“Intimate violence,” how can these words possibly be combined to describe a close, loving male-female relationship?
In Healing Violent Men, David J. Livingston provides a theological response for working with men who have been violent with their wives, lovers and children. He also extends a challenge to churches to provide both protection to survivors of male battering and an accountable, responsible community to batterers.
Intimate violence is defined as an act that harms, restricts or violates another person within the context of an erotic or marital relationship. This violence is understood as the male’s efforts to exercise power and control over the female partner.
If left unchecked, the drive for power and control can escalate into a predictable three-stage cycle where tension-building (stage one) leads to acute battering (stage two), then follows loving contrition and desire for reunion (stage three). The cycle repeats and spirals more rapidly until it ultimately ends in death for the victim or imprisonment for the violent male.
Rather than demonizing the male perpetrator or pitying the female victim, Livingston employs the Christian symbol of reconciliation. He develops it not only as a theological category, but also as a model for congregational ministry. Warning churches not to confuse the desire for reunion with reconciliation, Livingston draws on the theology of Thomas Aquinas to describe four dimensions of reconciliation: contrition, confession, satisfaction and absolution.
Contrition is more than feeling sorry for one’s behavior, which may simply represent fear of consequences. Contrition is genuine grief a man feels when he recognizes he has acted violently toward an intimate partner. Detest of the behavior involves a felt disgust with the violation itself. Intent to change behavior and not to violate the other in the future moves the abusive male toward commitment to change and responsible self-enhancement.
Confession is the communal or social feature of the process. In a community of faith, confession can be experienced as an ongoing process of accountability. A congregation may provide a designated group where battering men can confess their acts of violence, find accepting and caring relationships and where personal accountability emerges.
Satisfaction is the third element of reconciliation. It seeks to bring healing to the wounds left in the wake of violent behavior: to victims, the community and of the penitent violator. In this context, the community of faith insists that the violent offender be held responsible for the violation as a necessary means to his own healing and the healing of his victims.
It is dangerous in cases of intimate violence to view reconciliation as “forgiving and forgetting.” Rather, the community of faith balances its commitment to protect the victims of domestic violence with the task of creating a relational place for the perpetrators of violence to pursue a change in behavior. Absolution extended by the church and received by the batterer, therefore, is a matter of releasing one of guilt as he is challenged to a responsible life in community and possibly in a family.
The goal of reconciliation within a family unit for a batterer is to replace his drive to power and control of his spouse or companion with a relationship of equality, where mutual respect characterizes the relationship and fosters honesty, trust and companionship. These goals are large and they aim high. Not every Christian congregation possesses the theological or emotional-relational maturity to provide such a ministry to its congregation or community.
The strength of the book is found in its challenge to any church to pursue such a ministry. One weakness is its lack of sufficient practical suggestions on how to implement a ministry of healing where intimate violence has occurred. It is a recommended read for any church with the courage and maturity to apply the gospel to real human hurts and tragedies.
Ron Wilson is a Samford University development officer.
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