Peaceful Thoughts

Notes from a Domestic Violence Trauma Survivor

Below is a letter I had addressed to Redemption Hill Church – the church I was attending and an active member of, and which I had turned to when I was violently assaulted by my ex-husband of eight years. (hereafter I will refer to him as ‘the ex’)

I was re-traumatised by how the clergy handled my case; there were salient points of failure across the board from beginning to end.

While some people in church were supportive, many of them were ultimately remiss and complicit in how they treated me. As such, I have left the church and am currently attending another church, New Creation Church, that is more aligned with how Jesus treated women and how he saw their place and standing in society.

I understand people are easily deceived and charmed by appearances, I just didn’t know the extent to which people can be deceived – as they were by the ex.

I am writing because I believe that more awareness needs to be created around the violence and the spotlight shone on the shameful complicity in churches and the fact that many abusive marriages stay intact with the abuser suppressing the victim because of the religious and social structures surrounding them.

Sites that are meant to be a place of refuge and comfort for the oppressed are safe-havens and sites of narcissistic supply for the oppressors instead. This is what I witnessed first-hand.

I gave feedback to the church, but they ultimately didn’t do much to address the hurt and damage and re-traumatisation they caused – every single ask I made was grilled and questioned – I was treated like a liar instead of someone who had been violent assaulted and oppressed by her intimate partner, and someone who needed to be firmly supported and consistently encouraged to speak up and share her story.

It’s no wonder many have turned away from the church – all things considered.

My hope is that people in their respective churches (of all religions, but most especially Christian) will take the points I have raised below and think about how they go about addressing abuse cases – the church must start to become a site of comfort and support for the oppressed instead of a place for the silencing and re-traumatisation of victims of domestic violence.

I held back from sharing the medical report which documents the damage I received from being assaulted from the ex on the 25th of January 2021 because there was a sentimental part of me that still wanted to protect my ex from the full consequences of his actions; this is even after the fact that he came after the inheritance my late father had given to me in the ensuing divorce.

I think it deserves special mention that clergy in RHC felt that he was entitled to come after my Father’s inheritance because I had put the money into a joint account. Yes, technically he was entitled to it, but the church should understand that morally he should not have helped himself to it. They should have told him as such

It was not until I questioned the head pastor (with his wife present) “if you were to beat up your wife and she were to divorce you, would you help yourself to her inheritance from her late father even if she were to have put that money in the same account?”

It was then and only then that he said, “no,” and agreed that it would not be right to do so. I then said to him, “Pastor, it shocks me that I have to adopt this line of questioning in order for you to see how wrong it is for the ex to have come after my late father’s gift to me. I think the reason why you and the Assistant Pastor couldn’t see it is because of your doctrine surrounding male leadership – you don’t think there should be female pastors – that is plainly wrong and not in line with how Jesus treated women and that has coloured the way you have handled my case.’

I told him subsequently that I would leave the church and cancel my membership. And in fact, I said to him that he should call my ex out. Which he claimed to have done. But I can’t account for it as I was not present (at the Pastor’s request – for my own protection) when he supposedly did so.

As mentioned earlier, I did not share the medical record because of the damning evidence towards my ex. Plus, it used to make me feel slightly ashamed that he was able to overpower me and deliver this kind of damage to my body. I know he is 2.5 times my weight and size, however, there is still an inexplicable sense of shame that accompanies being overpowered and rendered helpless like that.

However, enough time has passed for me to gain perspective and healing, and I think what I share will be instructional for others, especially others who have not had the first-hand experience of being abused by an intimate partner.

Many domestic violence survivors stay silent because they are afraid of the repercussions of speaking up e.g. losing friends, family, and being accused of being a liar, being ridiculed, being mocked and scorned. And while I am far from immune to the above, I think there is more to life than living in fear and staying small and silent just because others expect you to, or because it’s more convenient for others to not have to see or hear the truth.

In the Bible it says, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ – a wise lady also said, ‘before the truth sets you free, it will make you cringe.’

Please note that it will not be easy to read the following, especially if you know me or any of the named parties in the following document personally.

