‘What Christian is it that beats his wife?’

domestic-violence-infographic1In the last post in this series, I looked at the ways in which pastors preach about intimate partner violence. The examples I examined were, sadly, typical of the rare instances where pastors directly refer to such violence. In this post, however, I will look briefly at a sermon which defies convention by exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and contesting the blaming and pathologizing of victims. Like the previous post, I will rely on Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s (2007) analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, keeping in mind the additional category of ‘appeal to authority’ I suggested. This is by no means an exhaustive look at this particular sermon. I use this space to point out striking discursive features I’d like to explore in more detail elsewhere, focusing on the places in the sermon where the pastor mentions abuse explicitly.

The broader context of this sermon is worth noting before we dive in. When I read the transcription of this sermon, it was quickly apparent how different it is to the other sermons on divorce in the corpus. While many of the other sermons rely heavily on discursive features such as the language of constraint, on language describing how husbands and wives ought to behave, on women receiving action vs. men taking action, etc., this sermon stands apart discursively. Only recently did I look up the pastor and discover that apart from being Reformed Baptist, he is also British. This raises a question I had hoped would emerge from my pilot corpus: In what ways do cultural background and context influence discourse about divorce? I can hardly generalize from one sermon, but I’m intrigued to see this issue already popping up.

Exposing the abuser and their violence

Excerpt 1:

This would be a case which perhaps you’ve heard of, such situations where a Christian couple get married together, whatever, then the husband turns out to be abusing the wife, violent, uncaring in that way, deserting, leaving her, going off and behaving abominably, not following their vows and commitments.

(‘Divorce – Remarriage’)

A few things to note straightaway from this excerpt are, first, that the abuser is in subject position, his actions and attributes directly connected to him. He is violent, he is uncaring, he is deserting, he is behaving abominably. Next, see that the pastor begins with the action ‘abusing’, which is somewhat vague. But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, he goes on to specify what that abuse looks like, including a range of actions, both physical and non-physical. By providing this wide range of abusive behavior, the pastor is defining clearly for his congregation what abuse might look like and exposing abuse as not simply an act of physical violence. And finally, notice that the pastor presents this case using the historic present, which has the effect of bringing this event into the foreground and perhaps, as some have suggested convincingly, demonstrating its current relevance. While the other pastors in the corpus also used the historic present, in this case the abusive acts are not only present but progressive. They are ongoing, they are right now, they could be happening as we speak.

Particularly interesting is the way this pastor shifts from male to female when talking about an abuser, as in the following passage. For this pastor, abusers can be either sex, whereas in nearly every other sermon, men are the abusers.

Excerpt 2:

If a husband, oh, well, we can see it here, if a wife is behaving in an abusive way like bad violence or somewhere rather behaving in a drunken fashion and destroying the home, threatening the children, violence in that respect…

In this passage, we see again some of the same discursive features (historic present, progressive, active voice, etc.) which expose both the abuser and the violence, though the pastor expands the concept of abuse to include only physical violence. This is another issue worth exploring in detail later, in an expanded corpus. In what ways is abuse gendered? What might this mean?

This pastor further assigns blame to the abuser towards the end of the sermon, where he asks a series of rhetorical questions, identifying the abuser with an unbeliever, someone who is to be treated like a ‘heathen and a tax collector’.

Excerpt 3:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God? So they placed themselves there effectively as an unbeliever…

The Victim Isn’t to Blame

Some sermon excerpts also have the effect of challenging anyone who might be tempted to blame the victim of abuse. First of all, notice the verb ‘turns out’ in Excerpt 1 (‘the husband turns out to be abusing his wife.’). Consider in what contexts it is most frequently used. The picture here is not of a woman who knowingly married an abusive man and so was somehow partly to blame for her victimization. ‘Turns out’ indicates the unexpected, the unpredictable.

Also telling is this pastor’s version of evaluative ‘oh’ and the way he combines this with an appeal to authority, both of which you may recall from my previous post. Evaluative ‘oh’ was used with some regularity in the corpus to introduce and cast doubt on invented quotes from victims of abuse and those who might support them. See if you can spot the difference in how this pastor makes use of invented reported speech in Excerpt 4.

Excerpt 4:

What happens then? Is the counsel this? Well, sorry, you’re married, you’re a Christian, he is a Christian, she is a Christian… you have to stay together. Well, actually the situation is far more complex than that.

I suggest that the ‘well’ here functions as an evaluative ‘oh’ and indicates negative evaluation of the uncaring adviser, again unlike the other sermons. This interpretation of ‘well’ is confirmed elsewhere in the same sermon, as in the following:

But the Pharisees were not so interested in that. They were rather interested in only certificates that you could sign. Husbands there could say, Well, I detest my wife now, got fed up with her, don’t like her another… And the Lord’s saying, no, not at all.

The implication is that the deserter is the guilty party, and the appeal to authority which follows (‘the Lord’s saying’, a version of ‘Thus saith the Lord’) further condemns him rather than condemning the victim, in contrast with the other sermons.

Still more to say…

This sermon is by no means faultless in its depiction of an abusive marriage and its implications for divorce. Questions remain regarding the aforementioned gendering of violence, and particularly troubling is another point I didn’t explore here: the pastor’s eventual recommendation that the victim use the Matthew 18 principle as a first step to dealing with violence. However, this sermon is one of the only sermons in the corpus in which the pastor explicitly refers to abuse whilst exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and cautioning against victim-blaming. Considering the statistics regarding intimate partner violence, it is highly likely that a victim of violence sat in the pews when each of the sermons we have looked at was originally preached, not to mention the many who have since downloaded one or more from Sermon Audio. As someone committed to the protection of such victims, I know which pew I would prefer to sit in, given the choices so far.

I have only scratched the surface with regard to the discourse of divorce. If you are interested in hearing more, please consider attending the inaugural Lydia Symposium, where I will present my findings in much more detail and where we can discuss these matters in person. And with a glass of wine in hand even!

Image from the Institute of Health