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Homily on Domestic Violence

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Charles W. Dahm, OP

Speaking in God’s name, the prophet Malachi levels a stinging criticism against the priests of Israel.  They have not been faithful messengers of the truth.  Rather than instruct the people in knowledge they have caused many to stumble.   For this reason, God says “I have caused you to be despised and humiliated.”  How strong is this!!

In a similar fashion, Jesus lambasts the Scribes and Pharisees:  “For they preach but they do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.”

We priests (clergy) must take these criticisms to heart.  Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for pharisaical religion and uncommitted religious leaders.  We must reflect on whether we are preaching the whole truth without regard for own person or prestige.  For this reason, today I want to address a topic that is seldom discussed in the pulpit – domestic violence.

Domestic violence is an enormous problem in our community.  The statistics prove it is of epidemic proportions. 

  • - Every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in the United States. 

  • - 1 in 3 or 4 women (30%) is battered once in her life time.  Imagine 1 out of every 3 or 4 women has been beaten.   

  • - While 58,000 US soldiers died in Vietnam, 54,000 women were killed by their partners in the US

These statistics would indicate that there are women among us today in this assembly who have been or still are victims of domestic violence.  Our heart goes out to you.  We hope you will find freedom from the violence, and if you are already liberated, may you find healing for you wounds.

We might think that domestic violence happens in other communities but not in ours.  This is not true. According to sociological studies, domestic violence occurs equally in every community, no matter whether it is black, brown or white or rich or poor.  Domestic violence is destroying families and inflicting suffering on women and their children in every community.  

Of course, men are also victims, but only a minority of victims are men.  For this reason, I am speaking primarily about women today.

Many women victims of domestic violence are unaware they are victims.  They may think their husbands just get angry or are strong-willed; they may excuse a violent outburst because their husbands later apologize and ask for forgiveness. 

 Perhaps they are unaware they are victims because their definition of domestic violence only includes physical violence.  In fact, domestic violence is much broader; it includes physical, emotional or verbal, economic and sexual abuse. 

The definition of domestic violence is a pattern of behavior based on the use of power and control of one person over another.  Abusers use different ways to exercise their power and control; it may take the form of physical, verbal or emotional, economical and sexual abuse. 

Physical abuse, of course, is relatively easy to recognize. It includes punching, slapping, kicking, pulling hair, and even threatening with an instrument or weapon.

Emotional abuse is a lot harder to detect but many victims say it hurts them more than physical violence.  Emotional abuse includes insults, belittling, fowl words, excessive jealousy and control. 

Domestic violence often takes the form of economic control, especially in cases where the woman works at home.  She has no income and has to ask, if not plead, for every penny she needs for the food and the children.  The abuser exercises control by giving her almost no money and then belittling her as financially irresponsible.

Sexual abuse is even more common now with such easy access to pornography on the internet. Abusers might demand their wives watch pornography, or engage in activities or wear clothes the women find offensive.  Some even force their wives to have sex, which is actually rape.

STORY  - The preacher should add a story from his experience. Here is a sample:

A woman came to see me last week.  She asked me to talk to her husband because he was drinking a lot.  I asked her how he was treating her.  “Not well,” she said.  “Does he use bad language on you?”  “Yes,” she replied.  “What words does he use?”  “He calls me stupid and even worse names, which I am too embarrassed to say.”  “Does he hit you?”  “No, not recently.”  “How long ago did he hit you?”  “Three months ago.”  “How did he hit you?”  “With his fist, but he apologized the next day and hasn’t hit me since.  “Does your family know about this?”  “No, I am ashamed to tell them.”  “Do you have anyone to talk to or support you?” “No” she said.   “Well,” I said, “You don’t deserve to be treated this way, and I want to support you.  I’ll bet you don’t feel very good about yourself, do you?”  “No,” she said.  “Well, I want you to talk to a counselor to build up your self-esteem and make you strong enough so you can confront your husband’s abusive behavior and figure out whether how you are going to free yourself from this terrible abuse.  If your husband wants to talk to me, I would be happy to.” 

As you can see, this woman is abused both physically and emotionally.  I should have asked her about the possibility of economic and sexual abuse as well. 

Domestic violence is learned behavior, meaning it is not inherited; it is not genetic.  Since it is learned, it can be unlearned or changed.  But male abusers do not easily abandon their violent ways.  They need to be challenged and held accountable for their actions. 