It is my earnest hope that you will carefully read about my experience of being retraumatised in church, read the medical report and with one more domestic violence survivor’s voice and experience and bodily damage to take into consideration, that you will make wise decisions in the future concerning how you treat abuse victims especially in institutions that are meant to protect the oppressed and vulnerable.

Reason for Feedback:

  • Create awareness of the consequences of the action/non-action of clergy and lay people; the meta-messages communicated to me.
  • Create awareness of the impact and importance of words and messaging used and what they communicated.
  • To understand and seek acknowledgement on why there was failure on such a fundamental level to call the ex out for what he did in those two pastoral sessions; there was zero accountability and confrontation of his assault on my body in front of me.
  • Communicate my feelings as a trauma survivor and my hope for RHC; create awareness on retraumatization caused by churches and hope that RHC will avoid doing so in the future: I sent this article to the Assistant Pastor, would like to share it with you all too: Church abuse can cause the worst PTSD
  • Point for reflection: How come during the first meeting three days after I was assaulted, the Assistant Pastor led the conversation with the question “Do you know why the ex did what he did?”
  • Back to basics: The ex had deeply violated me and the fundamental values of Christian marriage – it shouldn’t have happened period. Is there a need to know why he did it? (FYI: The reason proffered for his beating me up is ‘because he was hurt’)
  • Consider the meta-message of the question “Do you know why he did that?” in the context of unpacking the situation. I’m curious, why did the Assistant Pastor think it was important to ask me this question? What are the teachings and values/training in church leadership that could prompt a male Pastor to think this is an appropriate question to ask in that context?
  • My thoughts on this question: This line of questioning legitimizes his violence and invalidates my experience as someone who was brutally beaten up by the one person who is supposed to protect me.
  • It implies there is some culpability on my part for his actions against me. There is never any reason for violence that is worth talking about in the presence of the traumatized person. The lead pastor’s wife knew this and didn’t want to listen to his excuses, how come other people did? How come the ex came away thinking that two women who were in touch with me during that period should talk to the Assistant Pastor to see the full picture? As if the Assistant Pastor were on the ex’s side. How did the ex come away with that impression?
  • When I spoke to the Assistant Pastor in a private session on December 8th he said that as a minister it is his role to give the benefit of the doubt and to show empathy. Is empathy an appropriate emotion to show when dealing with abusers? Can you see how it builds into their narrative of them being victimized? There is a time and place for empathy, and in the immediate aftermath of an assault when dealing with the reality of a perpetrator’s actions against the victim, it is neither the time nor place to demonstrate any empathy whatsoever. This is exactly what an abuser would use to justify and legitimize his actions and perceptions.
  • Point for reflection: how come when I asked the ex in the presence of the Assistant Pastor and the lead pastor’s wife “Why haven’t you told your family about what happened” and he said “Because I don’t want them to think badly of you, they would be disappointed in what I did, but they would know I was pushed into it” nobody called him out?
  • My thoughts and reflections on this question: He had written an “apology” taking responsibility for his brutality against me but yet in that sentence spoken in front of the Pastor’s wife and the Assistant Pastor managed to deflect and assign blame to me.
  • How come no one spoke up for me? How come no one called him out in front of me?

More questions I have concerning this:

  • Did they think I was lying about the extent of damage he had done to me?
  • Did they think it wasn’t something worth confronting as long as there was a medical report? How does this line of thinking fit in with justice and what we are called to do as Christians?
  • Were the leaders just tongue-tied? Or were they just not thinking? What happened?
  • Why didn’t I speak up? I was shell-shocked and stunned by what he said and still coping with the emotional trauma of his assault, I was still in self-blame mode (very common for victims of violence in intimate relationships) I wasn’t even angry (and I felt confused about my lack of anger and shared this with the Assistant Pastor , but no one warned me that it’s not normal to not be angry under the circumstances) Anger serves a protective function; I was unable to properly protect myself from further emotional abuse from the ex and double-abuse from invalidation and silent legitimization of the ex’s action. I was taking my cues from the Pastor’s wife and the Assistant Pastor , they remained silent even though I tried to point out that the ex had minimised the extent of his physical violence against me in his very nicely worded apology:

The ex’s apology: 

“On Jan 25, 2021, I grabbed Deborah’s neck, pushed her onto the couch, grabbed a throw pillow and hit her with it multiple times. At the end I punched Deborah on the middle right side of her back. Regardless of the reasons why, what I chose to do in that moment was absolutely and inherently wrong. In Ephesians 5, a husband is called to love his wife as he loves his own body. Paul goes on to say that “no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church”. I myself would not want to receive that kind of treatment, and of course neither would Deborah, nor would she deserve to. I severely violated my marriage vows to love and cherish Deborah. I have sinned against God and against Deborah who is supposed to be my own flesh. For this I am deeply and utterly sorry.

