March 27, 2020

As Long as it Looks Good on the Surface

This is part one of a two-part series on domestic abuse. Watch for part two next week.

I was watching one of my favourite crappy TV shows recently—BBC’s Death in Paradise. This week, the pastor’s son was found dead, floating in a boat in the middle of the sea. Murdered! Who did it? One hour (and a few blind alleys) later, and D.I. Mooney reveals the truth: the wife.

You see, he (the husband) had been controlling, beating, and abusing his wife since they first got married. He’d recently found out she had planned to leave him, so he started to beat her. Then, in a particularly heated argument, she pushed him away and he fell to his death. Now, on the surface, this guy was a super loving, hard-working, caring man. He even sang in the church choir! But behind closed doors he was abusive, controlling, and violent. No one knew or even suspected it.

Here’s the sad reality: this doesn’t just happen on the TV.

Real Life

Recently, I was asked for some advice. The lady I was talking to was spending time supporting a woman who was being viciously abused and raped by her husband. But because he was a ‘stand-up guy’, when she went for help, no one in her church believed her. They seemed more worried about the ‘sanctity of marriage’ and that she didn’t leave and divorce him. She was encouraged to go home. Tragically, she later ended up in A&E—at which point her church leaders believed her!

There are times when I am just legit mad at the things I hear. To be honest, I think it might be one of those rare moments when it’s actually righteous anger. It’s an isolated case, Shabba, I hear you say. No! This is the third time in the last 12 months that I’ve heard this kind of story. Different place, different lady, same horrendous story. In every case she was disbelieved. What people saw on the surface was a ‘stand-up, good guy’ who couldn’t possibly do what was being described. And ‘as long as it looks good on the surface’, then it must be, right?

These stories make me beyond sad, and my mind thinks back to stories of abuse in the past that we (that is, the Church at large) disbelieved. I remember watching the film Oranges and Sunshine—a true story about the child migration scheme. The film told of children being shipped to Australia from Britain, many of whom ended up being abused by those entrusted to care for them.

Or the 2015 film Torch Light—the story of the Boston Globe exposing sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Both movies are based on true stories. They tell of trusted men and women who took advantage of their position. Surely these people could have been described as ‘great folk’—at least on the surface—but they are people who hurt and abused kids for years. Far too many kids went unheard and disbelieved, as many turned a blind eye to the truth. Sound familiar? Are we in the church making similar mistakes, not helping the vulnerable and abused because the truth is just too hard to stomach?

Too Big to Ignore

We can’t simply ignore something or brush it aside just because it isn’t palatable. We can’t pretend that some of the 60,000 people who reported incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland aren’t in our churches, sitting in our pews, singing praises on a Sunday. We have a duty to protect the abused and vulnerable. Doing nothing—turning a blind eye—isn’t an option!

You have to hear me right: I don’t think all men are abusers. In fact, I don’t think it’s just men who abuse. I know that women (sadly) are just as capable. Same goes for kids (a painful reality no one wants to face—but some kids are abusers). There are people who may look nice and respectable on the surface and yet abuse their power behind closed doors. It’s naive of us to sit in church and think it could never go on here. Christians are sinners, and some of those sinners are abusive.

Misconceptions of Abuse

Many of us may have a narrow, archetypal image of a domestic abuser as someone who beats his wife, slapping her around in some sort of drunken rage. Unless we see the black-eye, split lip, or bruised cheek regularly then, in some ways, we can’t believe it. I was in an abusive relationship, and I would cover my face with my hands, hiding the obvious signs of the abuse I suffered. I wanted to ensure that everything looked fine on the surface.

Helen Thorne has written a seriously helpful little book called Walking with Domestic Abuse Sufferers. In it, one abuse victim talks about life with her abuser.

In the quietness of my bedroom, I tried to type up what had been going on. She had been hurting me for years, and I knew I wanted it to stop. I opened an email and began to document the abuse. I traced the scars over my body: the bumps where bones had not quite healed; the circles where cigarettes had been pressed into my thighs; the wavy purple line on my stomach left by that evening with the carving knife, the bruise on my foot where she had stamped on me yet again. I closed my eyes and tried to recall each punch, each pinch and each threat to gouge out my eyes. I remember the night I was forced to sleep in the shed outside, and the morning she spiked my coffee with antifreeze. And then I closed my laptop tightly. It was not credible to think anyone would believe that a popular, petite lawyer would act like that. I can barely believe it myself and she is my sister.

This is a horrific story, shared by someone who has clearly suffered terribly at the hands of another for a long time. But how many of us would question this story of domestic abuse? To try to get at an answer, let’s take a step back and ask an important question: What exactly is domestic abuse?

Defining ‘Domestic Abuse’ 

Domestic abuse is defined as an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading, and violent behaviour—including sexual violence, wilful intimidation, or other abusive behaviour as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one partner against another. In the majority of cases, this is done by a partner or ex-partner, but can also be done by a family member or carer.

Domestic abuse can include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Coercive control: which is a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation, and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence.
  • Psychological and/or emotional abuse
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Financial or economic abuse
  • Harassment and stalking
  • Online or digital abuse

In Scotland, domestic abuse is recognised as a crime and covers a range of behaviours, such as psychological and emotional abuse. For the person who engages in a pattern of abusive behaviour toward a partner or ex-partner, it means they can be prosecuted and punished by the law.

Why am I labouring this? The truth is that domestic abuse exists—it’s both offensive and an offense. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can be the abuser or the abused—male, female, even kids. In her book, Helen Thorne asks,

What does it feel like to be abused? It’s emptiness. It’s the absence of everything good. It’s disappointment. It’s like being promised a diamond and ending up with a lump of coal. It’s not the bruises that do the most damage; it is the shame and the lies. The sneaking suspicion that it’s all your fault. The nagging thoughts that you deserve everything you are getting. The apparent reality that there is absolutely nothing you can do.

Every day, someone is hurt by another who claims to love them. Yes, it is horrific, shocking, unpalatable, even unbelievable, but trust me—it’s happening right now. In the three minutes that it has taken you to read this article, sixty people will have been physically abused by an intimate partner. They will be scared, they may be trapped, they may be terrified of repercussions if they tell someone, they may be hiding the evidence and covering up the truth, they may be petrified for their children, they may have no money or means of escape.

As a church, what would you do? How would you respond and seek to protect? Would you believe the person? Send them home? Tell them to leave their spouse? Help them find safety? Call the police? Do you have a corporate plan? An adequate safeguarding policy?

Here at 20schemes, we talk about domestic abuse in detail with our women’s workers. As we start to think through the worst-case scenarios, it makes for an uncomfortable discussion. Let’s be honest, none of us are actually happy about this type of sinfulness. Yet the questions are helpful and must be asked. We Christians must talk openly about the hard realities of a sinful world and consider how we should respond in godly and loving ways.

I’ll discuss this in more detail next week.

“The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18)

To read Mez McConnell’s story of his own experience with childhood abuse, order his latest book The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God through Childhood Abuse.

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