The Active Nonviolence of Jesus: Domestic Violence (11 of 12)

PART 11 OF 12

Domestic Violence


But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5.39)

This week, we discuss a topic related to Jesus’ peace teachings for which we have received many requests to address. The topic is domestic violence.

I have witnessed significant abuse to both women and children because of a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ meaning in the passage above. Now, I want to say from the very beginning of this week that I have not been trained in counseling. I do not have a PhD in psychology or psychiatry. Therefore, I will not approach this topic academically. I believe that my qualifications for speaking on this topic go much deeper than mere academic training. (Moreover, those very qualifications may have caused me to drag my feet on this topic. For me, the topic is very personal.)

As many of you know, I grew up in a broken home. I share a little of my story in the first chapter of my book, Finding the Father. However, the part that I have yet to share publicly is the story of the next man that my mother married after my father. He is not the man to whom she is married now. Her current husband is the most humble, self-sacrificing, gentle man I have ever met. However, her marriage after her divorce from my father was a quite a different story.

I have memories—some of which are fuzzy and I have purposely pushed them away—of a time when my mother and I went to live with my grandmother across town because of a beating that my mother received from my stepfather. My grandmother was a quiet, other-centered follower of Jesus. She was a praying woman whom I pictured as never able to hurt anyone. I was quite shocked on the night that this story took place. I remember my stepfather attempting to break down my grandmother’s back door to storm in and get to my mother. I remember being very scared. I was hiding just around the corner, able to see only a little—but I saw enough. I too often experienced my stepfather’s temper, and I knew that if he got through that door, something terrifying would happen. Then, I remember my little grandmother appearing out of her bedroom and striding toward the door. She unlatched the chain and then the dead bolt. She swung open the door and put a bullet in the wall next to the door. (I didn’t even know my grandmother owned a gun!) I heard her say in a tone of voice I had never heard from her, “You touch my daughter tonight and the next bullet will be in you. You just think long and hard about what you do next. Jesus loves you, son, but you’re real close to meeting him personally.”

I remember that my stepfather backed up and left. I never looked at my grandmother the same after that day.

I remember being eight years old and seeing my stepfather’s temper again. My mother’s back was turned to him. She could not see what was coming but I did. I remember jumping over the kitchen counter to intercept his blow in mid-air. The blow intended for her fell on me. He then turned his rage on me and left bruises on my back that took more than a month to heal.

I remember spending a year on the road, living out of the trunk of our car and in and out of one women’s shelter after another. I was often afraid. I also went to six different public schools that year. Sometimes we stayed in women’s shelters, some nights we slept at the home of friends, and other nights we just slept in the car. When my stepfather found us—and he always did—we moved on.

Finally, my mother left when I was twelve. I remember my stepfather leaving for work and then, ten minutes after he was gone, the movers showed up. Previously, my mother was left with nothing, and she was not going to find herself in that situation again. The movers packed up all of her belongings and we left. We moved back to West Virginia to live with my grandmother, but this time things were different. My mother was finally done with him and she never returned to him.

I have personally seen well-intending pastors and friends use the previously described passage to justify women staying in dangerous domestic situations. I have seen this passage used in ways that make the woman living with a violent husband feel like a doormat. I have seen this verse abused in ways that only enables violent husbands to inflict years of emotional and physical damage on the women and children in their lives. I want to say, first and foremost, right now, if you are in danger and are being victimized at home, get out! Take yourself and your children to safety.

What does the passage really mean? I want to be clear. Nowhere in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 does He belittle the worth of a person who is being abused at home, and His words never encourage her to just “take it.” In fact, Jesus is teaching quite the opposite. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, when understood correctly and applied to domestic violence situations, are about responding to violence—even domestic violence—in ways that do not belittle the value of either party involved; instead, the parties should respond in ways that respect and restore the value of both individuals. Typically, we see within domestic violence situations only one party who needs to be rescued, and although Jesus’ teachings do not deny that, Matthew 5 calls on us to see not just one party in need of being rescued, but two.

Again, let me share with you what I shared in part 3 of this series, but with special application to domestic violence:

We must be clear. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus is showing that the goals of His Kingdom cannot be accomplished by violence. Rejection of violence, however, ought not be interpreted as passivity. Far from counseling a woman who is being abused by her husband to simply become passive, Jesus’ statements about turning the other cheek, giving the cloak, and going the second mile actually teach an assertive and confrontational nonviolence that provides her abuser with an opportunity for transformation. With suggestions such as these, the oppressed woman has the potential to seize the initiative, and if taken literally, sometimes even shame her offender (not in the heat of the moment though mind you), and strip her abuser of the power to dehumanize her. Let me show you how.

