Faithful Pastoral Care: A Response to Domestic Violence

“Come! Live in the light! Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord! We are called to be light for the kingdom, to live in the freedom of the city of God. We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly; we are called to serve another, to walk humbly with God.” – David Haas

Domestic violence has been a social problem for generations. Research studies show that families in the church struggle with domestic violence. Some pastors, church leaders and caregivers fail to provide the pastoral care that victims desperately need because of misunderstandings, prejudices, assumptions, traditional gender codes of behavior, myths and lack of training and education on the issue of domestic violence. This essay will use the insights of female theologians and liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez to guide the practice of pastoral care in response to domestic violence and to empower victims (female and male) through a message of hope and love conveyed in the concept of the kingdom of God.

Claiming the Right to Speak up

Cynthia Crysdale emphasizes that victims need to be reminded that they, too, are created in the image of God and that they are capable of thinking, reaching out, deciding, acting and speaking. Victims often see themselves as unworthy or limited nonselves. Faithful pastoral care reminds victims that the power of Christ’s resurrection is real for them because they are daughters and sons of God made in the image of God. They need to hear the promise of healing that comes from conversion – taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, which leads to an internal and an external change. In her book Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (Continuum, 1999), Crysdale says taking responsibility for one’s actions involves the following decisions: to claim a “Self,” to examine who is responsible for what, to face the ways in which one might perpetuate being silenced or voiceless, to name victimization, to discern complicity, to realize the acceptance of denigration, to encounter Jesus’ life-giving Spirit and to confess the whole truth. Faithful pastoral care opens up the possibility for this process of healing for victims of domestic violence by inviting them to take responsibility, with all its implications. Thus a faithful pastoral caregiver can be a companion for victims who decide to walk through the process of healing, reminding them that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are present every step along the way. In this way, pastoral care cultivates the voice of victims who have been silenced and abused. Just as the disciples who discovered the empty tomb were invited to become powerful witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, the resurrection empowers people to name their victimization, crossing boundaries set by oppressors and claiming their voice and identity as children of God.

Hospitality calls the community to protect, comfort and act on behalf of those who are the most vulnerable.

The concept of hospitality can become a theological resource for faithful pastoral care with victims of domestic violence. In Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Fortress, 2001), Christie Neuger argues that hospitality calls the community to protect, comfort and act on behalf of those who are the most vulnerable. Faithful pastoral care calls for a hospitality that confronts the view that domestic violence is a private matter into which the church and spiritual caregivers cannot intrude. Faithful pastoral care will act on behalf of victims by providing a safe space for them to vent their struggles, doubts, frustration, fear and concerns and in so doing helping them claim their voice and integrity as children of God. Faithful pastoral care seeks to make sure that families and church settings are safe places for everyone, so that “families cannot be private sanctuaries where violence can occur behind closed doors.”

Moving from Fear to New Life

Pamela Cooper-White calls for a form of pastoral care that is guided by the message in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” She claims that Jesus’ ministry focused on healing and restoring those who were ill or outcast and liberating the poor and oppressed. In Jesus, God stands in solidarity with those who suffer and offers the promise of transformation from death to new life. Faithful pastoral care helps individual people, couples and families work to restore their full potential and the fullness of life for which they were created. For Cooper-White, God continually brings new life, transformation, justice and healing. Transformation is at the heart of faithful pastoral care. Thus, faithful pastoral care proclaims the message that change is possible. Victims and perpetrators of domestic violence desperately need to hear that change is possible.

Every person is, at some level, both a victim and a perpetrator of self-destruction. Self-destruction can be understood as self-righteousness, pride, subordination, self-immolation and a sabotage of self-flourishing. Fear is at the heart of self-destruction. Along these lines, Cooper-White points out in Many Voices: Pastoral Psychotherapy in Relational and Theological Perspective (Augsburg Fortress, 2007) that fear represents an obstacle to new life, healing and growth. In her view, faithful pastoral care can emphasize that “hope is possible and fear does not need to have the last word.” Victims of domestic violence who receive the news about the resurrection hear the message “do not be afraid.” This message entails transformation and movement from a state of fear or bondage to a state of joy, freedom and love.

Empowering through a Message of Hope

Julian of Norwich’s theology portrays a loving, kind, tender and compassionate God in whom there is no anger or wrath. God comforts, forgives, listens attentively, heals and restores. Those who quickly run toward Julian’s image of God as mother find rest and assurance by hearing the revelation that Julian received from the Lord:

What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well. And in this I was taught by the grace of God that I ought to keep myself steadfastly in the faith, as I had understood before, and that at the same time I should stand firm and believe firmly that every kind of thing will be well, as our Lord revealed at that same time. (quoted in Denise Nowakowski Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings: From Vision to Book [Princeton University Press, 1994])

According to Ellen Charry, Julian’s revelation that “all will be well” is evidence of God’s love and the basis for Christian love and hope because God wishes good and equanimity of spirit for God’s children (By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine [Oxford, 1997]). God is not a distant and fearsome judge who requests our suffering or alms to placate his hatred for us. Instead, God is a loving and compassionate mother who constantly reminds us that “all will be well.” Julian’s theology of divine compassion confronted popular beliefs that instilled self-hatred, distress, fear and guilt, replacing such experiences with a message of hope and love. In her view, God keeps us in his love as part of his commitment to creation and we find true happiness in being united (“oned”) with God.

