November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
April 20, 2015
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman argues that trauma healing is only possible within healthy relationships. She says that survivors need an empowering community of support in order to heal. In the United States, the normative community is the nuclear family, but how do survivors of domestic violence heal if that community is a source of violence and trauma? Given the familial rejection many early followers of Jesus faced, members of the early Christian church understood the need for support systems outside the patriarchal family and its devotion to the Roman Empire. When people lose the support system of their families either through death (i.e., widows or orphans) or domestic violence, they often struggle with survival and flourishing. Because our survival requires that we live interdependently, those of us living in the United States must expand our notions of community past our immediate family members. Only through developing new kinship structures of support will we be able to build communities of healing.
Many feminist and liberation theologians locate salvation within the community. Like Herman, they argue that without the liberation of a community, salvation and healing cannot take place. These communities must denounce oppression and announce a hopeful future; they must embrace practices of resistance that name oppression and act against it. When we speak of salvific communities, we must recognize that while they may mirror each other’s liberative practices, each community exists within a specific context. In this essay, I will open up a dialogue between a specific community of salvation—what I will call Esperanza House—and the early Christian church, liberation theologians, and feminist theologians. I will demonstrate how Esperanza House, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, reflects the early church in its practices of kinship, where practices of resistance cultivate salvation and overturn abusive power structures.
The Shelter and the Community
Esperanza House is part of a larger project, including an intentional community and support groups for domestic violence survivors and perpetrators, that the Roman Catholic Church established in the predominantly Hispanic suburbs of a large city in the Midwest. The shelter is unique because the sense of community within the house is central to its function—as the director states, Esperanza House is “run by the community, nurtured by the community.” This communal focus shapes the daily experiences of the women in the house: the six women and their children who live there share chores, evening meals, and common spaces. The median maximum length of stay for most shelters is two months, whereas the Esperanza House program encourages survivors of domestic violence to stay for a period of six months. The longer length of time creates a space of trust and healing where the women of Esperanza House can develop lasting relationships with their community. For many of the women, then, Esperanza House is a place of support and validation through the community connection. Esperanza House also provides a large safety net of services, including but not limited to safe shelter, food, personal counseling, support groups, legal aid, English learning, family field trips, and transition assistance. These are social services that are otherwise difficult to navigate for many of the residents of Esperanza House, who are immigrants and for whom the English language is a barrier. Overall, Esperanza House acts as a holding space for women and their children to heal, reconnect to the social world, and transform their lives in the aftermath of domestic violence.
Domestic Violence, Kyriarchy, and Family Structures
Domestic violence is the physical expression of kyriarchal structures and ideologies within families. In more practical terms, it is any expression of power or control over an intimate partner through physical, emotional, or sexual violence. For most of human history, “The husband’s use of physical force against his wife was . . . an expression of the unequal status, authority, and power of marital partners and was widely accepted as appropriate to a husband’s superior position.” As women slowly gain equality with men, these forms of control become more subtle but do not disappear: one in four women in the United States today still experience domestic violence, and while women are not the only ones to experience domestic violence, 85 percent of victims are women.
I contend that domestic violence has its roots in kyriarchy, a term that refers to systems of power—both in the functional structures of our society and in the ideologies of individuals—that extend through and beyond the gender inequality captured by the term patriarchy. The patriarchal family structure is a particular example of kyriarchy, which is made maliciously manifest in domestic violence. Emerson and Russell Dobash argue, for example, that “The history of the patriarchal family shows the integration of the family in society and the way in which the family, the church, the economic order, and the state each have influenced and supported one another in maintaining their own hierarchies.” Beyond the gender differentiations of the traditionally patriarchal structure of husband and wife, kyriarchy includes the power structures present between parents and children, clergy and laypeople, the rich and the poor, and government officials and citizens. These associations do not function kyriarchally at all times, but when power is held unequally, relationship structures such as a family system, can become the most particular enforcer of kyriarchy.
On top of the kyriarchy, which is enforced by the family structure itself, families can also be used as an oppressive norm within the larger society. In her essay, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual,” Judith Butler explores notions of kinship and how they must be expanded to larger communities of support outside the “heteronormative family” of a father, mother, and children. Most significantly, Butler describes how the heteronormative family is approved and legitimized by the governing body, asking, “What does this do to the community of the nonmarried, the single, the divorced, the uninterested, the nonmonogomous . . . ?” The legitimization of the family allows the state to oppress those it does not deem legitimate, and I argue that families shattered by the experience of domestic violence are among the illegitimate.
Rather than focusing on the heteronormative family, the idea of kinship may be a possible solution. Butler defines kinship as a set of practices “that emerge to address fundamental forms of human dependency, which may include birth, child-rearing, relations of emotional dependency and support, generational ties, illness, dying, and death (to name a few).” By expanding our idea of support structures beyond the family, we offer those living outside the norm the elasticity of multiple kinship bonds, which allows survivors of domestic violence to begin to reimagine themselves within larger structures of support outside their abusive partner.