Jesus said, “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The only natural way for a blow to land on the right cheek is with the back of the hand. Such a blow would be a show of insult by a superior to an inferior. Jesus was using this example in a culture that did not accept one to strike an equal in such a humiliating way. Doing so carried an exorbitant fine. Picture the scene in your head. In that culture, because the left hand was only used for unclean tasks (have you been to a developing country?), hitting a person’s right cheek with the left hand did not occur. One never touched another with the left hand. However, with respect to striking another using the right hand, several options existed. Using a closed right fist indicated that the person being struck was viewed as an equal and the blow landed on his or her left cheek. Again, the blow was from a closed right fist onto the left cheek, acknowledging that the striker viewed the person being struck as an equal. Thus, a supposed superior—master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman—specifically did not want to strike an inferior with a fist. To be struck on the right cheek, to which Jesus referred, required the striker to strike not with a closed fist but with an open, backhanded slap. The backhanded blow to the right cheek was done specifically to humiliate, and a blow in retaliation invited retribution. However, notice that Jesus did not say to just roll over and take it. Jesus told us to respond by turning and, in rebellion, offering your oppressor the proper cheek, or the left cheek, as proof of the supposed inferior’s refusal to be humiliated. With the left cheek bared, the striker was left with two options: a left-handed blow and thus be regarded as unclean, or a blow with the right fist to imply that the person being struck was an equal. Because neither option was acceptable to the supposed superior, he lost the power to dehumanize the other. Therefore, Jesus not only taught the theory of non-violence, but He also gave us real examples of how to apply the theory in a way that does not dehumanize the victim. Notice that the response is still a nonviolent one and restores the dignity of the one being struck. This simple example does not even begin to look at how He then modeled this theory throughout His entire life and, ultimately, His death.

Let’s look at Jesus’ next example. A court of law constituted the setting for Jesus’ injunction regarding giving the cloak or undergarment along with the outer coat. The law allowed a creditor to take the coat (or outer garment) from a poor person who had no means to pay a debt as a promise of future payment (Exod. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:10-13, 17). Only the poorest person had just an article of clothing to surrender as security. Because the coat was likely the debtor’s sole remaining article of clothing, the wealthy creditor had to return it each evening for the owner to sleep in. Further, in that society, the shame of nakedness fell more on those viewing it and causing it than on the naked person. (Remember Noah’s son, Ham?) Recall that most people had only two articles of clothing and they did not wear underwear in those days. Thus, stripping off the undergarment in the public setting of the court, along with the required outer garment, effectively turned the tables on the wealthy creditor. Such action put the poor person in charge of the moment and exposed the exploitative system, shaming the wealthy and powerful person who took the last object of value from a very poor person. Yes, Jesus is actually endorsing public nudity! Such an act was a radical but non-violent protest! Whether we like it or not, Jesus recommended streaking with a cause as a viable option rather than returning violence with more violence.

Let’s look at Jesus’ third example. Going the second mile had great power to embarrass the soldier who compelled the first mile. Roman law allowed soldiers to command at will the forced labor of carrying burdens for one mile, but limited to one mile. The limitation provided some protection for the occupied people. However, if one followed Jesus’ words and cheerfully carried a burden beyond the required first mile, the soldier was put in the awkward position of not complying with the limit posed by his superior. As a result, the soldier ended up in the embarrassing position of begging the civilian to put down the burden lest the soldier be disciplined. Imagine a follower of Jesus saying, “No, no, I’ll cover for you. If you get in trouble, I’ll vouch for you that I volunteered!” Then, imagine the discussion that took place between the soldier (remember that the soldier was a Roman soldier deeply despised by the Jewish people; get your head around what Jesus is actually teaching here) and the follower of Jesus for that entire second mile.

In these cases, Jesus’ instructions are NOT commands of passive nonresistance. The phrase “resist not an evildoer” may be problematic if Jesus did not then demonstrate in these stories exactly what He meant. The actual Greek word for “resist” is anthistemi, which indicates resistance by returning violence for violence, overcoming evil with evil instead of overcoming evil with good. Anthistemi indicates violent resistance. However, Jesus was teaching that, in rejecting violent responses, we should not resist evil in any way! He was not telling His followers to simply do nothing! Absolutely NOT! Jesus was teaching nonviolent methods that enabled the oppressed to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, and to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus demonstrated non-violent methods for people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power—and, I would add, even precious people abused by their spouses—to learn to recover their humanity while simultaneously reaching out to redeem and even restore those who, although “oppressors,” are also victims of the systemic evil and violence of our culture.

