When Churches Listen to Victims of Domestic Violence
It is a horrific scene. Hagar and her young son Ishmael stagger off into the desert. Abraham is there, standing in the doorway of their home. We want him to intervene. To stop them. But he just stands there, pointing out beyond them toward danger, insecurity, and homelessness.
Have you ever read what follows in Genesis 21? As a parent it is crippling to read. The water in their pouch dries up. Ishmael grows weaker. They wander in the desert, the text says. No place to go. No way to get there if there was.
They just wander.
When Ishmael collapses, Hagar takes her son and places him in the cool shade of a little scrub bush. She huddles a short distance away, unable bear what will come next. Can you imagine that kind of hopelessness?
What is worse is that this is not the first time Hagar has found herself in this situation. Sadly, she is the prototypical abused woman. Taken as a young girl from Egypt. Forced to become a slave. Given to an older man. As a teenager she becomes pregnant. And just when she thinks she’s finally going to be safe, Sarai—who gave her to Abraham in the first place—turns jealous and dangerous in Genesis 16. With no other choice, Hagar runs into the desert the first time, pregnant and afraid.
She remembers that now, as she lays her grown boy under that scrub bush. Years of abuse playing on repeat in her mind. But God intervenes. Like he did before. Both times, God hears them. That’s why she names the boy Ishmael—God hears.
We want to ask a lot of questions of this story, but maybe most important is this: why was God listening to Hagar?
The question is particularly relevant when we think about the many women who live in danger of violence and homelessness today.
I encountered one such woman recently.
Her husband of twelve years was abusive throughout. One night she was forced to grab her two daughters, get into her car, and drive with no place to go.
When she went to a grocery store to buy formula for their youngest daughter, her card was declined. Her husband had emptied her account.
But, like she told me when I met her, God heard her prayers. She and her daughters are now residents in a special program funded by area churches.
Why does God listen to women like Hagar and my friend? And why should the church do the same?
In Mark 12:38-40 Jesus reminds of us of God’s concern for women and children in danger.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
This is an obscure passage, but boils down to a sad truth. Jesus saw that abuse against women and children was infiltrating the religious world (as it does today). Scribes—trusted with the protection of vulnerable women and their children—would steal from them. Misuse their estate. Kick them out on the street. He uses the word devour. It’s a violent thing. A greedy thing.
“They devour widows’ houses,” he says.
Jesus is so troubled by this—and we might say God is so troubled by this—that he says these people will receive greater condemnation. The people who push women and their children over the edge of insecurity and into homelessness and worse, will pay for it.
And so, on the flipside, we understand why James says what he does. Do you remember?
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
In other words, the way to honor God well—religion—is to take care of the vulnerable people God is listening closely to. If their abusers operate by violence and greed, “devouring widow’s homes,” we do the opposite—nonviolent generosity. If these women and children face instability and homelessness, we give them the opposite—a stable home. Because they are distressed, we who are not should give them a way out. We hear them, because unlike so many others in their life, we are listening to them.
Why are we listening to them? Because God is. And always has been. Just ask Hagar. Or if that seems too hard, you could just ask my new friend.
To learn more about how Agape, a powerful ministry (originating among churches of Christ) in Memphis, is providing housing and safety to distressed mothers, visit http://www.agapemeanslove.org