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Religious leaders must break their silence [Commentary]

Gender violence causes more death and disability among women ages 15 to 44 in the U.S. than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war. Currently our military and universities are actively seeking solutions to prevent and respond to this violence within their respective institutions.

It's time for the church and religious leaders to do so as well.

Sojourners and IMA World Health (on behalf of the WeWillSpeakOut.US coalition) recently released a new report, Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out, based on a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 U.S. Protestant pastors. According to the report, U.S. faith leaders seriously underestimate the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence experienced by people within their congregations. They also lack the tools to address it in constructive and helpful ways. The good news is more than 8 in 10 said they would take appropriate action to reduce sexual and domestic violence if they and the training and resources to do so.

So what can faith leaders do to reduce sexual and domestic violence?

First, they need to get a firmer grip on reality. Pastors need to fully understand that domestic and sexual violence occurs in all communities worldwide, including their own congregations. Ignoring this sin does not make it go away; it gives silent consent.

Second, pastors need to build relationships with the resources in their local communities that protect and support victims and survivors. A pastor's vocation is to nurture faith and support a victim's spiritual well being, but his or her physical or emotional well being should be guided by professionals trained in domestic and sexual violence. Yet currently, fewer than 10 percent of pastors surveyed are "very familiar" with local resources that assist victims. More than 15 percent are not at all familiar with these resources.

Third, pastors need to seek out domestic and sexual violence training. According to our poll, the majority of pastors agree they do not have sufficient training to address domestic or sexual violence. Training is indeed critical because a little knowledge in this area can be more dangerous than no knowledge at all. In fact, research has indicated that abused women who seek help from untrained clergy typically find themselves in a worse situation than before. Seminaries, denominational structures and other organizations working on this issue should be natural partners for pastors and congregations. This is a problem that faces the whole church, and addressing it will require the buy-in of the entire community.

The top priority in sexual and domestic violence should be to ensure the immediate safety of victims or potential victims. Though this is common knowledge among those in the health community, it may be countercultural for U.S. clergy — especially those who hold firmly to values that view family matters as private, place a high priority on family "stability," strictly prohibit divorce, practice "male headship" and submission of women, or who see untrained counseling as part of their pastoral duty. In keeping with these commonly held values, a large majority (62 percent) of pastors in our survey say they have responded to sexual or domestic violence by providing couples or marriage counseling — which the health community widely acknowledges as a potentially dangerous or even lethal response for a victim.

Finally, with a firm base of knowledge beneath them, pastors must speak out on sexual and domestic violence. Nearly two-thirds of pastors surveyed preach or speak once a year or less a about the issue. Ten percent never mention it at all.

Sexual and domestic violence inflicts deep emotional, physical, and spiritual harm on those who endure it. Because God calls us to love one another, to live in peace and to stand up for the oppressed, it is a moral imperative that pastors and other faith leaders speak out against sexual and domestic violence and that they are equipped with the proper tools, allies and devotion to address the issue.

In order to lead in this area, the faith community also needs to have a theological conversation. For only when people begin to believe that all people are created in God's image will they begin to understand how acts of violence harm the dignity of other human beings.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said of another social injustice, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Let's break the silence.

Jim Wallis is the president and founder of Sojourners. Amy Gopp is the director of member relations and pastoral care at Church World Service. Rick Santos is president and CEO of IMA World Health. Their respective emails are Jwallis@sojo.net, ricksantos@imaworldhealth.org and agopp@cwsglobal.org.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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