Who could ignore the harrowing plight of imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini? As thousands upon thousands have committed to pray for the release of Saeed while Iranian guards tortured and tormented him for planting house churches in Iran, another kind of abuse and torture has lingered below the surface of Abedini’s story.
Just last month Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, who has lead the fight to advocate for his release, revealed that she will suspend her advocacy in order to heal for a season and to seek the Lord’s direction. According to her email to supporters, Nagmeh had been regularly abused by Saeed: physically, verbally, and sexually. Even when separated over thousands of miles, he continued to abuse her verbally.
Evangelicals can’t run fast enough to fight for the release of a pastor from Iran, but we can’t seem to muster much of a response to the abuse of women in our midst. The widespread plight of women living in abusive households remains under the radar while a single male pastor’s torture occupies the bulk of our attention.
According to Focus Ministries, a Christian ministry to victims of domestic violence, one in four Christian women experience domestic violence – a number that is corroborated by a former detective. An estimated 6 million women are in abusive relationships throughout the United States.
Why are evangelicals more likely to pray for and advocate for an imprisoned pastor on the other side of the world while generally neglecting the women who are imprisoned in their own homes in our neighbourhoods? The four reasons that follow are far from comprehensive but may provide a helpful starting point for change.
The Easy Narrative vs the Complex Narrative
Let’s address the most obvious reason for the selective action of evangelicals: the narrative. An easily verified news story about an imprisoned pastor in Iran is much easier to communicate and rally behind than allegations that a husband has been abusing his wife.
Mind you, only two per cent to eight per cent of abuse reports are false, according to some of the most rigorous studies (here and here). So while we have very good reasons to trust that the abuse, if anything, goes underreported (estimates range from 40 per cent to 60 per cent), Christians may struggle to determine a next step for collective action if they aren’t sure about how to verify charges of abuse.
Even if the charges of spousal abuse are verified, it’s still much easier to engage in social media activism than to dig into the long, slow work of education and advocacy for the victims of abuse.
Failure to Understand Abusive Relationships
Abusers don’t just attack the body. They also batter the minds of their victims, convincing them that they are worthless and that they don’t have any other option. Threats of additional violence prompt many women to keep silent.
According to Dr Christy Sim, who is also an abuse survivor, victims often need at least six attempts to leave an abusive relationship. Abusers thrive by leading a double life, showing that things are OK on the outside while maintaining control in secret. Evangelicals may not realise the urgency and depths of this issue because they assume abused women will take the initiative about their abusers. (See also Dr Sim’s Chapter on Divorce in Talking Taboo)
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