Every person is, at some level, both a victim and a perpetrator of self-destruction.

Julian’s teachings communicate the message that God does not want God’s children to suffer or struggle with fear and guilt. God is not expecting self-destructive and self-hating behavior. Julian rejected penitential practices that encouraged voluntary suffering to eliminate guilt or pay for one’s sins. Julian’s theology proclaims that love produces love, mercy produces mercy, fear produces fear, and anger produces anger.

Faithful pastoral care can present and stress to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence who may have a punitive, oppressive, and unloving image of God that God continually acts to bring life, transformation, restoration, healing, love, justice and peace. Using Julian’s insights, faithful pastoral care can assure victims and perpetrators that in God’s love and compassion “all will be well,” that domestic violence might seem impossible to overcome for them but that God says, “What is impossible to you is not impossible for me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.”

Faithful pastoral care can emphasize to victims of domestic violence the importance of taking responsibility, taking action, breaking the silence and confessing the whole truth. Psychological theories have identified the belief in some victims of domestic violence that they do not have the capacity to control or influence their situation. In response to this thinking, faithful pastoral care can stress with victims that, in Christ, hope is possible. Pastoral care can empower victims through Julian’s image of a kind, loving and compassionate God who has promised that “all will be well.”

Faithful Pastoral Care with Victims

Gustavo Gutiérrez asserts that the kingdom of God entails human emancipation in which freedom is not an empty word. Human emancipation opposes any form of domination. For Gutiérrez, salvation implies anything that makes a person more human and contributes to his or her liberation. Salvation is associated with integral development, which Gutierrez associates with a state where the individual enjoys personal freedom and dignity and exercises her or his rights as a child of God. He relates “less human” conditions to oppressive structures that involve abuse or ownership. Gutiérrez points out that Christians are generally unaware of such oppressive structures. In his view, “more human” conditions will encourage grace, faith, integral development, authentic emancipation and salvation and will stress that the person is a child of God. Thus a theology that proclaims the kingdom of God conveys salvation, liberation, justice, peace and integral development and encourages the transition from “less human” conditions to “more human” conditions (in Alfred T. Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History [Orbis, 1990]).

Gutiérrez argues that the prophets of the Old Testament announced the kingdom of God as a kingdom of peace and justice where peace supposes the defense of the rights of the oppressed, punishment of oppressors, a life without fear and the establishment of justice. For him, the coming of the messiah is the elimination of exploitation. The messianic promises bind tightly together with the kingdom of God and “more human” living conditions: “The kingdom comes to suppress injustice,” Gutiérrez says (in Hennelly). He supports his arguments for the messianic promise as the passing from less human conditions into more human conditions using Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Luke 4:18-19 describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. For Gutiérrez, Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing will bring life to those who experience poverty, captivity, blindness and oppression. The proclamation of the kingdom of God will release the captives and will give sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed. The kingdom of God represents a transition from darkness and death into liberation and life. Gutiérrez associates oppression with actions such as “to crush,” “to grind down” and “to smash physically.”

In my view, victims of domestic violence are those who have been recipients of such actions. Victims have been crushed and smashed physically, emotionally and spiritually by the cycle of violence in which they remain captive and oppressed. The cycle of violence is a state of darkness that blinds them. Therefore the message conveyed in the kingdom of God represents liberation, healing, restoration, hope and life for victims of domestic violence. Gutiérrez says that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of life and is a reality today. Victims of domestic violence desperately need to hear that the kingdom of God is available for them today. Faithful pastoral care can proclaim and emphasize that today, the promise of the kingdom of life is fulfilled in Jesus. Gutiérrez defines integral liberation as a new communion with God and others, a will to life and being a friend of Jesus the Christ and the author of life. This is the moment of integral liberation in Christ from the deathly bondage of domestic violence.

Faithful pastoral care with victims of domestic violence will proclaim the kingdom of God, emphasizing that Jesus is present in their suffering and is willing to heal, liberate and restore their lives. Faithful pastoral care will encourage and facilitate the transition from less human conditions (oppression, fear, injustice and violence) caused by domestic violence into more human conditions where people experience wholeness, emancipation, integral development, justice and peace.

