Imagine waking up at 2am and hearing a commotion in your neighborhood. You look out of the window and see a police car, with flashing lights, a few houses down the block. Knowing the neighbors well you throw on a sweatshirt and flip flops and walk to see what is happening.
Your neighbor, Bob, is standing outside the police cruiser. His hair is a mess, his clothes disheveled, hands behind his back in cuffs, he smells like alcohol, and he has lipstick on his shirt collar. You observe the house and his wife, Karen, has thrown a suitcase with clothes out of the window. Clothes are scattered on the lawn, children are looking out of the window crying, Karen is screaming, “Get the hell out and don’t come back.” Bob is crying, in his drunken stupor, “Give me another chance, she means nothing to me. I have no place to go.” Suddenly the officers put him in the car and drive away. Neighbors who have gathered return home.
The next morning what happens?
- Do people go to Karen and say, “Finally, you made the right choice?”
- Do people go to Karen and offer support, love, and encouragement?
- Do people go about their business and pretend it didn’t happen? Karen and the kids sneak about the neighborhood in shame and silence.
- Do people go visit Bob and tell him he was treated unfairly?
- Does anyone go to Karen and tell her she should be more forgiving?
This is the story of Yahweh and the nations of Israel and Judah.
Who is willing to confront God for this?
Yet people have no problem confronting Karen for her choice.
Why—because some people believe that divorce is not an option. Some people believe that once married—we have to put up with all behavior. Some people believe that “I’m sorry,” should be good enough for offenders to say in order to maintain a relationship.
As we continue with this series on Intimate Partner Violence, a second issue that survivors face involves their marriage. Statistics suggest that those in abusive/controlling relationships who leave their partner become at risk for further lethal violence. Those “living with” or dating their abusive partner are at less risk than those married to their abuser. One study indicated that those married who leave were seventy-five times more likely to be murdered.
Somehow, the abuser views the marriage as a form of ownership. Likewise many of the abuse victims whom we’ve helped feel owned, trapped, and sentenced to a life of slavery.
When Did Marriage Become and Institution of Slavery?
Marriage, like any relationship, is meant to be a vibrant relationship where love, peace, safety, repentance, forgiveness, and trust exist. In fact Sells and Yarhouse suggest that “trust” is one of the most important indicators of a healthy relationship. This is important in a society/culture that struggles to understand “love.” However, we all understand what it means to “trust” and to be “trustworthy.” Marriage, therefore, is a relationship where trust exists.
Marriage, as any relationship, involves more than one person. Each person not only trusts the others, but is trustworthy in their relationship with others.
You Didn’t Answer the Question. When Did Marriage Become an Institution of Slavery?
Actually, marriage has been understood as a beautiful, loving, trusting, caring relationship. No one intends to marry their partner with the intent of a lifetime of servitude. Many marriages involve parties, receptions, dances, travel, religious services, love, and intimacy. In most cases there are smiles, giggles, laughing, photography or videography, and a feeling of joy. They are celebrations of something believed to be beautiful, ancient, and enduring.
However, Divorce is not such a happy event. Yet divorce was originally offered as a way to protect a person who is not treated well in the marriage. It validated the one betrayed by the partner, who was to love, honor, be sexually faithful, and cherish them forever. Someone broke the joyful bond of trust, love, and faithfulness—therefore divorce became the right of the offended party. Like the covenant with God, the offended party had the option to end the relationship.
Yes—Yahweh God divorced the spouse/nation for disobedience (Jer. 3:8). While God forgives sin, sometimes sin becomes so rampant, that sin destroys the beautiful relationship between God and humans. Even more, when those who continue to sin and refuse to repent, make amends, or change their ways they force God to end the relationship. Why? Because covenants, relationships, marriages are not institutions which enslave God or spouses. Sin, dysfunction, and unrepentant behavior end the relationship, not the victim in a relationship filing for divorce. Divorce was meant to protect those hurt in relationship and testify to others that marriages are supposed to be healthy and loving relationships.
Over time Divorce became stigmatized. It suggested, to some, “a failed relationship.”
Then Divorce became the scapegoat for our country’s problems. Divorce was incorrectly partnered with “quick,” “no frills,” “easy,” or “selfish” to suggest that people only wanted an “easy way out.”
