The scene is still too familiar: A victim of domestic violence goes to a shelter one night only to be confronted the next day by both her abusive spouse and her pastor.
The husband, said sociologist Barbara Fisher-Townsend, will have gone to the pastor full of repentance, declaring, “I have seen the light.”
Together, the pastor and husband will pressure the woman to return with the hope of saving the family, but often with the outcome of perpetuating a cycle of violence.
Yet it does not have to be that way if faith communities put the safety of women first and challenge rather than enable violent men, Fisher-Townsend and Nancy Nason-Clark of the University of New Brunswick reported in a recent presentation at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Atlanta.
Their study of 1,200 abusive men who sought treatment in two faith-based programs in the northwestern United States found that religious intervention helped men confront the behaviors and attitudes that lead to violence.
The research, which included interviews following 100 men over several years, concluded that religious leaders can be effective in holding men accountable. The study found faith-based intervention also can discredit dangerous theological ideas that abused women must be submissive and provide resources to allow the men to envision a different future.
Perhaps even more than faith and charity, Fisher-Townsend said, what these men need is hope.
Overcoming years of living dangerously
The backgrounds of the abusive men studied showed little hope. Many were beaten or emotionally abused as children by absentee parents. They fell in with peer groups that led them along a path of alcohol and drug abuse.
More than two-thirds of the men had no more than a high school education. More than half had spent time in jail for other offenses. Early marriages and the responsibility of parenthood, with low-paying jobs and a bleak future, contributed to a sense of powerlessness and victimhood.
Violence against their spouse, researchers said, became a way of taking back power, of “being a man.”
To begin to overcome all those years of living dangerously, and to complete a year-long treatment program, many men required religious support, researchers found.
The closed-cased files of the 1,100 abusive men who entered an intervention program over a 10-year period indicate that 240 were mandated by courts to go through the program. Even facing court penalties, only 54 percent of those men completed the program. In contrast, 66 percent of men who voluntarily entered the program with the referral and support of a pastor completed the program. Court-mandated participants who were assisted by a pastor had an even higher completion rate — 84 percent, the researchers said.
A belief in God and a sense of hope in a brighter future was necessary for change for many of the men, Fisher-Townsend said.
“Redemption and recovery were inextricably linked,” she reported at the sociology or religion meeting.
Importance of faith
One advantage of a faith-based program, researchers said, is that it speaks the language of men with a religious background.
A faith-based program can confront men, such as an abuser who admitted stuffing pages of the Bible down his wife’s throat when she protested, with the credibility to disabuse violent men of the notion their actions are somehow sanctioned by God.
There can be no falling back on the idea their wives must submit to them, or that the marriage covenant is unbreakable.
On a more personal level, researchers found the religious community is critical in providing the practical and spiritual support to begin to move violent men from a sense of being victims of a hostile society to a sense of empathy and accountability.
Hope, at least the prospect that tomorrow can be a better day, “is a necessary motivator,” Fisher-Townsend said.
Without hope for a better future, researchers said, many men figure, “Why bother?”
Facing long odds
Researchers studying abusive men get asked a similar question: Why bother with people who commit such barbarous acts?
One answer is that the men are human beings, and deserve an opportunity for rehabilitation.
Researchers said they also keep in mind what the women want.
“These women don’t want the marriage to end. They love these guys,” Fisher-Townsend said. “They want the violence to end.”
Still, such outcomes are unlikely. Few violent men will undergo a radical change, or have a successful reunion with their partner.
What the University of New Brunswick sociologists did find in their research, including focused interviews following 100 men over a five-year period ending in 2009, is that religious intervention can lead to some positive changes.
While their current relationship may be finished, the intervention program, along with continued monitoring by faith leaders, makes the men less likely to become serial batterers. Many also learn parenting skills so relationships with children can continue.
“I believe these programs are successful in influencing the web of connections” in these men’s lives, Nason-Clark said.
In all this work, however, the safety of women must come first, researchers said. Abused women must be separated from violent men.
“My message to religious leaders is, ‘You cannot rewind the tape” on a marriage after abuse has occurred, Nason-Clark said. “The train has already left the station.”
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