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FIRST-PERSON: Do wife-beaters need better therapy groups?


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Wife-beaters deserve no sympathy.

That’s even true in a culture where everyone is a victim, and lines between good and evil are blurred beyond distinction. After all, is anything more clearly and pathetically evil than a man who would terrorize his wife or, more typically, his girlfriend and her children? Even so, when personal responsibility leaves the arena of public policy, anything’s possible — even victim status for abusive men.

A recent book by feminist attorney Linda Mills, “Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Response to Intimate Abuse,” calls for a reform of the criminal justice system, directing policies away from incarceration and toward “intimate abuse circles.”

In case you’re not familiar with the concept of an “intimate abuse circle,” think of a small group therapy session where abusers “talk through” the psychological roots of their violent behavior. As lawyer C. Douglas Kerns writes in the March 8 issue of National Review, it is “the punishment no criminal dreads: hours of harmless blather.” Kerns rightly lambastes Mills’ proposal for its reliance on dubious psychotherapeutic fads, along with its naïve understanding of human nature.

“Will ill-socialized men feel anything but contempt toward covens of experts yammering about ‘communication’?” he asks. “Such efforts will indeed earn the contempt of the more inarticulate abusers, most of whom are no strangers to the lectures of well-meaning professionals with degrees in social work. And the crafty, manipulative abusers will learn from these intimate circles a new lexicon of buzzwords and catchphrases with which to dazzle judges and probation officers at future sentencing hearings.”

Ridiculous proposals like that of Linda Mills can only come in a culture that has tossed aside a doctrine of sin. As such, the concept of personal responsibility is barred from the discussion of how to address the ugly reality of spousal abuse. Without some understanding of the Adamic fall, society can only understand the wife-beater through the prism of pop psychology. Why engage abuse through criminal sanctions if domestic violence is the result of hardwired genes or a dysfunctional family background? The answer to such abusive men, surely then, is education and, yes, “communication.”

But it is not just the personal responsibility of the abuser that is lost in the contemporary world. The sense of corporate responsibility to protect women seems meaningless in post-feminist America.

In previous generations, an abusive husband would face the sanction of his fellow men. A wife-beater might find himself called to the door to face a group of community men wishing to speak to him – outside — about his treatment of his wife and children. One could call this an “intimate abuse circle,” I suppose.

This strong sense of community responsibility may not have prevented spousal abuse, but it at least recognized it as a societal evil — not just an issue of family therapy. It also recognized a responsibility of men to care for and protect women — a notion long since jettisoned by a culture shaped by the gender theory of Gloria Steinem and the de-feminized pop-violence of Lara Croft Tomb Raider.

For evangelical Christians, the issues raised in this debate are about more than just the criminal justice system. A society’s response to wife abuse is about justice itself. And a society that has replaced justice with social work is alienated from a central point of contact with the Gospel — namely, the understanding that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of both justice and justification (Romans 3:26). This means churches must care for abused women and children, protecting them from the predators who seek to harm them. It also means that churches must call on our governments to maintain their God-ordained responsibility to wield the sword of punishment against evildoers (Romans 13:3-5) — including abusive men.

Most importantly, this means that churches must proclaim the ancient truths of human sin and personal responsibility, pointing wife-beaters — and all other sinners — to the coming Day of Christ (John 16:8).

And, strange as it may sound to our contemporaries, we must remind them that the figure on the throne will not be a social worker but a Judge.
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Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway).

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  • Russell D. Moore