Ezk 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Cor 15:20-26, Mt 25:31-46
Prepared by James Leikhus
Our country is fighting a war on terror. We are fighting people whose goal is to strike fear in others, to keep them constantly on edge, wondering if something terrible will happen to them today, or tomorrow, or the next day. We don't know why they would want to do such a thing, but the fact is, they do. It is the uncertainty, the fear of an unknown terror, that keeps people from sleeping at night, from enjoying life. Will something happen to me if I go to the store today? If I visit my family in the city?
Yet there is a different kind of terrorism, one that exists among us. We may cheer for terrorists when we go to a football game. There may be terrorists on the school board. There may be terrorists sitting in these pews with us right now. In fact, it is possible that you are a terrorist, and you don't even realize it.
I'm speaking of the terrorism of domestic violence. There are women here, worshipping with us as I speak, who are living in terror. They worry about how their husband or boyfriend will react if they are late getting home from the store, or if they want to spend a weekend visiting their family, or if they hold the hand of the man sitting next to them during the Our Father. That, my friends, is terrorism, a terror that I can hardly imagine living with day after day with no hope in sight.
This kind of terrorism is even more sinister than the kind that our country is fighting. A common tactic of the perpetrator is to blame the victim for the abuse. "If you hadn't " then fill in the blank: "burnt dinner, spilt the milk, looked at me funny, pushed my buttons, denied me sex when I wanted it, I wouldn't have lost my temper and " fill in the blank: "punched you, shook you, thrown something at you, locked you out of the house." And often times the woman believes it, because she doesn't want to believe that the man she loves would do something so horrible unless there was a reason. Or she's terrified that if she tries to leave, he'll kill her, or start hitting the children instead. So she lives in constant fear, wondering if today is the day when he'll finally kill her. That is terrorism.
The perpetrator is often times truly sorry after he abuses his wife or girlfriend. He is horrified by the fact that he actually hit the one he loves. So he apologizes, swears that he will never do anything to hurt her again, showers her with gifts to make up for it, and for a period, everything is fine. Until something sets him off again, and the cycle starts over.
Physical abuse isn't the only form of terrorism in domestic violence. There is emotional abuse, such as being made to feel like you don't deserve to be loved, like your partner is doing you a favor by being with you. Being made fun of because of how you look or act, either alone or in front of other people, in such a way that makes you feel bad about yourself. Having affection withheld so that you will behave the way your partner wants you to behave. Taking away the car keys or money so you can't go anywhere. Not letting you talk to your family or friends on the phone, or interrogating you about who you were just talking to.
It's hard to imagine, isn't it? How could a Catholic who attends church every Sunday, who puts his money in the collection, who sends his kids to Catholic school, be a perpetrator of domestic violence? Yet there are women sitting here today who recognize some or all of these patterns of behavior in their partner. They are living a life of terror. If you are one of these women, if your partner acts in just one of these ways towards you, then I'm sorry to say, you are a victim of domestic violence.
You are not alone. There are other women who have gone through a similar experience as the one you are going through now, and they have survived. But you have to make the first step. It will take tremendous courage, but the situation will not improve unless you come forward, and you and your partner get professional help. You can come to me, or someone you trust will help you, and get in touch with people who know how to help.
But what if you're married in the Church? ou're trapped, right? Some people think that the Catholic Church teaches that divorce is a sin in all circumstances. This is false. Even if you are married in the Church, if for the safety of yourself and your kids you need to separate from your spouse, and ultimately divorce him or her, it is not a sin. The sin is the violence that is being done in the household, not the measures taken to stop the violence. In fact, civil divorce is the first step in the annulment process, and domestic abuse is a huge factor taken into account when considering the validity of a sacramental marriage. The Church does not condemn you to a marriage lived in terror. Of course, the best possible scenario is the conversion of the perpetrator and a happy marriage afterwards, and there are examples of this. If this is possible, the Church will work with you and your spouse to help bring this about. But if this is not possible, you do not need to stay with your abusive spouse. You have other options.
We heard in today's Gospel that we will be judged by what we do for those around us who are in need. These victims are in need. They are living in terror, and they need our help. What do we do if we think somebody is a victim of domestic violence? Let the woman know that you are there for her. What she needs most of all is somebody she can trust. It takes so much courage for a woman to confide in somebody else that she is being abused. If we are that somebody else, we must make sure we respond in a way that will help her. Believe whatever she tells you. Don't doubt her. There's no reason for her to lie. Don't act like she is partly to blame for the abuse, or ask her if she did something to provoke it. There is nothing a woman can do to deserve abuse. Don't try to fix the situation for her. She must ultimately make the decision about what is best for her. Encourage her to seek professional help, but support her in whatever decision she makes, even if you think it is the wrong one. And if you feel like you're in over your head, don't hesitate to ask a professional for advice. He or she will know exactly what to say and do, and can help the victim get the help she needs.
If we ask ourselves whether or not we should do something when we suspect someone is being abused, we are asking the wrong question. It is not whether we should try to help, but how are we going to help the victim. For on the day of judgment, we will be separated, the sheep and the goats. Will we be the ones saying, "Lord, when did I help you when you were abused, frightened, and terrorized by another," or will we be asking when did we fail to do so?
In the summer of 2000, I spent six weeks in Spain, partly to practice my Spanish, partly as a vacation. I stayed with a family as part of the program. One afternoon when I was in my room, I heard a man and woman fighting in the apartment next door. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I didn't need to. I heard some glass break, the man was shouting, the woman was screaming and crying, and it sounded like there was a child crying also. But who was I? I was only there for the summer, I didn't know what was going on, I couldn't do anything to stop it, it wasn't any of my business. Pretty good excuses, huh. Armed with these excuses, I did nothing.
I don't know what happened to that family, but unless somebody intervened, I doubt it was anything good. If they're like most families that have domestic violence, the man is probably in jail, the woman is either dead or trying to make it on her own, and the child will grow up and have a family that suffers domestic violence of his or her own. Perhaps God put me in that situation in order to help that family. I know he didn't put me there to do nothing. Yet that's exactly what I did. There's nothing I can do to change that. When I stand before God on the day of judgment, I will have to answer for my actions that day. All I can do now is ask God to forgive me, and make sure that if and when I am put in that situation again, I will not make the same mistake. Do not make my mistake. If you think someone is a victim of domestic violence, do something. Do not be among those who have to ask God when they failed to help.