Ray Rice and Redemption Narratives

Editor's note: Jamie Manson is working on several projects over this summer. Jamie has invited NCR Today contributor Kelly Stewart to fill in for her during the weeks that she is particularly busy.

The co-founders of A Call to Men, an organization that works with boys and men to end violence against girls and women, apologized July 31 for comments they made about Ray Rice in an ESPN interview.

In the interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter, Tony Porter and Ted Bunch described Rice's punching his then-fiancé, Janay, unconscious in February 2014 as a "mistake." They also strongly endorsed Rice's return to the NFL, saying they had worked closely with him over the past nine months and believed he "deserv[ed]" a second chance.

"He's held himself accountable," Bunch said, vouching for Rice's transparency, sincerity, and commitment to change. "He is saying everything that you would want him to say and doing everything that you would want him to do. So why wouldn't he deserve another chance?"

Porter, too, characterized Rice as a changed man committed to educating other men about domestic violence: "His intentions are real, his heart is pure."

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After receiving heavy criticism from within the anti-domestic violence movement, Porter and Bunch posted an apology on A Call to Men's Facebook page. In particular, they apologized for calling Rice's violence a "mistake," and they emphasized that domestic violence is not a mistake but "a choice rooted in patriarchy and sexism, used to gain power and control over another person." They also apologized for endorsing Rice without consulting women in the anti-domestic violence movement, attributing their decision both to "male entitlement" and to the powerful hope they felt after discussions with Rice and his family.

Though Porter and Bunch did not use religious language, their initial comments about Rice were reminiscent of the troubling ways in which many Christians, especially clergy, talk about abuse—if they talk about it at all.

In "What's Their Problem? Sharing Our Pews with Sexual Abuse Victims and Survivors," Maureen Farrell Garcia describes the tendency for clergy and faith leaders to focus on the needs of sexual abuse perpetrators at the expense of sexual abuse victims and survivors. Much the same pattern holds true for clergy responses to domestic violence.

When Christian clergy discuss domestic violence, they often prioritize the "redemption" of abusers over safety, healing, and justice for abused partners, ex-partners, and children. This means that, in the church's reflections on domestic violence, the abuser typically takes center stage. He is cast as the sinner whom Christians are called to love and forgive—often immediately and without his having met the demands of justice. Meanwhile, abuse victims recede into the background of theological and pastoral reflection, and the long, complex work of supporting them is left undone, or it is done hastily.

Part of the problem is bad (or no) training. Relatively few clergy have received education about the dynamics of abuse or training in how to counsel victims or abusers. Fortunately, quality training is available. Long-time activists and educators like Marie Fortune of FaithTrust Institute, Nancy Nienhuis of Andover Newton Theological School, and David Adams of Emerge have been training clergy since the 1970s.

Part of the problem is bad theology. In many cases, clergy offer abusers the "cheap grace" of forgiveness without repentance or accountability, or they mistake apologies, especially tearful apologies, for repentance.

Repentance and accountability are much more than apologies. They are long processes by which abusers acknowledge the harm they have caused and stop being abusive—that is, they are processes by which change and forgiveness become possible. When clergy skip or rush these processes by offering immediate forgiveness and insisting survivors do the same, neither abusers nor survivors get what they need.

Repentance and accountability can take years. For an abuser, these processes include acknowledging the harm he has done; consistently behaving respectfully and nonviolently without expecting to be rewarded for it; offering meaningful and appropriate reparations to the people he has harmed; and accepting the consequences of his behavior, including consequences that may endure even after he has changed. Tears, apologies, and short-term changes in behavior may mark the beginning of these processes, but they may also be manipulative. In any case, they are not enough on their own.

In the same way that clergy must not separate forgiveness from repentance and accountability, they must not separate hope from caution. Hope for abusers should exist alongside the knowledge that many abusers do not change, many abusers make convincing liars, and even experienced and insightful clergy, therapists, and anti-violence counselors may not know when they're being manipulated.

I believe Ray Rice has the capacity to change, and I hope he does. Until he has shown consistently respectful, non-coercive, and nonviolent behavior toward his partner over the course of years, it will not be possible to know. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of Porter, Bunch, and others who work with Rice to continue to hold him accountable for his abuse and to be cautious when making claims about his progress.

Clergy and faith leaders, too, are positioned to help hold abusers accountable in ways that prioritize the safety and healing of survivors. They can begin by availing themselves of the educational, training, and intervention resources—including faith-centered resources—that are already out there.

For information, support, help, or resources for domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline [http://www.thehotline.org/] at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

[Kelly Stewart earned her Master of Arts in Religion at Yale Divinity School, where she studied feminist and queer theory and Catholic sexual and reproductive ethics.]

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