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When I was growing up, my mother gave out occasional relationship advice. One piece she felt was worth repeating on the regular: “Never marry a man who raises his hand to you.” Note the euphemism; raising a hand is what we did in the classroom to answer a question or to be excused. Still, it was the second half of the speech that gave me chills: “If he does that now, what will he do once you’re married?”

I don’t know the details of how my mother knew that to allow such a man to lure you behind the closed doors of a shared home, family life, was to open the door to serious physical and emotional danger. I know that she found the lesson important enough to repeat it about once every two months until I was married myself.

What do we do to victims of violence within intimate relationships when we label it as domestic, as though it were a domesticated animal, not wild, not dangerous, not alien; part of family life?

We know, we who are women and many others beside us, that this violence is not domesticated, tame, harmless. We know that to label it as though it belonged in our homes is to open us up to further violence; and not only against ourselves.

Anecdotally, police officers say that domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous to which they respond. They never know when someone is going to snap. Among the perpetrators of mass violence, well covered by the media, the background detail of “domestic troubles” or family violence is prevalent. Treating this kind of outrage as the wild and dangerous animal that it is might help us to tame it, or at least to contain it.

But a 2014 interview on NPR following a football player’s public perpetration of abuse confirms what we already know: that domestic violence continues to be treated as a lesser offence, a less present peril than stranger danger.

SIEGEL: And first, how do sentences for domestic abuse generally compare with sentences handed down for say assaulting someone who isn’t a domestic partner or assaulting a stranger?

KLEIN: Well, the first thing you have to understand is the criminal justice response is not uniform across the country. It varies by state by court by court and judge by judge and prosecutor by prosecutor within the states. But generally the pattern is that domestic violence is not taken as seriously as other crimes. It’s less likely to be prosecuted, it’s more likely to have the case diverted from court and the person is less likely to end up in prison or jail. …

SIEGEL: When prosecutors are called on the decision not to prosecute instances of domestic abuse, typically what do they say, what are their reasons?

KLEIN: Typically they blame the victim. They say the victim isn’t cooperative. Or they say that it’s the person’s first offense and generally we know that’s not true. It’s like drunk driving. If you’re arrested for drunk driving it’s probably, statistically, almost impossible that that was the first and only time you’ve ever been drunk driving. Same thing with domestic violence …

Or, as my mother would say, “If he’ll do that in public, what do you think is happening behind closed doors?”

The marriage canons that I follow when solemnizing that covenant between two people stipulate that if in the future the relationship runs into trouble, “it shall be the duty of such Member of the Clergy to act first to protect and promote the physical and emotional safety of those involved and only then, if it be possible, to labor that the parties may be reconciled.” It has only read that way since the turn of the millennium; until then, had my espoused members run into trouble, I would have been instructed only to labor to keep their marriage together, without reference to their bodies and minds.

For too long, the self-sacrificing love of Christ was promoted as an example to those who were already being crucified, while the authority of God Almighty was wielded by those already drunk on power, and unwilling to let go of the bottle, and God’s own Self was desecrated by using the Trinity of Love as a model of unhealthy and unholy family values.

On one hand, the discussion of domestic violence as a risk factor for other kinds of violence is welcome. Perhaps drawing attention to the danger to the man on the street from the man behind the curtains will help shed light on the problem. On the other hand, it still feels as though domestic violence is only a problem when it risks getting out of hand, and out of the house; when it affects powerful men as much as it affects those others; as though when the image of God is bruised and scarred, it somehow becomes less sacred, as though its value could ever by our actions be diminished. It makes me wonder why the pain of the woman, the child, the partner behind the door was not important enough to address on its own.

It should not take a feral outburst for others to see what too many already know, and what my mother taught me well and often: that violence cannot be domesticated. It is always wild, dangerous, and frightening.

Rosalind C. Hughes is the Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. She is a wife and the mother of three adult offspring, three cats, and a rat. A British transplant, she spends any rare spare time drinking tea and knitting on the north coast. Rosalind blogs at Over the Water and is a contributor to the Episcopal Café.

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4 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Undomesticated Violence

  1. I grew up witnessing domestic violence, and overhearing the women in my family discuss it in hushed voices. When I became a teenager, I vowed never to marry, because I believed that marriage was a ticket to physical, mental, and financial abuse. I had, after all, been taught this. I had to retrain my mind to think it through logically, that not all men did these things when they became husbands. I prayed for God’s help to not choose an abuser, because I knew that was all too likely. I’ve been married to a wonderful man for 25 years, but the first years were difficult. I had spells where my breathing would lock up when he came through the door because I was certain he would attack me.
    With God’s help my husband and I created a safe family, but our society does not take the heavy legacy of domestic abuse seriously. It has lifelong effects.


  2. I remember my dad warning, “Men who aren’t happy in their work beat their wives.” I was young and dismissed his concern, but now I wish I could ask what made him think that way.


  3. Oh my gosh, Rosalind. This left me breathless. My mother told me my whole life, “If a man puts his hand on you once, he’ll do it again.” It’s a refrain I’ll never forget. I know how she knew: there was violence in her first marriage.


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