To understand the possible options for kinship structures, culture must also be considered. Every community has positive and negative cultural influences on how the women within that community experience domestic violence and/or its aftermath. Esperanza House, for example, is largely composed of Mexican immigrants, and their shared culture certainly shapes the ways in which Esperanza House functions and the ways in which the women there experience and think about the trauma in their lives. The Latinas who live at Esperanza House tend to cherish family and kinship networks through which they may feel safe disclosing their experiences of abuse, and they are more likely to disclose abuse to community members when the community has empowering stances on domestic violence. The flip side of these tight family and kinship ties, however, is that Latinas feel pressure to hold family interests over their individual interests, and so the women often receive pressure to make their relationships work, even in the face of violence.
Another cultural trait that the women at Esperanza House express is a tendency to uphold strict gender roles that seem to be a part of the colonial legacy of Latin America. Indeed, Latino families who migrate to the United States, a country where women are given more rights and are expected to work to support the family, often face a difficult transition, putting the traditional Latin American gender roles into question and causing tension and sometimes violence. In seeking to help women who have experienced domestic violence, it is tremendously important that we attempt to understand these underlying factors, to thoughtfully reflect on how culture may exacerbate kyriarchal family structures and domestic violence.
Salvation and Communities: Salvific Kinships
Supportive communities and kinship structures are needed for us to survive and thrive in our daily lives, and healthy communities are of particular importance for the healing process of survivors of trauma. Within the Christian tradition, the earliest clear example of a kinship community consisted of the Jewish teacher Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Many of the Gospel authors showed Jesus in tension with his own family. The Gospel of Mark has one of the most striking events: Jesus refuses to receive his mother and brothers, turning to his followers around the table saying, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mark 3:31–35 NRSV). Aside from Jesus’s own strained relationship with his family, he also called a number of disciples to leave their families.
After Jesus’s death and the Easter experience, the early church community became an important support system. Based on Acts and the Pauline letters, Carolyn Osiek shows that practices of community were central for early Christians, who lived in household churches. For early Christians, “The church became the substitute for the family, ascribing to itself all the claims to loyalty and dedication that the traditional family imposed on its members, but at the same time taking upon itself the obligation to provide for each member all the kinds of support that anyone had a right to expect from family.” Osiek focuses on this as a way of dealing with the family turmoil caused by conversion within the early Christian community, but Jesus’s (and the early church’s) mission focused on providing for the least of these, many of whom were defined by their absence of family systems, such as orphans and widows. The lack of a family social system left these people outside the major social network of safety and support, unless they were cared for by the Christian community. This supportive community is the site of salvation for many theologians.
For liberation theologians, salvation is defined by the development of liberated communities. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz writes that salvation is “a relationship with God, a relationship that does not exist if we do not love our neighbor.” If salvation is a relationship with God, it is through loving our neighbor and developing liberated communities that we realize that relationship, becoming agents of the divine and bringing about human flourishing. In Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez, Nancy Pineda-Madrid connects liberation theology’s salvific community to practices of resistance. Pineda-Madrid argues that salvation, while not fully realized in history, takes place within history and society; she argues that it is only through the creation of spaces where suffering can be dealt with through practices of resistance that communities of salvation will form. Looking specifically at Ciudad Juarez, Pineda-Madrid focuses on the community’s response to the feminicide—the mass killing of women because they are female—brought about by drug cartels, gangs, and corrupt government officials. Pineda-Madrid argues that the community of Ciudad Juarez has the ability to act as a healing space through such practices of resistance as public vigils, marches, demonstrations, and memorials. She believes that practices of resistance can demonstrate how communities have “identified the evil in their midst, have faithfully endeavored to subvert it and to dismantle it, and have used collective religious symbols as a means of entering into the living mystery of life, thereby ensuring their community’s survival.” Most importantly, these practices create healing spaces where suffering can be processed without “consuming” the person.
Esperanza House Project: Trauma Healing in Community
Turning to the particular example of the Esperanza House, we can see how for many of the women Esperanza House acts in a similar fashion to the early Christian church by providing the necessary support to flourish in the wake of leaving an abusive family network. The followers of Jesus and other first-century Christians were often rejected by their families, the main support system of the era, and forced to depend on their faith community for support. Similarly, when survivors of domestic violence leave their abusive partners, they are often faced with an extreme lack of resources, leaving behind sources of income, family networks, and possibly their homes. I conducted several interviews with the residents, volunteers, and staff of Esperanza House on the topics of trauma healing and spiritual resources provided by the community, and all of the former residents of Esperanza House I interviewed mentioned that the support they received during their stay, both from staff and volunteers and from their fellow housemates, was an important part of their healing process. The types of support received differed for each woman depending on their particular need. For one former residentthis included “getting the necessary help and support to find a job. And also, having the kind of accompaniment to be able to . . . go through those moments of change . . . and deal with small problems one at a time.” Esperanza House’s ability to provide this type of full network support is unique.
