How can a Biblical literalist get out of a physically abusive marriage? This article tells about a few rouge fundamentalists are attempting to craft a Biblical logic that will permit the abused to divorce the abuser. For every person who protects themselves or their children by leaving a marriage because of this new logic I am grateful. The thing is, I imagine God is exceedingly grateful as well. Domestic violence in relationship to the marriage vows is just one example of how a shortsighted understanding of scripture, combined with people and power, creates a tragedy.
The question being raised in the article reveals a much larger system that is, at best, silently complicit in the abuse of spouses and children. A number of perspectives that leave the victims at the hands and in the homes of the abusers are mentioned. For example, Bruce Ware is a professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is said to have ruminated on the way a wife's insubmission can be the cause of domestic abuse or how the abused women are reminded that 'love is a choice rather than an emotion' as they are encouraged to put themselves back in the violent situation. Repeating or even tolerating these lines leads to abused women and children. If that is not the complete opposite of what the God revealed in Jesus wants for the world, I have no idea what is. In fact, as a minister, I would suggest we run from any justification of such acts of violence and betrayal used in the name of God. Why should we have to fight the Bible or craft some new literalist reading of selected texts to do what is good, life-giving, and hopefully Christian?
To those of you who could not imagine the horrible situations described in the article, I would like to suggest that this is not simply about Biblical fidelity. Instead, I think the primary issue at stake for those supposed 'literalists' is really their rabid insecurity about the marriage mythology of conservative Christians. In order for conservatives to continue to pretend marriage has always been between one man and one woman and insist to everyone in the public square that this should be the foundational part of society's bedrock - which cannot be challenged or all hell (hopefully metaphorically) will break loose - they must even assert the marriage mythology in the face of domestic abuse. Most any Bible reader knows that polygamy is the Biblical norm, and there are probably about as many life long single people as there are monogamous couples. In addition, women were often treated as property, denied their full humanity, Biblically divorced and left out alone by their husbands. Oddly enough, the idea of 'separation' which is proposed throughout the article by fundamentalists is neither advocated nor practiced once in scripture. Jesus spoke into this notably patriarchal culture and prohibited divorce. In doing so he advanced the rights of women in that context, not allowing the husband to move towards younger pastures on a whim. In Jesus' rejection of past 'Biblical' reasoning for a more life-giving one on behalf of the marginalized, I believe we see a logic and we receive a mandate, as Christians, to continue this trajectory today. Our context is different - so the prescription is different - but our diagnosis is the same. Especially when it come to domestic abuse.
Any legit New Testament Scholar will tell you that the exception for Jesus' complete prohibition of divorce in the Gospel of Matthew (the Mathean Exception) is more than likely a later, historical addition to Jesus' words. Why then would a community feel like they should add on to the words of Jesus when the teaching is so straight forward? Why would it add adultrey as an exception to the complete prohibition of divorce? I am sure that you, like myself, can imagine a situation where this exception made perfect sense. When one is an adulterer, they have broken the marriage covenant, and it is hardly a protection of marraige to require a spouse to live with someone who lays with someone else. I would like to assert that in the case of domestic abuse that the marriage covenant is abandoned by the abuser and trashed by the abuser the moment violence enters the marriage and the spouse becomes a victim. The one committing this violent act - an act worthy of divorce - is not the victim, but the violator.
This isn't odd once you begin to see covenants as primarily a way of relating, and in the case of marriage, modeled on and nested within the God who is Love. No one and no marriage is perfect. For a marriage to flourish it needs a reservoir of grace but also a foundation of trust and responsibility. Many cases of abuse are even rooted in psychological and chemical issues that require more than a forgive, forget, and submit response to a genuinely repentant spouse. Clearly first century thinkers were not aware of the powerful effects a toxic subconscious can have, but we are and we cannot justify ignorance and complicit violence with God, Jesus, or the Bible today.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Dem Bones Dialogue Series: Marriage and Domestic Violence III
Tripp is a progressive evangelical and just started his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Claremont. Like Kent H, he is also an ordained minister.