by Amelia Schwarze
I suffer from ‘mouse and lion’ syndrome. I’m good at telling those close to me about how someone else has wounded, insulted or upset me, but much less able to express that emotion directly to the person I am upset with.
Many Christians have taught that “turning the other cheek” in the Bible means we are always supposed to respond as mice in the face of wrongdoing. But part of the nuanced wisdom of the Bible is giving us an appropriate response to conflict in differing situations, from small disagreements to serious issues like domestic abuse, where a touch of lion may sometimes be more helpful. In our meekness, we have underestimated the trauma and damage that comes from continual silence in the face of abuse, and in doing so have allowed its impact to be played out across generations.
John Chrysostom, one of our early church fathers, did not shy away from calling out early Christians who deviated from Christ’s standards: he said it was the abuser’s responsibility to sort out their own attitudes and behavior. He described how malice and bitterness can fester into verbal and physical violence, and encouraged believers to deal with harmful attitudes before they escalate into damaging words and behaviors.
The apostle Paul agrees. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice,” he writes in Ephesians 4:31: . Brawling, slander, and reviling are all New Testament words for verbal abuse, and Paul warns that such unrighteousness will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). What’s more, Paul exhorts us not to associate with those who claim to be Christian, and who are habitually verbally abusive. With such revilers we ‘should not even eat’ (1 Corinthians 5:11).
In my work with Christian women, Scripture’s strongly worded teachings are too often ignored by those who encourage women to endure abusive marriages for as long as possible, which can be profoundly damaging to the abuser, the victim, and any children of the marriage. While a wise response to momentary violence might be to turn the other cheek, this does not suggest we must remain in that situation. After all, Jesus had no problem commanding the Judeans to “flee to the mountains” when exposed to danger (Matthew 24:16). Proverbs tells us not to associate with the habitually violent, lest it change our character:
“Do not make friends with an angry man, and don’t be a companion of a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25).
Psychiatric and family violence research supports the wisdom of fleeing prolonged exposure to violence, as it has psychological effects that are difficult to undo, particularly for children. The increased rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rates among women experiencing abuse and other disorders generated in children growing up in abusive households can have devastating effects on women and their children’s ability to cope with relationships. Children exposed to domestic abuse, even if they are ‘just’ witnessing it, are at an increased risk of becoming either future abuse victims or abusers themselves in later life.
Christians have long taught that marriage is a good thing, and should be worked at to be maintained even at cost to ourselves. This is absolutely true. However, if we unnaturally prioritize that truth above another— the command to flee habitual sinners—we perpetuate the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next. Both the multilayered wisdom of the bible and psychological research agree that sometimes, staying put and staying silent like mice aren’t the right response.
Don’t get me wrong: godly marriage is a gift, one that requires regular work. But when one violates the safety of marriage through repeated abuse, the commitment to love is broken, requiring difficult yet essential choices for change.
Instead of being mice about this issue in public I believe we need to, with wisdom, start being lions. We need to talk about how we can stop the traumatic impact of domestic abuse being played out on our children and our children’s children. The choices we make now, as individuals and as communities of Christians could, over the next two generations, make the church a much safer place. A place where abuse is acknowledged, is talked about, and where those victims who make the godly choice to flee and seek safety are thoroughly supported and encouraged in those choices. And what a blessing to the Kingdom of God that will be.
Amelia Schwarze is a part of the mercy and justice team at Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney, Australia. She regularly researches and writes about domestic violence within the church.