Editor’s Note: In this slight departure from our standard subject matter, we explore some of the implications of justice and charity in cases of domestic abuse, specifically in light of recent statements by a notable Christian leader. The importance and gravity of this issue merit its coverage here at Moral Apologetics.
By Marybeth BaggettImagine the following: A woman lives for years in a volatile situation, never knowing when a word or circumstance will enrage her husband causing him to unleash emotional or physical pain on her. She tries desperately to manage the environment, to forestall these chaotic and traumatic outbursts—for her own and her children’s sake.
This woman’s home life is toxic; it has strangled her spirit, and what little outside support she has dwindles as the situation worsens. She accepts the blame assigned by her husband, she sees hope for change in small gestures of remorse, and day by day she becomes increasingly anxious, depressed, and demoralized.
Suppose this woman seeks counseling for her anxiety and depression. In this process, she realizes, first, that her situation is not normal and, second, that she is not to blame for the emotional and physical violence perpetrated on her. After laboring so long under the impression that she and her husband were equal partners in creating their destructive home environment, she embraces the truth that her husband has wielded unchecked and unjust power over her. Control, not love, animates their relationship.
Although the journey toward healing and freedom ahead of her is long and difficult, she has taken the first step by appropriating this truth.
Women like this, unfortunately, are all too common, even within the church. Controllers like this exist, too; yes, even within the church. In fact, the church—with its insistence on marital fidelity, its teachings of mercy and sacrifice—often provides unwitting cover for perpetrators like the husband of the woman above. Research shows that Christian women are more prone to stay longer in an abusive environment and to endure far worse abuse than their non-Christian counterparts. Unfortunately, pastors are often ill-informed about, and ill-equipped to deal with, the wicked realities of domestic abuse.
Take, for example, Franklin Graham’s recent Facebook post appealing to Christians to withhold judgment and, instead, pray for Saeed Abedini and his wife Naghmeh. Abedini, as many know, is the recently released American pastor who was jailed in Iran for close to four years, charged with proselytizing and undermining Iranian national security.
After working tirelessly to publicize her husband’s wrongful imprisonment and to pressure Washington to obtain his release, Naghmeh halted her advocacy in November 2015, telling supporters that she had endured “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse” from her husband and didn’t have the resources to soldier on any longer under such circumstances.
During Saeed’s imprisonment Franklin Graham rallied many Christians around his cause. Upon Saeed’s return to America last month, Graham welcomed him to the Billy Graham Training Center for rest and recuperation. While this outcome was the one so many prayed for and sought for so long, Naghmeh’s claims of abuse hung oppressively over any celebration, complicated further by her filing for legal separation on the day Saeed returned to their hometown in Idaho.
And so through his Facebook post Graham attempted a hopeful framework for responding to the murky affair. Wishing to remain impartial, he spoke of the marital troubles facing the Abedinis, called for prayer to ward off Satan’s continued attacks on their family, and reminded readers that “[o]ther than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them.”
Although Franklin Graham is not the Abedini family’s personal pastor, as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and leader of Samaritan’s Purse relief organization, he wields considerable societal influence. How he handles this situation matters beyond the case of this particular family; it speaks to the broader Christian community’s understanding of the realities of domestic abuse. And many will follow the example he sets here.
Graham’s statement seems designed, understandably, to keep rumors in check and encourage Christians to think redemptively on this matter. The charges Naghmeh levied are weighty; no one wants a false claim to shatter an innocent man’s life, especially a man who has endured so much and been a model of Christian faithfulness for so many. And yet Graham’s admonition, evenhanded as it tried to be, reveals a profound naivety about domestic abuse, a naivety that is sadly all too prevalent in the church.
Consider the seeming truism that punctuates Graham’s appeal: “there are at least two sides to every story.” When applied to the situation of the woman described at the outset of this piece, this claim is revealed as nonsense. A man who would inflict physical and emotional violence on his wife probably does have a perspective to share, but what of it? An opportunity to present his “side of the story” would only make way for more manipulation and deceit, this time drawing allies to his side and increasing the pressure on his wife to capitulate.
“There are at least two sides to every story” is valid only in a world governed by fair play, insistent on honesty, and committed to honoring the dignity of others. “There are at least two sides to every story” works for run-of-the-mill marital challenges: how to communicate better, getting finances straight, agreeing on child-rearing techniques. “There are at least two sides to every story,” only when those stories are populated by honorable people behaving honorably.
Conversely, “there are at least two sides to every story” is a monstrous retort to the situation described above. The world of that woman’s oppression is defined by a pattern of unrepentant sin, controlled by someone who has only his own interests in mind. For this woman’s sake and the sake of the many women like her, Graham’s platitude must be rejected and replaced by more sensitive and informed replies.
“There are at least two sides to every story” is an offense to any victim speaking the truth about her mistreatment; it’s an offense to our God who cares about the downtrodden. Rather than bringing light and hope to an emotionally-fraught situation, trotting out this banal expression at such a crucial moment enables actual and would-be perpetrators and further disadvantages victims. Redemption cannot bypass truth.
If there are two sides to every story, in any substantive sense worth emphasizing, is the suggestion that a rape victim has her story and her rapist his own? A sexually molested child his story and the pedophile her own? Holocaust survivors their story and their cruel captors their own? ISIS victims their stories, the terrorists their own? Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham jail his story, his pious segregationist critics their own? Such claims are patently misguided: either trivially true or wickedly false. In situations terribly warped and twisted by sin, unspeakably deformed by darkness and inhumanity, the worst casualty of the polite words of morally tone-deaf evenhandedness is often the sober truth.
I don’t know that Naghmeh’s situation falls into that category. Nor does Franklin Graham know that it doesn’t.
 Several Christian institutions and professionals offer training and guidance for pastors on domestic abuse, including the following (along with links to their resources): Lifeway, Focus on the Family, Ministry Matters, and Leslie Vernick.
Image: “Broken Glass” by Holger. CC License.