Thirty-six years ago, as a newly minted minister, I encountered domestic violence through a gut-wrenching experience. A woman in the church, where I served as a youth pastor, came to my office in desperation. (The senior pastor wasn't in.) She had a black eye and badly bruised face. "My husband did it," she said. "And he threatened to kill me as he waved his gun in front of my face."
I had never been in a situation like it before and it really rattled me. I called the police, but didn't really know what to do beyond that. Over time, I would learn that it wouldn't be my last encounter with such a victim in my profession.
When it comes to gun violence against women, the United States is the most dangerous country in the developed world. Each year, women in our nation suffer from 5.3 million incidents of intimate partner violence, and every month fifty women are shot and killed by intimate partners — a husband, boyfriend, or an ex.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in our country. It's a month that honors individuals who have battled with this evil, support those who are still in the throes of domestic abuse and seeks to prevent future cases of domestic violence throughout our nation. It's a month every evangelical church and pastor should observe — and not just in October. As ministers, we're kidding ourselves if we think there is no violence going on in the households represented in our sanctuaries. Statistically—and sadly—it is.
There are also guns in the homes of many of our congregants. Some pastors will know what it's like to have been called to a home where anger has elevated to rage – and firearms are tempting the perpetrator from the very next room. Put domestic abuse and firearms together and it means a woman is five times more likely to die in a violent encounter. Five times anything is not just a little greater chance, but an exponentially greater chance. Needless to say, fatal domestic violence is inextricably tied up with the presence of a firearm.
Of course, any act of domestic violence is one too many and cannot be tolerated. It doesn't matter who perpetrates it, how it is done, how often it happens, or who is hurt or killed by it; it is always wrong, cowardly, cruel, and sinful. Those who commit domestic violence need to be confronted with their immoral behavior, stopped, brought to repentance and renunciation, and referred to professionals for help. Just as importantly, victims need to be given shelter and ongoing spiritual and emotional care.
I'm certain my pastoral experience isn't unique — I've had victims, perpetrators, and witnesses come to me begging for help. Clergy are often considered the safest people to go to in frightening and shame-filled tragedies. Sometimes we hear the confessions of domestic violence at our altars, when souls are under conviction. In the early days of my ministry, I didn't know what to do, but, as time went on, I educated myself. When it comes to domestic violence, pastors and church leaders must have a plan in place and be ready to implement it — it's matter of life and death.
The reason I know guns are of particular concern when it comes to domestic abuse is because their presence only increases the chances of finality. We often hear that "guns" do not kill people – it's the person behind the trigger. However, guns are a temptation especially the hands of someone who is abusive and given to bouts of rage.
It makes sense that firearms increase the chance of death — they're designed to do that — and most are finely engineered to do the job. As evangelicals, our theology tells us, "It is appointed for man to die once" (Hebrews 9:27a). A fatality means no one gets a second chance, period. Of course, a gun is also a less personal lethal weapon; fists, a blunt object, a knife, require the attacker to get very close to the victim and usually expend an enormous amount of mental, emotional, and physical energy in the killing act. Other forms of murder also take time — time in which the victim can escape or someone can come to their rescue. A gun does its damnable work at an impersonal distance and in a split second.
Over the last several years, I've spent a good amount of time examining attitudes of evangelicals when it comes to gun violence. The cross-over with domestic violence is unavoidable. Guns ramp up domestic dangers and we, the church, need to admit and face that fact. I know the vast majority of gun owners will never perpetrate a single act of violence, let alone a fatal act of domestic violence, but when they do, the damage is drastic, permanent, and final.
As we take on domestic violence among the pastoral concerns in our churches, a place to start is to ask what we can do to lessen the chances of a fatality while we prayerfully lead our people to better places of discipleship, where the fruits of the Spirit, including self-control, guide our actions. One thing we can do in that interim is advocate for laws that deny known abusers access to firearms. Criminals surrender elements of their constitutional rights when they perpetrate a crime. Calling for such common-sense, life-saving public policy is a pastoral and Christian concern.
National Domestic Violence Month is a good time to think, pray, meditate, and act on these terrible realities.