I never believed that it was OK to harm Deborah, either verbally or physically, but I allowed myself to get to a point where I felt so hurt I didn’t care, I just wanted out. That is a very dangerous place to be, and there’s no excuse for it. I never want to reach that point and hurt Deborah again, and if we decide to move forward with reconciliation, I would take steps to ensure that I never end up in that state again. I would reach out to a few godly men in RHC and ask if they could commit to a weekly accountable meetup where we would support each other through our struggles, read the Word, and pray. I also hope that we would be able to go for weekly or bi-weekly Christian marriage counseling with someone through or referred to by RHC.

Through the counselling, I would like Deborah and I to focus on achieving respectful communication (word choice, tone, and body language), conflict resolution techniques, and fulfilling the roles of husband and wife as the Bible has laid out. Things cannot continue the way they have been, or I am afraid things will only continue to worsen, and that would be dangerous for both of us.”

  • If you look at the medical report, the damage done to my body does not match how he described what he did to me. So he was clearly watering down what he had done to me.
  • He never once asked me for forgiveness. He said “sorry, it’s not right” but that’s not the same thing as saying “I’ve sinned grievously against you, will you please forgive me?”
  • In fact when I asked him in order to clarify what he really wanted (I thought he wanted a divorce but it seemed like he wanted to try to make it work initially), “why did you say “this is it, you fucking bitch, I’m getting a divorce” if he apparently didn’t want a divorce, he said “knowing you, you would never forgive me, so I said that” – he managed to blame his shameful and abusive action on me and attack my character in the same sentence. He said it in front of church leaders, yet no one confronted him or held him accountable. This hurt me deeply, I felt really alone and let down and emotionally invalidated by the silence of people who should be standing up for truth and justice. People who should be protecting me from more abuse.
  • Silence signals complicity in the mind of an abuser and the victim. The anger and blame had turned inwards because of the sheer violence and trauma I experienced. I didn’t have the inner strength and external support I needed to speak up against him.
  • I didn’t have a voice and the presence of mind to call him out, but was relying on church leadership to advocate for and protect me. I came away feeling emotionally bludgeoned and deeply disempowered on both occasions. The Pastor’s wife sent me an encouraging message after the first meeting, but I would have liked to have seen the ex being properly called out by the leaders in such a meeting. I didn’t have a voice and the presence of mind to protect myself emotionally.
  • Silence on such egregious hypocrisy and emotional violence is a form of complicity – it validated and legitimized his view when church leadership did not call him out in my presence. What he said and did was decidedly evil and unchristian, we are instructed to call him out. In the Bible it says: But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or an idolater, or verbally abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 1 Corinthians 5:11
  • How seriously are we taking this? How do you apply this verse in the light of the fact that victim-blaming is alive and rampant within the church?
  • How come the Assistant Pastor said to me after that first initial talk, “the conversation between you and the ex reminded me of my wife and myself”? What motivated the Assistant Pastor to ask me this question? Did the Assistant Pastor consider the fact that making this statement normalised the ex’s violence against me? Did the Assistant Pastor identify with the ex? If so, why? What could make a Pastor of a church possibly identify with a violent, manipulative and abusive man?
  • Are we aware that you can’t treat an abusive marriage system the same way you treat a non-abusive marriage system? Are we aware of how to tell the difference between an abusive marriage and a difficult marriage?
  • If we are, I’d like to know how the church is currently dealing with a similar situation. Are women in church who are in abusive relationships and who are reaching out getting the help they need or are they being disempowered and invalidated and gaslighted into disowning and minimizing their traumatic experiences so that the abuser can spread his narrative and craft his image as a victim?
  • Are we aware of the myths surrounding the minds of abusers and why they do what they do? I have shared with the Assistant Pastor that abusers have a mindset of privilege and entitlement which leads to unjustified anger building into abuse cycles locking abuser and victim in trauma bonds and a self-concept of the victim that is built around the perpetrators perception of her. That’s why I was on antidepressants for 9 years I was with him, and got off them months after being separated from him in spite of the trauma of having been violently assaulted by him.
  • I was freed from a very negative and unhealthy self-concept that was perpetrated by him. A concept that he continued to try spreading even after the separation – he used the Assistant Pastor as a key instrument in this. Why did the Assistant Pastor give him space to continue to talk about me like I’m crazy and unhinged instead of shutting him down and rebuking him? (this question is rhetorical)
  • How can we make leadership be more aware so leaders don’t become easily manipulated by abusive men into becoming weaponised against the victim?
  • Are we aware that many abusers know exactly what they’re doing? They beat you up in places that can’t be easily seen to intimidate and hurt you and silence you while covering their tracks so their violence on the body of the victim cannot easily be seen?
  • In view of the fact that victims of abuse often can’t see the big picture clearly and are prone to self-blame, who among the male clergy is speaking truth into their lives and that of the abuser so that the record is set straight in the presence of both parties?
  • Is there a system of accountability for how possible abuse within the church system is addressed? Are there checks and balances? Where is the feedback system? How are inherent biases present in any culture being addressed and accounted for e.g authority bias, gender bias
  • Are we keeping up to date on issues of violence?

