Growing up in the Caribbean, almost everyone went to church. And if you managed to escape the itchy taffeta dress and shiny, tight shoes on Sunday mornings, God was there waiting for you at school the next day, in assembly, with its Songs of Praise hymnbook and officiating priest. Yes, we actually had a real live canon employed by the school to teach Religious Studies and to spit short sermons in our general direction during morning assemblies. I loved the canon – even with all the spitting and yelling words of damnation he was just a warm, grandfather type doing what he saw as his job – but I could have done without the fresh doses of religious guilt first thing in the morning.

In such a society, the stance of the Church on women’s behaviour tends to be pervasive; and even among those who are not avid churchgoers, their own habits are shaped by the Church’s dictates on the appropriate roles and responses of women. This, for me, is one of the dynamics to consider in looking at how we treat domestic violence as a modern society. When I read of Rick Warren’s teachings that abuse is not a sufficient condition for leaving a marriage, and that he encourages women to prioritize saving their marriages above themselves, I was not surprised. Neither was I surprised at the public indignation over the fact that this anti-gay, anti-women’s rights activist was chosen to deliver President Obama’s inauguration invocation. In the US, there was and continues to be very vocal, very visible outrage that a spiritual leader should encourage women to stay in abusive partnerships, and should further be endorsed by an incoming administration.

In other places, outrage over similar Christian teachings – if it even exists – is far less vocal and visible, and the lines separating liberal non-believers on the theoretical left from right-leaning Christians is extremely blurred and arguably non-existent. Even those who are less than virtuous in their quotidian endeavours invoke God and the bible from time to time, and many people regard with suspicion anyone who does not believe. It is in this context that my friend who was separated from her husband but still living with him in their home sought advice from her church when he tried to force her to have sex with him, on the grounds that she was still his wife. She was advised by her pastor – a man who was also my pastor before I became disillusioned and my soul was lost forever – that her husband was right, and that she should not resist, since the bible has clearly explained what is expected of wives as long as they are still so called. This was his counsel even though he knew that theirs was an abusive relationship.

He completely disregarded her physical and mental well-being, her sense of dignity, and her own personal freedom. And the worst part of it all was that she followed his advice and stayed months longer, until her husband was the one who made the choice to leave. I type with calm now, but at the time I was irate. Irate that many religious leaders hide behind their bibles rather than take real life responsibility for what they stand before their pulpits every week and denounce as the social evils of society; that in many cases, this whole doctrine of submission is nothing more than a way to get women to shut up and do as they’re told. It’s really easy to sit in our McMansions and ‘submit’ when we have oodles of cash and access, and are in no mortal danger. But for millions of women every day, ‘submission’ means degradation, injury and death.

I’m not attacking people’s rights to choose and express their own religious beliefs, but religion does not exist in a vacuum: it has been defined over the years according to patriarchal norms, just as have other institutions. Teachings that shoulder women with the responsibility for the survival of their marriages at any and all costs to themselves, even as their partners are afforded all sorts of hierarchical privilege, are not in the best interests of women. And such doctrine gives abusers more tools and license to cause harm, hiding behind the ‘it’s biblical' mantra that I’ve heard so often growing up. We’re often afraid to call out the Church on its teachings lest we be accused of religious persecution. But if they're that healing for society, they should be able to defend them, and in fact they have a responsibility to do so.

I have lots of Christian friends, and I can’t help but hope that if they ever encounter abuse and are counselled by their religious leaders to ‘stay and put their marriage first’, that they dare to ask them to kindly f- off, and then dare to get the hell out.

Afro_diosa joins us from The Mongoose Chronicles.

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