So, divorce became the culprit of all our social ills. Kids in “single parent homes” were doomed to suffer. Divorce was blamed as “the most traumatic event” in a child’s life. Those who were divorced, typically females, were excluded from taking communion, serving in ministry positions, assumed to live in poverty and at risk situations, and blamed for the “failure” of their relationships.
Christian communities responded. Rather than suggesting that marriages are “relationships to be enhanced” they believed that marriages are “institutions to preserve.” “No Divorce,” “Divorce Proofing Marriages,” “Assault on Divorce,” or “Reconciliation at All Costs,” became the battle cry of many faith based marriage ministries.
Victims of Intimate Partner Violence suffered due to this. The problem wasn’t the abuse, it was their willingness to walk away from their partner. So, like so many strong believing Christians, they stayed in the marriage. Clergy held up those who “endured years of struggle to stay married,” without discussing the damage the offender brought to the emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual health of the spouse, children, and extended family. Pastors followed victims who left and reminded them that “the only cause for divorce was sexual unfaithfulness” (and even that is questioned). Abusive partners reminded their spouses that they had to stay, they had to forgive, and that they (the victim) determined the future of the marriage. Abusive partners reminded their victims, during every sermon on marriage, that God did not approve of divorce. Victims who left felt shunned by their churches since “you are committing the unforgivable sin because you won’t give him another chance.”
No one was willing to admit that the very act that offered her hope for peace, safety, and protection had been taken off her table of options that would free her to walk with God.
No one blamed the abuser’s behavior or claimed that IPV destroyed the marriage.
Even more, no one was willing to admit that Yahweh God had been a divorcee!
God Was Victimized
The prophetic texts seem, in many cases, to be the story of a violent and turbulent relationship between God and a nation. The story repeats often. People violate the covenant, God is hurt, the prophet confronts the people (like a good therapist), then advocates for the people. Malachi is one prophetic story where this occurs. Throughout the book Yahweh claims that they violated the covenant/relationship, did not honor their Lord, and then shrugged it off—assuming Yahweh would “get over it.” Yahweh had had enough—they were abusive, manipulative, and uncaring. So, Yahweh, like so many victims in a relationship, had put up with too much.
“I hate divorce,” says Yahweh, the God of Israel, “and the one who covers his garment with violence…”Malachi 2:16.
The very text used to keep women in abusive relationships (God hates divorce, therefore you can’t leave) actually has power to support and connect them to their God. Their God, like them, had come to a crossroads. Their God, like them, had taken enough. Their God, like them, didn’t want to divorce—but would not tolerate violence, abuse, dishonor, broken trust/promises, and neglect. Their God, like them, was willing to walk—because the offender had “broken faith” and ended the relationship.
Helping Our Neighbor
While sacred texts and faith communities have been blamed for supporting hatred, abuse, and neglecting to protect victims—they do have the power to heal and guide families to a closer walk with God.
First, marriage is a healthy relationship. Faith community leaders need to model healthy relationships and help members develop healthy, loving, and safe relationships. These relationships involve trust, loyalty, love, respect, peace, and safety. Abusive and controlling behavior violates the marriage bond because it violates trust, respect, love, peace, and safety. Our focus should be on healthy relationships and helping couples foster trust, respect, safety, and love.
Second, divorce is not “sin.” It is, many times, an attempt to establish peace and safety for individuals. Divorce happens because dysfunction and sin so damage relationships that they have no choice but to dissolve. Those who have divorced need support, love, and acceptance. Those who have caused divorce need love, support, acceptance, and to be held accountable. They must make amends to those they have hurt so that all members of the family can heal.
Finally, God doesn’t hate those who divorce. God was divorced. God was reluctant to divorce and offered grace and forgiveness. However, God chose not to allow continued abuse, neglect, and rejection. Those who have had the courage to leave a relationship need to know that God understands their experiences and is available to them to guide, heal, and love.
Marriage was never intended to be a form of “slavery.”
Divorce was a way out of slavery, not the source of all our public problems.
Marriage is a relationship to be enhanced not an institution to be preserved.