Some abusers will excuse themselves by blaming alcohol or drugs, or perhaps they claim it’s the stress that makes them violent or the abuse they suffered as children.  All these factors may very well aggravate their violence but they are not the cause.

Some men even blame their victims, claiming that if their partners were better wives or housekeepers, better mothers or more responsible, they themselves wouldn’t get so mad.  Basically they blame the victim, when the real reason for their abuse is their desire to exercise power and control over their partner.

After severe episodes of violence, whether beatings, yelling or threats, abusers generally become remorseful.  They apologize and ask for forgiveness while at the same time blaming the victims for having caused the violence they themselves perpetrated.  This is called the honeymoon stage and it is highly unlikely to continue.  The change of mood, however, confuses the victim, as she begins to think he might change.  In fact, abusers rarely change.  Soon the tension will begin to build again as he pursues his goal of maintaining power and control.  Abusers will not change until they are held accountable for their violence.

Most women victims of domestic violence struggle to liberate themselves from their abuser. But it’s difficult to accomplish.  Often we don’t understand why they just don’t pick up and leave their abusers. But it is not easy.  Let’s review some reasons why women victims do not leave.

  1. First of all, there is economic dependence.  Many women victims do not believe they can earn enough to support themselves and their children.  They believe they have put up with the violence in order to service economically.

  2. Many women are embarrassed by their abuse. They don’t want anyone to know, so it is better to stay with the abuser than leave. 

  3. Perhaps the women have internalized the abuse to such an extent that they believe all the insults their abusers level at them.  She begins believing she is incompetent, useless, unable to earn or manage money, and even ugly and unpleasing to anyone.  Her self confidence and self esteem are destroyed; she feels worthless.

  4. Some women do not leave their partners because of fear. They are terrified of threats that their partner will kill them or their children or maybe even themselves.  And the women don’t want the responsibility for that.

  5. Because some women don’t leave because they see that their children love their fathers.   They don’t want to separate their children from their father, and so they stay for the children’s sake.  A father may even cultivate the children’s affection as a way to insure that their mother will not leave him.  But, raising children in a violent home is one of the worst things a parent can do for her children.  The small boys learn from their fathers how to abuse women, and the girls learn how to be submissive and accept abuse.

  6. Some women stay with their abusive spouses because they love them and are committed to reforming them.  They constantly forgive them and give them another chance.  They want to save them, so they don’t leave.

  7. Finally, some women stay because they believe that because they were married in the church, they cannot separate themselves from their abusive husbands.  They don't want to offend God.  But can we really imagine that Jesus would want them to stay in a violent relationship.  Can you imagine Jesus coming across a woman with a black eye and her arm in a sling and saying to her that she had to return to her husband?  Of course not.  He would defend her and probably go looking for her abusive husband.  Christ came to fee us from sin and violence.

Unfortunately, our church has in some ways been complicit in this epidemic of domestic violence, especially we priests.  We have not spoken out against it very well.  I am sure very few of you have ever heard a sermon about domestic violence. (Those who have can raise their hands.)   I myself have not spoken out against as I should have.

We priests have preached plenty about the permanency of marriage but hardly at all against domestic violence.   A few years ago the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote a pastoral letter on domestic violence, “When I Call for Help.” There they say we should “state as clearly and strongly as we can that violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified.” And they draw an important conclusion: “We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”  The position of our church could not be clearer.

Today we must set the record straight.  The church rejects all forms of domestic violence and urges women to protect themselves and their children, even if that means a separation and divorce from their abusers.  Our church must help protect them and assist them in freeing themselves from the violence.

As a community of faith we want to reach out to every victim of domestic violence. We encourage you to come out of the shadows and seek help.  We want to support you in your struggle for peace.  We want you to be safe and free, filled with love, joy and hope for the future.

Many of you know someone who is experiencing domestic violence.  You need to assure them they do not deserve such abuse.  Tell them you are concerned about their safety and their children’s and they have a right to be safe.  We need to listen to them and respect their decisions, but assure them that we will support them whenever they decide to leave their abuser.

As other parishes in our archdiocese, we should consider forming a ministry to victims of domestic violence so that our community of faith reflects the compassion of Jesus.  Everyone in our area should that our parish is a safe haven for those who suffer domestic violence.   As Jesus expressed his compassion for the poor and oppressed, including the women of his time, may we be seen as compassionate people ready to help victims of domestic violence free themselves from their pain and suffering.

 

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