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Following the ABC’s investigation on the issue, family violence dynamics within religious communities has been the focus of much public discussion. Working as a family violence counsellor, speaking daily with hundreds of men who use a range of abusive behaviours toward partners and family members, I’ve seen some distinct parallels between the clients I work with and the experiences of women who have endured family violence within the church. Likewise, the variety of responses from faith leaders on the issues reflects how those in leadership positions contribute to the culture of how their community addresses family violence, consciously or otherwise. While there have been unfortunate examples of how the church can perpetuate and collude with abusive behaviours, there has also been shining examples of leadership from faith leaders that show how we can all play a role in addressing family violence individually, structurally and culturally.

A perfect storm of entitlement

A common theme I hear when speaking with many men, who use abusive behaviour toward their partner or family members, is an underlying sense of entitlement to behave this way. I work with men who want to change their use of abusive behaviours, but this can be a challenging when there are often competing narratives in the man’s life that are inviting him to feel justified, excused or validated by his use of violence, power and control. When working with men who use family violence I frequently hear adopted narratives about being ‘the man of the house’; that it’s their role to ‘protect’ their partner, to do paid work and ultimately be in control of family decision making and finances. It’s even easier to see how these beliefs and attitudes inform a sense of entitlement when we flip these assumptions on their head; they imply their partner can’t protect themselves, should do unpaid work, and is ultimately not in control of family decisions. Consciously or not, when such beliefs and values underpin gender roles, and ways of behaving, abusive and controlling behaviour goes unnoticed; it’s his ‘normal’. Beliefs around gender roles in relationships are taught and reinforced by many aspects of our cultures and social contexts, and for religious people, the church is a major influence in this.

Where religion and gender intersect

Working as a family violence counsellor, it quickly becomes evident that family violence exists across all socioeconomic demographics, ethnicities and religions. It exists in all of our communities. While family violence is not specific or exclusive to religious contexts, the church can certainly be an avenue for influencing gendered imbalances of power in relationships, as well as an excuse drawn on to justify abuse within them. The relevance of organised religion to the broader population is a separate discussion to the fact that, for a portion of the population, specific churches and faith leaders hold enormous influence on their beliefs, relationships and lives. Consciously or not, those in leadership and influential positions, such as church leaders, influence how family violence is acknowledged and addressed within their communities. As reported by the ABC, faith leaders can potentially reinforce gendered norms that contribute to imbalances of power in relationships that lead to family violence being used. Faith leaders can potentially collude with violence supportive narratives of men who use abusive, controlling behaviour toward their partner and/or family. They can be dismissive or isolating in their responses to those disclosing they have experienced abuse. They can perpetuate family violence by failing to address it at all, or by framing discussions about its existence within the church as an attack on the church itself.

The church as an agent of change

In stark contrast, the responses of Anglican Priest, Michael Jensen, and religious leader/researcher, Steven Tracy, demonstrate leadership in addressing family violence within their communities and working toward change. In his commentary on the ABC’s article on family violence within the church, Steven Tracey summed it up beautifully when he said “God help us if we cry ‘persecution’ if we are held accountable for our hurtful failures.” It suggests they are acknowledging the existence of family violence within their communities and listening to those impacted by it. That they are putting aside their own defensiveness, taking responsibility for their position of influence to hear and address these issues not only with individual community members, but structurally within their church and it’s cultural influences over beliefs that contribute to gender inequity. That they show a willingness to be vulnerable, to challenge their own attitudes, to be open to acknowledge mistakes they have made. That they are striving to understand how to be part of the solution, not further contribute to the problem. That they are showing leadership on how to address an issue that impacts us all. Religious, secular or otherwise, these examples of leadership are ones that we can all draw from.