“Because they were independent women, they thought ‘Why me?’ But ‘Why not you? What makes you different?’ You have to get them to see it’s not about their social economic status or education but their beliefs about what is acceptable,” 

– Dr Sudha Nair.

  • Are we clear in our church about what is acceptable and what is not? What are we doing to make sure women and men both understand what is acceptable and what is not. How are we communicating this? Are we aware of DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) and that it’s a tactic commonly applied by narcissistic abusers. especially in churches? What is our church doing to immunize lay people and clergy against the manipulation of abusers?
  • Is there a system of accountability and feedback to address fundamental values of respect between sexes and equality that are violated?
  • Abuse may be everywhere and somewhat normalized but we are called as Christ followers to be sensitive to this and to recognise that it is a deep violation of fundamental values woven into the teaching of Jesus. His life was characterized by integrity and kindness and love and a heart for the afflicted and abused. Intimate violence and victim blaming is the opposite of love. What are we doing to support and protect those that are perpetrated against?
  • Are we aware of flying monkeys? Can we make sure that we don’t relay messages from the abuser to the victim? The Assistant Pastor played the role of a flying monkey when he told me some things that the ex said to him, he even said, “I feel you” to him when the ex related to him how he felt when he read my blog-piece on his physical assault on me. I found this very unhelpful and retraumatizing. I couldn’t speak up then because I found it hard to confront, but is he aware he played the role of a flying monkey? I mentioned this to him, but he neither acknowledged he played that role nor apologised for it.
  • I find it really sad and disheartening that the ex got sent off at the airport by church members, including the Assistant Pastor.
  • Many of the people who sent the ex off did not bother to reach out to me or check in with me to see if I was okay. For two whole weeks after he left there was radio silence from the church. I felt like a leper, alone and isolated and that the church was no longer invested since the marriage was clearly over. Do we understand the messaging we are giving out when you go send off an abuser at the airport and leave the abused person alone?
  • What is the framework and the perspective we need in approaching these situations? We were talking about forgiveness prematurely when I had not even had the chance to really understand what was going on.
  • I was given feedback on my facial expression by an acquaintance. I looked angry because I was deeply shocked and hurt by the things the ex had said. The Pastor’s wife mentioned to me that the way I talk can be construed by some (not her) as “abusive” even though I neither yelled nor used abusive language. I looked antagonized and spoke in spirited tones.
  • My facial expressions exposed my feelings of shock, hurt and anger, and I was judged for this. It astounds and grieves me that people were showing the abuser compassion and kindness but reserved special judgment for the person who had been abused physically and emotionally. This puts more pressure on me to control my facial expressions even when I feel terrible… like I have to act, and put up a front.
  • The fact that this could even be an issue in the light of the fact that I was victimized shows how skewed the current framework is. This feedback I got from others had a silencing and re-traumatising effect on me and made me turn away from church members and leadership to hotlines like SOS and AWARE instead to get the support I needed. I felt worthless. It took me a while to get back on my feet and start reaching out to people in church again.
  • In RHC, the Pastor’s wife made the biggest difference in all of church to my experience in surviving abuse; she helped me to understand that I wasn’t just physically abused, but also emotionally abused. She empowered me to break free of the gaze and judgment of other church members, by saying “screw them” when I told her how afraid I felt of other people thinking it was my fault for causing the breakdown of the marriage.
