Trigger warnings for sexual abuse/incest.
In “The Cross and Male Violence,” James Poling argues that patriarchal narratives of the crucifixion provide a kind of script for abusive relationships between men and women in Christian contexts, in which male abusers can take on a godlike role (all-powerful, all-knowing, to be obeyed), and female victims of abuse can play a Christlike role (obedient, subservient, suffering without complaint). He cites Christianity and Incest, Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker’s study of incest in Christian homes, in which female survivors of incest recounted how their religious upbringing led them to believe that being a good Christian meant they had to be resigned to their abuse and not speak out about it:
You must love your neighbor. Not much attention was paid to standing up for yourself (Ellen). You must always be the first to forgive and you must do so seventy times seventy times (Judith). You must always serve, serve God. Sexuality before and outside of marriage is bad (Margaret). faith and standing up for yourself are conflicting concepts (Theresa). You must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, musn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, musn’t be your own person with your own ego (Amy). (Imbens and Jonker, 271)
Escaping the cycle of abuse is difficult in general, not just under Christian patriarchy. However, Christian patriarchy explicitly labels suffering in silence as a virtuous emulation of Christ. Further, it teaches that Christians must forgive anyone who sins against them – even that survivors of abuse must forgive their abusers. Covering up or keeping silent about abuse is cast becomes righteous behavior, even a spiritual obligation. Victims of abuse are taught to be more concerned about their abusers and how they respond to them than about their own welfare. They learn that they are obligated to treat their abusers with love, kindness, and forgiveness, no matter what, without expecting or demanding any change in behavior, much less love or kindness in return. This adds an additional spiritual and psychological impediment to speaking out about one’s abuse, and creates an environment that fosters enabling or dismissive responses to abuse. Add in patriarchal teachings about men’s right to lead and women’s obligation to submit, and you have a culture that creates situations in which male violence against women is more likely to occur, more likely to be overlooked, enabled, or justified, and thus more likely to become an entrenched feature of church and family life.
The quotes below from Christianity and Incest (which I found here) explain further how theologies of male dominance and female submission in church, marriage, and family structures are intimately linked with male abuse of female partners and children in patriarchal Christian contexts:
Their Christian upbringing made these girls easy prey. Offenders used Bible passages or church-authorized texts in order to be able to abuse girls and to keep them quiet about it. Mothers were powerless to do anything about it. They were subservient to their husbands in everything, as was and still is requested of women marrying in Christian churches. (page xvi)
“In all of the interviews, the Mother is psychologically or physically abused by the father.” (page 121)
About the offender: “Father thinks boys are more important. He says so: “Good men father sons,” or he shows it in his attitude.” (page 123)
The girls try to keep their rapists away from them in every way possible. Screaming, yelling, or crying make little impression or are labeled “rebelling against Father,” for which forgiveness from God are required (Nell). ” (pages 127 – 128)
“Religion forces women to forgive their rapists, although those rapists have not asked for forgiveness. They are commanded to love their enemies. Moreover, Christian churches stress the love on one’s fellow human being so heavily that the words “as thyself” following “love thy neighbor” have very little meaning for these women.” (page 141)
“God the Father wants only the best for her. He is Almighty and merciful. When something happens to her and she wants it to stop, she must pray hard.” (page 141)
This to me is perhaps the most telling and tragic point, because it drives at the fundamental issue underlying all of these teachings that enable abuse in Christian homes: “Not one incest survivor had learned that it was important to love yourself as well.” (page 238) In other words, these women had not been taught that they were worthy of love – not from themselves, nor from any one else. Christian patriarchy teaches the exactly opposite – that we’re all completely unworthy of love, and that God loves us despite this. And if their churches are anything like the ones I grew up in, they were probably taught that it was sinful to believe they deserved to be treated with basic human dignity.