What we can do about domestic violence

One in four. One in three. Maybe half. Those are estimates of the proportion of men and women caught up in domestic violence – statistics I recently heard at a panel discussion presented by Harvard Divinity School ("Domestic Violence Panel: Awareness and Engagement in Faith and Non-Faith Communities," Nov. 30, 2006).

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimate that what they call "intimate partner violence" – physical, sexual, or psychological violence between spouses, former spouses, and other couples – affects some 32 million people in the United States. And that's not counting abuse of children and dependent elders – which adds up to huge numbers of people under attack within the very relationships that should be sources of nurturance, trust, comfort, and support.

I left that panel discussion feeling great compassion for the several survivors of abuse who had shared their stories. And I felt gratitude and admiration for all that each had done to redeem their experiences and to prevent others from suffering as they had.

But I also yearned to bring the teachings of Christ Jesus and Christian Science to bear on this difficult subject. When I was a child, my dad sometimes would ask, "What do you know for sure?" He meant it as a lighthearted way of asking about how my day was going. But more recently I've found it a useful framing question for complex and confusing issues like this very topic of "intimate partner violence."

So I asked myself, What do I know for sure? And here's what came to me:

• That Christ Jesus' demand that we love our neighbor as ourselves – one of the two "great commandments" he gave – is the gold standard in human relationships (see Matt. 22:35-40). Reaching that standard is not the work of a moment. But no one is undeserving of such unselfed love, or incapable of giving it. Whatever in our relationships falls short of this standard must ultimately fall away.

• That we need to be clear on, and draw strength from, the difference between the love of God, who is divine Love itself, and human affection. "We love him [God], because he first loved us," the Bible says (I John 4:19). When the love we bring to our human relationships is the overflow of our love in response to God's love, we stand on solid ground. Then we don't get swept up in the tides of variable human moods, character failings, and dangerous misbehavior. Then we're able to love freely, from a position of safety and strength, not emotional neediness.

• That the idea of God as Father-Mother, as including both strength and tenderness, apart from human concepts of gender, can help those seeking a way out of the wilderness of intimate violence. This counters pervasive mental images of God as a remote, forbidding male authority figure forever withholding approval, images that oppress both women and men.

• That Christian Science teaches a view of identity anchored in wholeness. Individual men and women – to whom Mary Baker Eddy referred collectively in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" as "man" – are not to be viewed as fragmentary or incomplete, or as bundles of inappropriate impulsions and frustrated longings, but as whole. This wholeness equips each of us to enter fully and safely into relationships with others.

And as each of us cherishes and elevates our own concept of what friendship, marriage, and family life can and should be, our affirmations will improve the atmosphere of thought in the larger community – and make that Christ-message easier for everyone to hear.

Adapted from the Christian Science Sentinel.

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