Everyone in the congregation I grew up in had to know what it meant when my mother arrived Sunday mornings with extra foundation on her face. Or when she wore long sleeves during the hot summer despite the lack of air-conditioning in the church.
The extra makeup was to cover the bruises around her eyes and along her jawline. The long sleeves were to cover the finger prints gouged into the flesh of her arms.
They had to know, because I clearly remember as a boy noticing similar signs in the sisters who would occasionally limp into the church or wince as they took their seats. We all knew that intimate partner violence was happening, but it was never addressed – a topic deemed inappropriate for a house of worship. Too private for public preaching and confrontation.
It has become a common trope in the mainline Protestant church to talk of making our congregations less comfortable – to embrace the challenge of the Gospel message often in opposition to prevailing structures of what is socially acceptable. The United Church of Christ, in particular, prides itself on speaking to the controversial and the taboo. Discomfort allows us to push the boundaries of theology and convert worship into a transformative practice.
But when was the last time you heard intimate partner violence, sexual assault, or child abuse addressed from the pulpit of your church? Once a year? Twice maybe? Never?
What is the content of the love that we preach so easily? What does it mean when that love is perverted by pain? What does it mean when we testify to a God of love, when love is a source of hurt to so many people?
The pastoral often conflicts with the need to preach truth and demand change. We would not want to have a parishioner terrified that their pain will made public through denunciation, but churches are places where we confront trauma. We must be careful not to contribute to the culture of silence surrounding the most personal forms of violence.
UCC preachers are skilled in speaking truth to power, but we must become equally dedicated to crying out into the void created by pain.
Jesus announced his mission when he said, quoting Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19).” Intimate partner violence creates people held captive to false understandings of love.
And when we conceive of those that are oppressed, we can not only mean those oppressed by hegemonic structures of power. Nothing it more oppressive than the silence in service of a culture of abuse. We are all created to be free – to live openly into our full selves.
We all know that it is happening. As followers of Jesus as the Christ, what are we meant to do about it?
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.