Clerical Discourse Surrounding Intimate Partner Violence (Part 1)

woman abuseIntroduction

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on an in-progress project on the topic of conservative Christian discourse about and response to intimate partner violence. This project, funded by a Faculty Small Grant from the University of Sheffield, is informed by existing research on the religious response to intimate partner violence and founded on theoretical and methodological principles derived from corpus linguistics (CL) and critical discourse analysis (CDA). My data will be drawn primarily from the 25-30 most popular (most frequently downloaded) sermons on divorce from SermonAudio, ‘the largest and most trusted library of audio sermons from conservative churches and ministries worldwide’, which hosts, for free, over 1 million audio files of sermons which are freely accessible (Sermon Audio, n.d.). Eventually, I will supplement the resulting small sermon corpus (collection of texts) with personal accounts of clerical response to abuse from survivors of intimate partner violence within the Reformed Christian community. Findings from multiple data types will be cross-compared and patterns identified and explained via discussion of socio-historical/theological conditions within which the discourse was created (Fairclough, 2013). Research questions include:

  • In this community, in what contexts is divorce permissible?
  • How are wives’ and husbands’ actions in divorce framed in clerical discourse, i.e. how are wives/husbands given or denied agency?

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence is ‘physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse’ (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Among the most vulnerable survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the USA are religious women (Nason-Clark, 2004), many of whose communities espouse a patriarchal form of domination in marriage and stress preserving marriage at all costs. Research on IPV in religious communities has historically focused on interviews with and questionnaires and/or surveys from female survivors (statistically the most frequently victimized), perpetrators, and those who counsel them (Levitt & Ware, 2006b; Nash & Hesterberg, 2009). These studies provide valuable statistics and rich, powerful accounts of IPV but neglect the wider perspective arising from triangulation with other data such as sermons, articles, blogs or other texts produced within religious communities. Research which gives voice to IPV stories whilst also uncovering the wider patterns of discourse which either work against or aid in raising awareness about IPV and empowering victims in religious communities is urgently needed. Indeed, overwhelming evidence exists, both anecdotal and systematic, of the growing on- and offline presence of influential patriarchal voices which empower abusers and send clear messages to women that they should stay in abusive relationships rather than seek separation and/or divorce (Pyles, 2007).

Existing Research

Research on clerical involvement in IPV has produced often conflicting findings revealing a range of attitudes and approaches but has consistently shown that many clerics are ‘conflicted about actions, such as separation or divorce, which they deem threatening to the sanctity of marriage’ (Shannon-Lewy & Dull, 2005: 648-649). Existing research has tended to rely either on:

  • large-scale surveys (Alsdurf & Alsdurf, 1988; Bowker, 1988; Wood & McHugh, 1994; Rotunda, Williamson & Penfold, 2004; Choi, 2015),
  • interviews with leaders from one or more religious communities (Horne & Levitt, 2004; Levitt & Ware, 2006a; 2006b; Moon & Shim, 2010),
  • a combination of survey and interview (Nason-Clark et al., 2010) or,
  • in a few instances, interviews with IPV agencies about the role of church support in IPV cases (Pyles, 2007).

While these studies have revealed much about how the clergy describe their response to IPV, I am unable to identify any study which looks at the extent to which this self-reported data is consistent with clerical discourse, such as sermons, about IPV produced within and for the religious community itself.

Research Design

The growing impetus of corpus linguistics (CL) methods (the study of language using samples of authentic text) has revolutionized all areas of modern linguistics and provided opportunities for quantitative/qualitative research in the exploration of language communities worldwide. Given the increasing dependence of religious organizations on online presence via blogs, news sites, and sermon libraries such as SermonAudio (Cheong et al., 2009), CL offers an effective means of examining patterns within the public discourse about IPV among prominent RPC church leaders.

Likewise useful to exploring discursive patterns is the framework of critical discourse analysis (CDA), which relies on the understanding that ‘public discourse often serves the interests of powerful forces over those of the less privileged’ (Huckin, 2002: 158-159) and that language choices facilitate and even constitute these exercises of power. While few, if any, studies exist which apply principles of CDA to religious leader response to IPV, relevant research includes analysis of political discourse on violence against women (see Berns, 2001; Vives-Cases & La Parra Casado, 2008) which examines discursive strategies obscuring IPV.

In this project, analysis will involve close reading of texts and linguistic analysis, aided by a corpus tool, relying on concepts derived from CDA, starting with features that demonstrate agency, such as transitivity, i.e. who is doing what to whom (Fairclough, 1989), and classification, i.e. the naming and labelling of wives and husbands and their actions via language such as noun phrases, modifiers, and complements (Lakoff, 1990). However, close reading will drive choice of features. Future posts will explore and explain these in greater detail.

Sermons are only part of the picture that the church paints for someone who is facing IPV. Ultimately, this project, in the long-term, aims to describe this picture more fully, capturing the various places where IPV survivors encounter the conservative Christian church’s discourse about and response to IPV as well as divorce more broadly. In this first stage, I focus on one part of the picture, displayed in the language used by church leaders in public-facing, online discourse in the form of sermons and in the counsel/response they offer, as reported by survivors. This first step will aid in the identification of discursive features to facilitate a larger-scale study on religious leader discourse about and response to IPV and its connection to a theology of divorce and of women. In future posts, I hope, step by step, to explain in detail the stages of this project as well as its findings.

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