was on “Abuse and the Privileges of Power.” It included one of his cartoons. In response, I wrote this comment. I have posted it here, after editing it slightly for better clarity.
You’ve given us a provocative but appropriate image and message for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, David … thanks for bringing this to us, on this day especially.
It reminded me that 30 years ago, my friend “Janet” asked me to help her by editing a book she was writing on her experiences as a survivor of domestic violence. In my eyes, my friend is a superhero, so I felt honored to serve as her sidekick.
Early on, Janet told me the story about how she got the title for her book. She was at the fancy annual awards ceremony gala put on by the mayor, and happened to be sitting at one of the head tables. So, she was surrounded by other prestigious guests. During the presentations, the man two seats away was called forward to receive the Citizen of the Year Award. In the bustle and applause with his going to the podium, his wife, who was sitting right next to Janet, turned slightly toward her. She grazed Janet’s arm to get her attention, and whispered carefully out of the side of her mouth, “He hits …”
Who would ever believe this woman’s story? Surely a celebrated man of such elite status could never commit such despicable acts! Yet there she sat, dripping in diamonds in the midst of a situation dripping with irony, while her husband was acclaimed as a “progressive and involved role model for all.”
And that is how He Hits! became the title of my friend Janet’s book. She borrowed the phrase from a fellow victim, and wrote her book under a pseudonym because, if she wrote under who own name, who would ever ever believe her story, given who her husband was – a man well known and highly esteemed in their community?
As to the issue of privilege, it’s probably not common knowledge that the first so-called “men’s movement” actually consisted of men in the 1960s and ’70s who did what we could to work with our sisters, mothers, female friends, and others for the cause of equal rights for women. Women themselves set their agenda; men came alongside to help when invited.
And I think that particular historical moment helps consider what to do when we have by birth or providence a position of privilege. Will we use that privilege to overpower others into conforming with our agenda of desires, or use it to undergird others by supporting and serving them as they pursue theirs?
To the best of my ability, I try to do the latter. It is not demeaning to serve, especially in Jesus’ name. And in bygone days when I used business cards, they provided a light-touch reminder of this more-weighty responsibility. They said:
brad/futuristguy. SuperHero Sidekick. I help people identify, validate, amplify, and activate their superpowers. (And hopefully keep from distributing their kryptonite krud on others.)
Could it perhaps be a manifestation of the Kingdom to turn upside down whatever “power” we have, so that we use it to empower others?
May it be so, in Jesus’ name, amen!
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