Gutiérrez says a theology that proclaims the kingdom of God will interpret every action done on behalf of another person as an action done on behalf of God. He points for support to Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” In light of this, faithful pastoral care on behalf of victims is an act of care done on behalf of God. Matthew 25 calls faithful pastoral care to be attentive to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of victims. Faithful and effective pastoral care with victims of domestic violence entails concrete actions that support and facilitate the healing process. Such care is grounded in the kingdom of God (justice, peace, love, equal regard, solidarity, hope, freedom, abundant life and wholeness) as it is exercised among individual people, marriages, families and the church.

Victims of domestic violence who receive the news about the resurrection hear the message “do not be afraid.”

Faithful pastoral care never turns a blind eye to domestic violence: It must reject and confront every form of violence by opposing every violation of human dignity. For Gutiérrez, liberation means that the person takes control over his or her destiny, emancipation from sin, and the acceptance of new life in Christ. Thus faithful pastoral care encourages the victim to take control over her or his life by supporting her or his emancipation from violence, which leads to the possibility of a new life in Christ, where the kingdom of God is present and real. In her Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective: A Theology (Westminster, 1974), Letty Russell says this new experience of the kingdom of God requires the experience of repentance and conversion. In Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” The conversion he speaks of here represents a return to the original relationship and covenant with God, establishing the basis for an abundant life in God that brings health, deliverance, joy and wholeness for women and men.

Domestic violence fractures our relationships with God, others and the self, transgressing the principles of Christian love and fellowship. Faithful pastoral care can begin the difficult process of restoring marital and familial relationships to grounding in the kingdom of God. Conversion and repentance, in this context, is a movement toward wholeness and abundant life for families and people threatened by domestic violence. For perpetrators, this means being accountable for their harmful behavior through a transformation of the heart, mind and habits. Such transformation is characterized by humility – seeking forgiveness by acknowledging unacceptable and destructive behaviors. For the victim, conversion and repentance involve the acknowledgment of anger and responsibility by taking action – empowering a healthy sense of self by pursuing justice, claiming a voice, naming the victimization and discovering her or his true self that brings freedom, dignity and healing.

Gutiérrez, in The God of Life (Orbis, 1991), argues that the miracles of Jesus signify the restoration of physical, mental, spiritual and social health. Thus, to be part of the kingdom of God is to enter into a restored and renewed life through the resurrection of Christ. This also means a commitment to defending the life and rights of the members of that kingdom, to asserting that “life, not death, has the final word in history.”

Russell says in Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective that the teaching and preaching of Jesus points to the kingdom of God as a realm in which both women and men find their true personhood, a realm whose members experience abundant life, love, compassion, care, justice, equality and solidarity. The kingdom of God confronts every sin, whether social or individual, that promotes the oppressor, dehumanizes and excludes. God’s kingdom is a gift of grace and a way of life that demands solidarity and respect within all dimensions of the human life. For Gutiérrez, being a part of the kingdom of God means confronting injustice, hypocrisy, violence, cynicism and the abuse of power, demanding a form of pastoral care that is attentive to the victim’s cry for justice, emancipation, healing and protection.

Faithful pastoral care will practice justice by paying attention to victims, offering a safe space and the conditions for them to share their struggle, listening to them, believing their stories, referring them to professionals and being companions in their journey toward healing and restoration. To practice justice is to hold the perpetrator accountable and stress that a transformation of heart, mind and actions is required on his or her part in order to experience liberation from the cycle of violence and to experience the restoration of life.

According to Russell, hope is the faithful expectation that God’s promises will become a reality. Although there are problems, difficulties, pain, suffering and circumstances in life in which it appears that there is no hope, Christians are sustained by their faith in God’s promises and comforted and strengthened by the power and action of the Holy Spirit. Peace has a wide spectrum of meanings that include social, familial and personal wholeness, prosperity, well-being and harmony. Peace can be associated with deliverance from oppression, distress, anxiety, suffering and sin. Additionally, peace results from the experience of God’s blessing, which brings inner strength (spiritual, emotional and physical), goodness and healing. Hope and peace are key elements for the ministry of pastoral care with victims of domestic violence because they are expressions of wholeness and harmony that strengthen individual, familial, communal and social relationships.

Domestic violence is a valley of sorrow for individual people, families and society, generating feelings of isolation, despair, hopelessness and overwhelming pain (physical, emotional and spiritual). Faithful pastoral care becomes a sign of the kingdom of God for victims of domestic violence as it points to the hope and promise of a new way of life grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the power and action of the Holy Spirit, the ministry of pastoral care brings hope and a sense of peace as it testifies to the presence of the kingdom of God. To paraphrase the words in Proverbs 31:8-9:

Open your mouth for the speechless victims of domestic violence, in the cause of all who are appointed to die due to emotional, physical or spiritual abuse. Open your mouth, judge righteously and plead the cause of those individuals and families struggling with domestic violence in the church.

Dynna E. Castillo Portugal teaches pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.

Photo: “Take Back The Night march Alamogordo 2010” by AllenSOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.