  • Honestly though, I feel that the support was still very limited. Instead of asking “what can we do to help?”, why do we not have some kind of support group for survivors of domestic violence? Or people who are going through divorce? Or at least have resources ready to point church members towards people with the right kind of resources? I think everyone in the task force should go for trauma informed training on how to talk to abuse survivors. I would like to note that in the aftermath of my case and other cases in church, RHC has set up an abuse response team who are equipped with a trauma informed approach – this is heartening and I hope other churches will also start adopting trauma informed processes, especially in Pastoral care and handling abuse cases.
  • How can we shape the mindset, values and attitudes of people in church so they don’t default to victim blaming and prescribing easy fixes and pushing “forgiveness” before the full extent of what needs to be forgiven is unearthed? A female church ex-friend I used to trust started talking to me about forgiveness within the first ten minutes of my texting her to tell her what had happened.
  • The Assistant Pastor said that we should talk about forgiveness in the first meeting. That was really putting the cart before the horse and minimizing the amount of pain and danger that I was in. It seems like holding someone accountable in church these days is tantamount to being construed as condemning. In the bible it says, “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful”. Proverbs 27:5. When we fail to confront and hold people accountable for their sin, we are being complicit.
  • How can we talk to the congregation so that we can learn instead how to take the initiative to reach out and show empathy and provide space and support to traumatized and abused individuals instead of conveniently assuming that “they want to be left alone”?
  • How is the current verbiage and conceptual approaches and protocols to violence and abuse within our church gender biased and possibly culpable in building power and privilege, making the church a site of oppression and double-abuse instead of one which brings freedom, hope and healing?
  • The Assistant Pastor recently gave me some feedback based on my interactions with him saying that I was camping out on anger. This made me feel really misunderstood, judged and as if anger is an illegitimate emotion.
  • I’ve read a lot of books on emotional abuse and actually, getting in touch with your anger is important so that you understand what’s triggering you and how to deal with it. I think the church has demonised anger when there is a rightful place for healthy expression of it. Anger is a fuel for working against injustice. We should get angry about injustice so we can take effective and appropriate action against it. I didn’t see any anger in the Assistant Pastor towards the ex for what he did to me. Only empathy and pity.
  • The Assistant Pastor also invoked the “grace” word and said I wasn’t showing him grace just because I gave him feedback. This is what I think: when you provide feedback and someone’s immediate response instead of taking demonstrable steps to repent/change their actions/address the matter is to imply that you are not showing them grace, especially if that person is in a position of authority in church is tantamount to emotional manipulation and spiritual abuse.

Before I end this paper, I would like to say I’m now in a much better place emotionally and mentally and thus have decided to share this piece even though I wrote this almost more than a year ago. 

It is that hard to open up about this because of the fear of reprisals and judgment – something which I have found myself exposed to repeatedly in the aftermath of sharing about my assault with others.

Close friends and many well-meaning folk have inadvertently contributed to more pain by providing their unsolicited advice and airing their judgment behind my back. I have since left these relationships.

If you want to help a trauma survivor

The best thing you can do when you are working with someone who has gone through trauma is to listen empathetically and ask open-ended questions to understand then and help them to share their journey, and provide practical and tangible help e.g. helping out with admin, tech, transport, or other things they may be experiencing trouble with as they go about picking up the fractured pieces of their lives. 

I would like to extend a big thank you to Louise Martin for helping me with editing this piece and for encouraging me to speak up and stand in my truth.

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