Let me be clear. If your spouse is abusing you, get yourself and your children to safety. I cannot say this strongly enough. You MUST get others involved! You cannot do this alone. Let me also add that you should not respond to your abuser with violence. Violence will only escalate. A violent response to your abuser will only fuel his or her anger and make matters worse. However, remember that Jesus did not teach that you should just “take it.” Although you should not respond with more violence, their abuse of you demands a response. Love demands that you respond and dictates the manner of your response. Jesus demonstrated in principle the ways to force the abuser to recognize your worth and value. His illustrations cause the abuser to face the ways they dehumanize you, even through means that may cause them shame and embarrassment. However, please remember that Jesus died for you. You must submit to the value that Jesus places on you, regardless of your spouse’s treatment of you. I know that you love him, and I know that this part is very difficult, but Jesus also died for them. If your motive is to help your spouse, you must set in motion realities that will enable them to see their own victimhood in their temper, their own addiction to violence, and their own enslavement through their acts of belittling and dehumanizing women and children through their treatment.

Again, you cannot do this by yourself. You need help from others. At the very minimum, get a counselor involved. Stop protecting and enabling your abuser and begin today to move in a direction that will make him accountable and, hopefully, even rescued and redeemed from his own behavior. (At the same time, you must be careful not to take on guilt if he fails to respond. You are not to blame.) Remember, two people need to be rescued. (If children are involved, then even more people need rescuing. Please see the note at the end of this eSight.*) As a victim of domestic violence, I can say from first-hand experience that the one who is the conduit of the abuse needs to be rescued just as much as the ones who are being abused. However, you must respond in a way that truly rescues and does not allow further abuse. You are right to remember that your spouse is not the enemy; instead, the enemy is simply using him to hurt you (Ephesians 6.12). If you truly love the spouse who is hurting you, you must respond in a way that makes him accountable. I have witnessed too many women who continued to put themselves and their children in harm’s way because they “cared” about protecting their husbands. If Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 mean anything in the context of domestic violence, he is calling you to: 1) protect yourself and your children, and get to safety; 2) do not respond with violence, but do not allow yourself to be dehumanized, and 3) set in motion realities that will cause your spouse to wake up, become accountable, and embrace change, even if doing so shames and embarrasses him. If doing so requires beginning with separation from your spouse, then so be it. Your spouse must come to terms with the reality that he is destroying his family. When you stick around, it only hides the situation and allows your spouse to pretend that things are what they are not.

I have seen abusive spouses change with Jesus’ help as a result of the steps they take. I have also seen spouses who were unwilling to change. (Again, see the note at the end of this eSight.) Regardless of the outcome, Jesus never taught that women and children should passively allow themselves to be dehumanized by domestic violence and abuse. I know that doing so takes courage. I know that change is scary. Do not do this alone. Involve others you trust. You are of infinite worth to Jesus. He gave everything for you. I know that you love your spouse, but you are also Jesus’ most prized and precious daughter. Wherever these words find you today, embrace how much you are truly worth. Get help without denying the worth of the one who is hurting you and with God’s strength given to you through Jesus Christ. Break the cycle, for you, for him, and for your children.

Wishing each of you who are reading this the restorative and nonviolent peace and love of the Kingdom.

I love you guys,

I’ll see you next week.


*Without negating the sanctity of marriage, for children to live in a peaceful home with one loving parent is better than living in an abusive home with two parents. An abusive parent is a horrible burden for a child to bear. Moreover, for the parent being abused to give tacit permission for such abuse to continue by not doing whatever is possible to prevent it—even at the cost of separation—sends a message to the child that abuse must be normal and, very likely, that child will grow up to abuse your grandchildren or allow himself or herself to be abused. I know that change takes courage. I know that you love the spouse hurting you, but you must also teach your children that abuse is clearly not acceptable, even—and especially—at the hands of a parent. You can stand for the sanctity of your marriage and your vows without allowing physical or verbal abuse to hurt yourself or your children. You can communicate to your spouse that you love him and want your family together, but because the abuse is damaging the family, you and your children need to live separately from him. You must set and keep boundaries. If your spouse insists on defending rather than turning from his abusive behavior, then he is the one who is breaking up the marriage, not you. Don’t take on that guilt. God also has experience with domestic violence. Sometimes when we set healthy boundaries and then reach out to an abusive spouse, even with the best intentions of reconciliation, we get the same response that God did when He reached out to Pharaoh. Sometimes, the act of calling attention to the situation causes the abusive spouse’s heart to harden. However, again, whether his response is to dig in his heels and become more entrenched or to embrace, restore, redeem, and reconcile, you are not called to be “passive.” Christian Pacifism is about pacifying, not being passive! To pacify means to bring peace, restoration, and redemption. When domestic violence exists, peace is not present.