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Speaking Up, Reaching Out

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Job felt abandoned by God. Imagine how that is like a victim of domestic violence. Jesus’ followers were after power. Imagine how that is like a perpetrator of domestic violence. So how can followers of Jesus provide safety and change the culture around family violence?

Texts – Selections from the Book of Job and Mark 10: 35-45

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

We’re going to start this morning with one minute of some pretty tough comments from women who have experienced domestic violence. These women are from the Baraboo area and Hope House of South Central Wisconsin has worked with them to turn them from victims into survivors.

They are going to help set the stage today for a few reflections on the story of Job – someone who felt abandoned by God – and on the story of some of Jesus’ followers who thought power mattered more than service. And we’re going to consider how we as 21st century followers of Jesus can make a difference in the lives of others by speaking up and reaching out.

But first, the voices of four brave women.

(I played the first 1:22 of this video)

Love shouldn't hurtI don’t know anything about how these women view God or the church or those of us who are followers of Jesus. But I do know that victims of domestic violence – both women and men as well as children – often feel isolated, abandoned by family and friends who are uncomfortable or afraid of the topic, trapped by religious traditions that stress male dominance and the indissolubility of marriage and feel forgotten by God.

Job knew that feeling.

The story of Job is one of the literary classics in the Bible. It is a story that tries to sort out why bad things happen to good people. It is a story that tries to make sense out of suffering. It is a story that concludes with an epic confrontation between Job and God. It is a story that captures the isolation, the misunderstanding, the feelings of abandonment that are part of the life of someone feeling trapped in a violent relationship.

Job’s friends and his wife are convinced that it is Job’s sin that has led to his misfortunes. That has a familiar ring to people trapped in violent and abusive relationships. “Why did you make him mad?” friends ask. “Why don’t you just leave?”

And inside the relationship, the abuser often threatens even greater harm if the victim tells anyone about what is happening. And if the victim decides to leave, that is the time of highest risk for being killed.

As Job said of God, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face!”

Can you imagine the women in the video saying that?

Let’s note that while women are more frequently the victims in those relationships, men are also victims of violence in relationships. One in five women are victims of severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime compared to one in seven men. (From the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.)

As most of you know, I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few years dealing with issues of domestic violence, particularly with the role that faith communities can play in creating safe spaces instead of traps for those victimized by violence and the role that faith communities can play in engaging the wider community in changing the cultural norms around domestic violence.

People at Memorial helped draw me into this issue. Our own Shirley Robbins was one of the voices on the hotline in the early days of what is now Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. Other people here have shared their own stories with me over the years. I have had a chance to work with the advocates at DAIS who are helping people seek safe places and your generosity has enabled Memorial to help them along the way.

It seems to me that we in church communities have a special role in addressing issues of domestic violence.

In far too many churches over the years, abusers would justify their violence by saying that wives were supposed to submit to their husbands. They apparently missed the next verse in the letter to the Colossians that says, “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”

The value that churches place on the sanctity of marriage can blind people to the undermining of marriage by violence. Even the Catholic bishops – no slouches when it comes to defending marriage – have said very clearly in a 2002 statement two important things: “As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form…We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”

Churches can trap victims by talking about the imperative of forgiveness and the deeper meaning of suffering in life. Both forgiveness and suffering are important concepts in our lives, but should never be used as concepts that get in the way of seeking safety.

Let’s go back to Job for a minute. His life had taken a very bad turn. He tried to maintain his faith in God, but it got harder and harder. Finally, he had had it and he launches a powerful rant to God. He does not suffer in silence. He demands answers.

Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish writer who survived the Holocaust and knew at the core of his being what it is to suffer, wrote in his reflection on the story of Job: “Once upon a time in a far-away land, there lived a legendary man, a just and generous man who, in his solitude and despair, found the courage to stand up to God. And to force Him to look at His creation.”

People who feel abandoned by God, whether because of domestic violence or any other reason, totally have the right to rant at God. And they have the right to expect that those of us who call ourselves Christians will be there to be the face of God, the hands of God in their lives.

That’s what Jesus was talking about in the story from the Gospel according to Mark today. It’s a conversation about both power and service.

Power is absolutely central when thinking about issues of domestic violence. People who abuse and batter their partners are not simply losing their tempers. They are not simply having a bad day. They are seeking to exercise power and control over someone with whom they should be having a loving relationship.

Remember those famous words from Paul in his letter to the people of Corinth?

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”

Any one of us who have been in long-term loving relationships know that there are days we are better at living that way than others. But people who physically and emotionally abuse their partners are not just having a bad day. They are using whatever tactics or weapons they have available to exercise power and control over their partner.

It may be coercion and threats, intimidation or isolation, economic abuse or using children as tools to trap the partner.

None of these show up in Paul’s list of what it means to be loving. None of these can be condoned by a faith community that claims to follow Jesus. None of these can be condoned by the wider society that seeks equity and justice.

Fortunately, in faith communities and in the wider society, the attitudes are changing, but only in increments.

Consider both the good and the bad in the case of Greg Hardy, a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys. Professional football has become the litmus test for how our nation is dealing with domestic violence. Last year, it was Ray Rice from the Baltimore Ravens, notoriously knocking out his fiancé in an elevator. He is not playing pro football this season – at least not so far.

Last year, Hardy was on the Carolina Panthers, but missed most of the season after being convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend.

Scott Simon on NPR yesterday described what happened: “Greg Hardy’s former girlfriend testified that the 6-foot-4, 279 pounds NFL franchise player threw her into a bathtub, dragged her by her hair, hurled her onto a futon covered with weapons, and locked his hands around her throat.”

But that’s only part of the story. Hardy and the woman reached an out-of-court settlement and the conviction was dropped. So the Dallas Cowboys signed him over the off-season and now he is playing professional football again as if nothing happened. He’ll be playing again next Sunday when the Cowboys take on the New York Giants.

Terry Bradshaw, former star quarterback and now star commentator on ESPN, minced no words last week: “Anybody, in my opinion, that lays a hand on a woman — I don’t care who you are, my friend — you never come back in this league.”

Purple stadium 2The NFL is making some good noises about domestic violence. At the beginning of the month, the Arizona Cardinals lit the outside of their stadium in purple to highlight Domestic Violence Awareness month. But Scott Simon reminds us of these facts – “This year alone, 6 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence and 1 for sexual battery.”

And athletes still are considered role models. They are looking for those seats of glory in our world.

So now back to the story of Jesus.

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, wanted seats of glory with Jesus.

OK, asks Jesus, can you live the way I am living, can you die the way I am going to die?

Sure, they answer.

And the other ten disciples start getting jealous. How come James and John get the good seats? they whine, sort of missing the whole point of what Jesus had just said.

This is not a power game, he tells them. It’s not about exerting power and control over others.

“Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant…the Human One (that’s Jesus) didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”

There’s the challenge to us, as a community and as individuals. We are called to speak up and to reach out.

We are called to speak up so those trapped in violent relationships know that they are not alone, so that perpetrators of violence know that they will have no defense in this sanctuary, so that the nation knows that the days of tolerating violence within relationships is over.

And we are called to reach out so that those hoping for a safer place for themselves and their children know there are people with them on that journey, that they can experience the love of God in the hands that reach out to them in their moments of need.

About a quarter of a century ago, a minister and poet named Thomas Troeger wrote the lyrics to a song about both the joy of love and the grief when a relationship turns abusive and violent. It’s a hymn that offers hope that comes with self-awareness aand then with change, saying that “love must begin by facing the violence without and within.”

The hymn is on the green sheet so let’s join together in singing “Holy and Good is the Gift of Desire.”