The recent appalling massacre in a church in Sutherland Springs in Texas conforms to a tragically familiar pattern. A man goes on the rampage with a powerful weapon and kills 26 innocents including an unborn child. The individual concerned, like many before him guilty of similar atrocities, had been a woman batterer. Mass killers have nearly always previously practised their violence on those around them at home. This common thread of domestic violence seems to link most of the recent mass killers we have seen recently. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice killer and Dylann Roof the Charleston killer had both been involved with violence at home. Whatever ideological tag is placed on these and other killings, a history of irrational and blind rage against women seems to be a common thread behind most, if not all, of these appalling acts of violence.
It has not gone unnoticed that conservative churches are places which appear to tolerate, if not encourage, an attitude that places men in a place of power over women. While we would hope that most church going men would internalise the prior command to love and respect the women and children of their family, there are others who hear a different message. Particularly on the edges of the church there are men who hear and act out biblical texts which seem to allow them to overawe and dominate their womenfolk. Two passages from the New Testament stand out. These both appear to justify potentially oppressive behaviour on the part of a man towards his wife. The first is the passage from Ephesians 5. It states that wives should submit to their husbands. The fact that the passage goes on to speak about the importance of mutuality with in the marriage relationship is often ignored. The other classic text which has caused much grief to Christian women over the centuries is from 1 Timothy 2. 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man;’
These two texts, however we interpret them, look back to a commonly accepted notion in the ancient world that a women’s nature was inferior to that of men. Aristotle thought that women were natural slaves. Like slaves, it was their nature to be obedient. The traditions of scholastic theology followed these ideas of Aristotle rather than Jesus when it came to assessing the role and status of women in mediaeval society. Thomas Aquinas typically believed that women were in some way defective. So, the order of nature as created by God decreed that she should be subjugated. Also, a woman can never represent Christ or be ordained.
The Reformation in the 16th century did little to improve the lot of women in the church. Both Luther and Calvin repeated the traditions of the previous centuries which saw women firmly bound to the home and subject to the law of their husband’s will. Any woman in who challenged this status quo was sinful and was possibly a witch. Violence against women at the hands of their husbands came to be a normalised part of family life. The town law of the city of Villlefranche decreed all the inhabitants of the town had the right to beat their wives so long as death does not ensue. Even Thomas Moore in his Utopia represented a society where husbands regularly chastised their wives. The wives were to minister to their husband in everything. On holy days they were to prostrate themselves before their husbands asking for their forgiveness if they have offended them in any way. It is not hard to see the campaigns against witchcraft as being an attempt to suppress and control women. Society then was not tolerant towards those women who tried to survive outside the role of wife and mother. A single woman, who was outside the control of a man, may perhaps have been continuing ancient traditions of healing and herbalism. She was obviously from a patriarchal perspective someone to be targeted and persecuted.
The Ephesians and I Timothy texts continue to exercise a strong influence in conservative Christian circles today. They are used in some places as a justification to deny women any part in Christian leadership. They also become part of a generalised Christian patriarchy which puts women in a disadvantaged place whether in the home or in the church. Some recent research in Australia found that evangelical men who sporadically attend church more likely than secular men to assault their wives. It is not hard to see how a man with a tendency towards violence might be attracted to a church with a culture of male domination. The traditional approach to a ‘biblical’ view of women might also make conservative churches dangerous places when the battered wife seeks help. Domestic violence will not be tackled if the there is a ‘biblical’ answer that the wife should always submit and apply the rule of godly obedience to the man who is abusing her.
The recent events at Sutherland Springs cannot not of course be laid at the feet of the Baptist church where the massacre took place. But in a broad sense a culture of violence within the family which preceded the terrible events of last Sunday had been subtly normalised for Devin Kelley, the perpetrator. Many upright Christians who believe that they are following Scripture also tolerate coercive behaviour towards women. This will of course normally stop far short of acts of rage and murder. Somewhere along the line, Devin learnt the path of violence. It may have been a small step for him to tip over from ‘acceptable’ coercion and control of women in his family to actual violence. It may seem to be ‘biblical’ to apply coercion to wives but surely it has no place whatever in a modern society. The words of Paul, Luther and Thomas Aquinas need to be explored and explained in their historical context. They cannot be allowed to smoulder in a dark place where they can infect and corrupt the thinking of contemporary Christians. We need a revolution that will deny any oxygen to the thinking of contemporary Christians and those they influence who want to high-jack the faith to further their nefarious desires for power.