Religion, Gender, and Family Violence

When Prayers Are Not Enough

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Catherine Holtmann, Nancy Nason-Clark
International Studies in Religion and Society
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The intersection of family/partner violence and religion remains an under-researched field, so it is refreshingly welcome when new resources—such as this volume by Catherine Holtmann and Nancy Nason-Clark and the conference upon which it was based—are made available. Religion, Gender, and Family Violence: When Prayers are Not Enough is an outgrowth of a September 2016 workshop at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick. The book provides valuable new research from both established and budding scholars working at the intersection of family/partner violence and religion.

According to the researchers included in this volume, a common misconception regarding family/partner violence is that there is a single problem, experienced in a single way, with a single solution. Much of the everyday perception (even among anti-violence advocates) is ideologically-based and does not take into account the complexity of the multiple and intersectional identities and needs of diverse victim-survivors and their abusers, failing to appreciate the importance of religion/culture or the trauma of colonization, minority status, or oppression. In order to receive or even seek services, victim-survivors are often put between a rock and hard place—forced to choose between their need for safety and their membership in a religious or other community. Likewise, programs for batterers often do not take into account the context of the clients—their cultural embeddedness and multiple needs for healing. Although the resources of anti-violence advocates are always limited, an awareness of diversity can assist them in providing healing and safety while still maintaining the dignity of the person. Authors in this volume suggest that such approaches (used with both abusers and victims) will achieve better long-term outcomes.

In some circles, religion is understood as part of the problem of family/partner violence. And it can be: particularly when religious traditions, regulations, or writings are distorted and turned into weapons of abuse; when religious communities deny or explain away abuse; or when the structure of the religion or its relationship to the structure of society sets up inherent inequalities. Yet religion can also be part of the solution to family/partner violence by providing healing for generational trauma experienced by oppressed minorities; standing with victims and holding accountable their abusers; and providing narratives and imagery that inspire actions towards safety, healing, and loving care. Because religion has the power to help and to heal, but also because it may have been misused as a weapon of abuse, the authors of many of the chapters in this book urge substantive collaboration between anti-violence advocates and religious leaders.

Religion, Gender, and Family Violence: When Prayers are Not Enough is organized in three parts. Part 1 consists of four chapters focusing on issues in research on religion and family violence. Steve McMullin’s chapter, for example, discusses the importance of religious/secular partnerships. He notes that secular anti-violence advocates are often unaware of the needs of their religious clients and/or biased against religion, while clergy demonstrate a lack of involvement with family violence services (mainline denominations have a tendency to idealize the family, thereby denying the existence of violence in their congregations, while evangelicals tend to make referrals and donations, but fail to actively engage and interact with anti-violence service providers). Also in part 1, Catherine Holtmann’s chapter recommends a rethinking of the value of care among immigrant women. While the role of caring has long been decried as antithetical to abused women’s self-concern to seek safety, the value of care can be an inroad to helping victim-survivors understand that their ability to be a caregiver depends on their own health and safety.

Part 2 consists of three chapters focusing on religious perpetrators of family violence. Among these is Barbara Fisher-Townsend’s study of batterer intervention programs in Canada which are modeled upon aboriginal spiritual practices. She contends that the higher rates of violence among aboriginal Canadians is due in part to not only the personal trauma faced by abusers, but also the generational trauma stemming from structural injustices of racism, oppression, forced assimilation, and so forth. Euro-centric batterer programs fail to address the brokenness stemming from the anomie faced by these groups, but reclaiming their ethnic identity through holistic spirituality provides an opportunity for healing this trauma.

Finally, part 3 consists of three chapters focusing on the way in which religious law (and the inequalities of religions within the laws of given nations) enable family violence. For example, Pascale Fournier, Farah Malek-Bakouche, and Eve Laoun’s study of religious divorce in Lebanon demonstrates that considerable inequality—both between men and women, as well as between the eighteen assorted recognized religious groups—is created by Lebanon’s relegation of “personal status issues” (such as divorce) to religious groups rather than treating these as civil matters. Yael Machtinger’s chapter on abusive men’s refusal of the get (Jewish religious divorce, which must be freely initiated by the husband) is itself a form of abuse. Jewish women who cannot obtain a get from their abusive husbands are often blamed for their situation by those who criticize their adherence to religious law, but Machtinger asserts that women should not be forced to choose between the dignity of following their religion and the safety of divorcing an abusive husband.

Studies of the intersection of family/partner violence and religion remain in short supply. This volume is an important addition to the field. It should be read by clergy and religious leaders who want to learn more about family violence and by anti-violence advocates who want to better serve diverse populations. It should be included in libraries of universities that support research into this critical area.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is Associate Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Indianapolis.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine Holtmann is Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of New Brunswick and the Director of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research. She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters and is co-author of Religion and Intimate Partner Violence: Understanding the Challenges and Proposing Solutions (Oxford, 2018). 

Nancy Nason-Clark is retired Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of New Brunswick. She is the author or editor of ten books, including Men Who Batter (Oxford University Press, 2015) which she co-authored with Barbara Fisher-Townsend and Religion and Intimate Partner Violence: Understanding the Challenges and Proposing Solutions (Oxford, 2018) which she co-authored with Fisher-Townsend, Holtmann and Steve McMullin. 


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