Ordained Episcopalian priest and professor at Gordon-Conwell Theologian Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary Justin Holcomb has authored a book domestic violence with his wife Lindsey Holcomb, who has worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. In their latest book, Is It My Fault? the Holcombs share the "good news of the Gospel" with victims of domestic violence. In the first of a three-part interview, Justin spoke with The Christian Post on how he and his wife decided to write on this topic, his feelings about the term "rape culture," and the assumptions behind the title of their book.
(Photo: Moody Publishers)
CP: Why did you write this book?
Holcomb: Mainly it was because of my wife. When we were dating, she was working at a domestic violence shelter. She was a case manager at a domestic violence shelter and right before we got married, she started working at a sexual assault crisis center. She worked for Shelter for Help in Emergency in Charlottesville, Virginia, and she worked for Sexual Assault Resource Agency. I was a minister and I was preaching, I was getting ordained, I had been in seminary already. So while we were dating, she'd tell me about her day, I'm teaching seminary and also religion and theology at the University of Virginia, and she's telling me about all these issues and I'm thinking through, what does Christianity have to say about these issues?
We originally had our first book together called Rid of My Disgrace, which is about sexual assault, it's hope and healing for sexual assault victims. There was a pretty strong response. People seemed to like it. It seemed to really help victims and we had a lot of people say, "That's great. What about domestic violence? That's another thing you guys are always talking about." So we decided to write this on hope and healing because of the good news for those suffering domestic violence. This book is a product of putting together a seminary professor and a priest — I'm an Episcopalian priest —I'm a seminary professor and a minister with a victim's advocate on sexual abuse and domestic violence and this is what you get. We wanted to write specifically to victims. We're not writing about them but to them to tell them about the good news and what the Bible says and some practical stuff, but we also wanted ministers and family members and friends and friends who would be supporting them to overhear how we are talking to them so they could learn about it also.
CP: What type of Christian literature exists on this subject?
Holcomb: There's some really good stuff like Lundy Bancroft: Should I Stay or Should I Go? He's a domestic violence expert and consultant. Why Does He Do That? They're really good. They're not anti-Christian but they're for a broad audience.
There are also some really good books out there regarding the Christian faith, some of them are more progressive on some important issues than we are and I don't cross my fingers when I say the Nicene creed. I believe the Bible is authoritative and salvation is in Jesus Christ. I'm a good old classic Christian and I believe that God is both good and powerful and He cares so I don't believe in some sort of fatalistic "Well this is God's will. This is how people suffer through this," but I also don't believe that God is just sitting down waiting for us to do something and His hands are tied because of our free will. So because of that, we think, "Well, we think what we have to say is good news [to victims.]"
We also found that some of the Christian books didn't just fit what we wanted to say. There weren't many of them. There's some out there but there's not a lot that are available. We found the same with sexual assault also. Dan Allander has a really good book on sexual assault but we thought it might be time to have another one out there and same thing with domestic violence.
CP: The title of your book is "Is It My Fault?" Can you unpack the title and its assumptions?
Holcomb: The reason we titled it that is because that is one of the dominant, if not the dominant question that those who suffer domestic abuse are asking. Is it my fault? [is asked] because they feel blame, because the surrounding culture blames victims and because perpetrators and abusers blame victims. They have blame coming out from numerous angles and frequently the church blames them also. If you're a Christian woman or religious person, you're thinking, I think I'm the one to blame. Most victims think they're to blame in general. The perpetrators shift blame. The perpetrators are masters at blame shifting, that's actually one of them main things that's consistent among abusers. They are very insecure and they are masterful at blame shifting.
The surrounding culture tends to blame women for this and the church has the tendency to also do this, so we wanted to answer that question and say, "No. You're not to blame. As a matter of fact, not no, but never to blame." I think the way that we communicated it is, "There is nothing you can have done, are doing, or could do, have said, are saying, or will say, that would will ever make you deserving of abuse." We wanted to counter their default mode of self-blame that many victims have and they absorb the condemnation that they hear from their surrounding culture, their abuser or the church so we wanted to be a voice of silencing the condemnation that they feel.
CP: Why aren't they to blame for domestic violence?
Holcomb: Because they are victims of someone's sin. There's nothing that they can do to make them worthy or deserving. There's no sin they could have committed that would make them deserving of being abused and humiliated and harmed and threatened and exploited. There's nothing you can do to do that. It's the same reason that you would say why isn't an innocent child that got hit by a car to blame? There's nothing you can do.
What happens is many people ask blaming questions like, "Why don't you stay?" "Why don't you leave?" "It must not be that bad." "What did you do to make him that angry?" "He seems like a good guy." "Maybe you just need to get some marriage counseling." Usually most of the questions are actually victim blaming questions and not actually believing the women who's going through some trauma. That's the word that most people would actually use, professional experts, is that what they're going through is long term abuse, which usually results in post-traumatic stress disorder.
CP: What are your thoughts on rape culture? How do you define it?
Holcomb: I'm glad you brought up the term rape culture. It's pretty intense, which sexual abuse and domestic violence is. [To me, rape culture] normalizes, and legitimatizes and condones violence against women and children. It's a controversial idea but I think it describes well the cultural settings used that normalize, legitimatize, and condone violence against women.
I was a college professor. I was a fraternity adviser. It was a great fraternity but I was there. I mean I saw the type of culture there, kind of the hook-up culture, the not valuing women and not respecting women culture. I've given lectures to officers in the military and they are training officers and in training to become officers and they've told me some of the stories of things that they've seen. A rape culture or a misogynistic culture devalues women, makes it normal to actually treat women in not just disrespectful, but horrendous and abusive ways.
CP: Why is "rape culture" a controversial term?
Holcomb: I like it, but because it came out of some of the feminist, academic background, during the first wave of feminism. Sometimes people have dismissed the idea of rape culture because of its origins as "Oh well, some liberal made up the term," or "Some radical feminist made up the term, therefore it's probably loaded up with liberal progressive ideology and assumptions about women's empowerment." I don't think it's controversial. I just know that other people would dismiss it because of where it was started and what it's saying. People think that it's propaganda. I don't think it is. I think it's descriptive. I don't think it's just propaganda. I think it describes very well the culture of victim blaming and objectifying women and minimizing abuse.
CP: Some people also have the assumption that rape culture assumes all men go around raping women.
Holcomb: Yeah, like rape culture is like "Men are evil" and "All men suck" and "All men are trying to hurt women." [That's not the case.] Rape culture can be encouraged and condoned by everyone in the culture. Actually, women can do a lot of damage by supporting a type of rape culture setting.
CP: A violent act may not actually occur.
Holcomb: Yes. I'm a big fan of the word. I used it in an article I wrote on my website called "Isn't porn harmless?" which talked about how porn fuels rape culture and shapes sexual desires. (I think I linked to the Wikipedia definition in the article.)