A place of worship can be a safe place, David Kitts told attendees at a conference on domestic violence at Dalton State College, but it can also be a place that hides some truths that ought to be exposed.
In too many cases, he said, congregants appear smiling and happy, “but underneath it all” — he removed his suit coat to reveal his badly tattered dress shirt — “there’s a reality, and that reality is abuse.”
Kitts, a Baptist minister who also directs the Knoxville Police Department’s Family Crimes Unit in Tennessee, spoke at the Conasauga Family Violence Alliance’s seventh annual Domestic Violence Conference on Friday. The conference is geared toward professionals who need to know how to address domestic violence issues for their jobs. Conference organizer Lynne Cabe said Kitts was asked to speak in response to national research that found in several cases, domestic violence abuse victims go to their pastors or others in their churches and congregations for help — and in too many cases don’t get what they need.
According to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, 130 people died from domestic violence last year, and Georgia was recently ranked 12th in the nation for its rate of men killing women.
Kitts said churches can help or hinder victims depending on what they teach and how well they are educated on how to handle such situations. Often, he said, abusers take Bible passages out of context to keep their victims under their control. Yet the issue of domestic violence often isn’t publicly discussed.
“I think it’s something that a lot of people are reluctant to talk about in the church or with their pastor because of the stigma that’s attached to it,” Pastor John P. Rossing of Christ the King Lutheran Church said in an interview. “It comes up sometimes, but I don’t think it’s dealt with as openly in churches as it probably ought to be unless the church maybe has a support group or a domestic violence program or outreach. I think even people who are church members are likely to look for their support in other agencies or support from counselors.”
Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Wesley Lynch said domestic violence tactics, including abusers quoting Bible passages about suffering and forgiveness to intimidate their victims, is a problem not only in Whitfield County but across the country. Lynch said the sheriff’s office meets with church leaders every couple of years to discuss issues they face, and they’ll considering incorporating some of what Kitts had to say in that training.
Several years ago, Kitts helped form a clergy task force for Knox County comprised of leaders from a variety of faiths and denominations. Despite his initial worries about how such a diverse group would mesh, members have been able to get training in how to deal with domestic violence issues and help their congregants, he said.
“When we started talking about domestic violence, we came together because we were all against it,” he said. “A clergy task force is ‘The Little Engine That Can.’”
Among misconstrued ideas clergy members and congregants can help combat are those surrounding the marriage covenant, suffering, forgiveness and unconditional love, Kitts said.
He said women — who are usually the victims in domestic violence — are often urged by their abusive husbands and pushed by church leaders to stay in an abusive relationship because they vowed before God to stay married for life. Kitts said the abuser in that case broke the covenant, and it’s often helpful to remind victims that God also doesn’t want people to sin. Staying, he said, gives the abuser leeway to continue sinning.
Kitts also cautioned against tritely telling suffering victims, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” because it promotes the idea that God is behind the violence. Instead, Kitts said, it’s important to help victims understand the value of their own lives and that saving a life by escaping a bad situation is more important than staying in a potentially deadly home.
In Luke 17:4, Jesus said of those who do wrong, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day, and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” It’s a passage Kitts said many abusers use against their victims, but it’s one that’s badly misconstrued.
“Does the word repentance mean ‘I’m sorry’?” he said. “No. That’s not repentance. Repentance in the Greek means a 180-degree turnaround.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean the victim has to return to an abusive home, he added, and the idea of unconditional love doesn’t mean subjecting yourself to abuse.
Churches and their leaders can help victims, he said, in part by showing them Bible passages that give hope, and by giving them the physical and emotional support they need. He said there are two churches in a town in Virginia that team up to advocate for victims. One church provides for physical needs as women in abusive relationships sometimes have nothing once they begin their new lives. The other church provides three female members who promise to befriend and support the woman for her first year while declining to let her become a member of the church so that she isn’t seen as someone’s pet project.
Rossing said the topic of domestic violence hasn’t been a big issue in his church that he knows of, but leaders are also careful not to condone troublesome interpretations of biblical passages that give power to abusers.
“There’s no doubt,” he added, “there are some people who find justification in their religious tradition for patterns of relationships between men and women or between spouses that are not what I would call loving or mutually respectful.”
A local 24-hour crisis hotline is available for victims of abuse at (706) 278-5586. The Georgia Family Violence Hotline is (800) 33-HAVEN.