Historically, the black church has been the rock of the black community, a place of refuge where important issues are addressed. But domestic violence has long been left off the agenda, ignored in a largely patriarchal system, even justified by scripture.
Now that one of the nation’s most visible female evangelists has taken up the mantle of domestic violence, the black church has an opportunity to do something it has been criticized for not doing before: speak out on the issue and figure out how to help.
With the rates of nonfatal intimate partner violence on the rise among black females, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the need could not be more urgent.
“It used to be that many ministers would say, ‘Go home and pray for them,’ said Oliver Joseph Williams, executive director for the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community at the University of Minnesota.
“They’d tell her, ‘Go back and be a good woman, be nice and make peace with him,’ rather than saying, ‘You deserve to be in a safe place. What he’s doing is absolutely wrong'” Williams said.
Atlanta-based televangelist Juanita Bynum is one of the country’s most popular female ministers, who has turned her national and international following into a multimillion dollar business.
She has gone public with allegations of domestic violence against her husband, minister Thomas W. Weeks III, who faces charges of aggravated assault and making terroristic threats.
Bynum accused Weeks of choking, kicking and stomping her in a hotel parking lot on Aug. 21 after the couple failed to reconcile their five-year marriage. The 48-year-old has said she intends to file for divorce and plans to draft federal legislation pushing for tougher punishments for abusers.
According to a report titled “Intimate Partner Violence in the United States” released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, while the rates of nonfatal intimate partner violence decreased for black females between 1990 and 2003, the rate increased from 3.8 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 2003 to 6.6 per 1,000 in 2004. Black females are victimized at a higher rate than white females, and black females report such incidents at a higher rate than white females _ 68.4 percent compared to 53.5 percent.
Those who did not report the abuse chose not to do so were because they regarded the incidents as a private matter, were afraid of reprisal, or were trying to protect the offender.
For many black women who choose to seek help in the black community, experts say that the black church _ instead of a shelter or hotline _ may be their first stop. But women are not always met with the help they need, said Sherry Turner, vice president of student affairs at Spelman College and an ordained minister.
“Very often, for those of us who are members of conservative communities of faith, there are sacred texts and passages that are being used to justify the oppression of women,” Turner said, speaking at a forum on domestic violence and religious institutions held recently at the historically black women’s college.
One of the most popular examples of such texts is in the Bible’s book of Ephesians, said Williams. The verses read: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Williams said the passage is taken out of context, using the Bible to show that the man is the head of the household.
“People can read in male dominance,” he said.
Cynthia Spence, a Spelman professor of sociology who also spoke at the forum, said the church must have a role, since religion often helps people identify right and wrong behavior.
“The challenge that we have is that persons holding positions within the pulpit will be very selective in what they share with their congregation,” Spence said. “And some women will use religion to help explain away their situations of oppression.”
But domestic violence is not a woman’s “cross to bear,” Spence said.
“‘Praying over it’ is not going to necessarily change the disposition of that man,” she said. “‘Praying over it’ is not going to automatically change an unhealthy relationship to a healthy one.”
The Rev. T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House in Dallas, Tex., wrote a statement condemning domestic violence in the wake of the Bynum-Weeks incident, which he called “a teaching opportunity.”
“The church is the place where people can find redemption even when they have made bad choices or been victims by those who did,” Jakes wrote, but said that the church must do more than offer a place of refuge.
“We must be prepared to get the victim out of harm’s way even while we are working for a solution,” he wrote. “However, what the Church cannot do is to say to the victim, ‘Go home and believe that God will make things better.’ Or lead them in prayer and leave them in danger.”