Unlike traditional domestic violence shelters, the Esperanza community takes a number of steps to facilitate the building of new kinship networks for their residents. The intentional community structure of the house encourages Esperanza residents to collaborate on the tasks of daily life such as meal preparation, child rearing, and taking care of the house. The director of the house describes it as “very family like. . . . We eat together; we struggle together; we pray together; the women share their burdens with one another.” Many of the residents and volunteers describe Esperanza House using this kind of family-focused language. One Latina volunteer, for example, described her own needs for kinship relations within this community, saying, “Throughout the week, I feel like I’m not lonely but alone. And when I come here, I see so many families, and the moms, and the kids, the yelling, the screaming [laughs], and everything that it kind of fulfills that little space of the family that I’m missing.”
Esperanza House provides its residents with the kinds of non-normative kinship structures that Butler promotes, and in doing so, it also fits Pineda-Madrid’s three-fold definition of a salvific community. First, the residents of Esperanza House share a common experience: they are all victims of domestic violence, and many of them share the experience of immigration. These shared experiences are traumatic, yet they also help to bond the women of Esperanza House together. Second, the women at Esperanza House are provided a safe place to build an ideal extension of themselves; they are able to help each other narrate their pasts in light of their present and projected futures. And third, the women come to share the hope that they will heal and live full, flourishing lives after their experiences of trauma. Esperanza House’s logo, a butterfly, is painted on the walls of the house to remind the women that they are in the process of transformation. The community lives in hope that healing is possible and accomplishes salvation through practices of resistance. The women at Esperanza House refuse to live under the kyriarchy of abusive families.
Survivors of trauma, such as domestic violence, are often silenced, and in the wake of domestic violence, the sharing of stories is one of their most important practices of resistance. Indeed, one of the biggest steps towards healing, as outlined by Herman, is having space and time to narrate the story of the trauma. The women at Esperanza House tell truths and share stories, renarrating their personal trauma in light of their hope for the future. In hearing stories from other survivors of violence, the residents of Esperanza House are validated in their experience. One former resident explained that “Listening to the stories of these women, helped me to recall my own stories and experiences, and it gave me permission to talk about myself.” The director of the Esperanza House is sensitive to this need; she noted, “They want to talk to others about it. . . . I see that the stories of each other are the best way in which they really validate one another.” The women hear other stories of violence and trauma, and their own stories are put in a new perspective. Specifically, this practice of storytelling works to help survivors realize that they are not as isolated in their experience of violence as they previously thought, resisting the narrative of isolation that comes with domestic violence.
Another practice of resistance that is central to the functioning of Esperanza House as a salvific community is the table fellowship, where the members of the community take turns preparing meals for their fellow housemates. The dining room is a central part of the house that acts as a neutral space for all the women and their children. One of the women described the shared meals in this space by saying that “It was a very important symbol of unity because everyone would come together. . . . Sometimes we might have differences, but at the table every difference was put aside. And we were united.” The shared meals helped build a sense of community among the women and helped to ground their lives in the house during their stay, contributing to the increasing stabilization of their lives. When the body has experienced trauma, it often remains on high alert until a stable situation is created, and by creating this shared space, the women not only strengthen their community, building lasting relationships with one another, but they also create the space they need to heal. Table fellowship at Esperanza House acts as a practice of resistance by helping to build new kinships, which resist the patriarchal order that rules the women in their abusive relations.
This essay is only the beginning of this conversation. Esperanza House is a particular example of a community of liberation, salvation, and resistance, an example of how we might respond to the complicated kyriarchal structures that surround domestic violence and the family. The kyriarchal structures at the root of the abusive family must be denounced and in its place we must begin to imagine together new types of kinship communities. These communities, like Esperanza House, must actively resist the structures of oppression and domination that threaten their flourishing. As the first-century Christians practiced new ways of supporting and living together, we must continue to imagine how these practices of resistance might liberate us and lead to salvation.
 Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997), 133.
 All identifying markers, names, and places that connect to the Esperanza House have been changed for the confidentiality of the residents.
 Structured face-to-face interview by Ashley Theuring, Esperanza House, Spring 2014.
 Eleanor Lyon, Shannon Lane, and Anne Menard, “Meeting Survivors’ Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences,” School of Social Work, University of Connecticut, 2008.
 R. Emerson Dobash and Russell Dobash, Violence against Wives: A Case Against the Patriarchy (New York, NY: Free Press, 1979), 10.
 “Domestic Violence,” Women Helping Women, 2015, http://www.womenhelpingwomen.org/what-is-abuse/domestic-violence/.
 See Dobash and Dobash, Violence against Wives.
 Ibid., 44.
 Of course, families and kinship structures are not inherently abusive, oppressive, or kyriarchal. The supportive kinship structures that make up a family become the technology by which empire enforces kyriarchy most particularly.
 Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual,” A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2002): 21. Also, see 17.
 Ibid., 15.
 See Alan Page Fiske, “Using Individualism and Collectivism to Compare Cultures— A Critique of the Validity and Measurement of the Constructs: Comment on Oyserman et al. (2002),” Psychological Bulletin 128, no. 1 (2002): 85.
 See Ramos, Bonnie E. Carlson, and Shanti Kulkarni, “Culturally Competent Practice with Latinas,” in Domestic Violence: Intersectionality and Culturally Competent Practice, ed. Lettie L. Lockhart and Fran S. Danis (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010), 216.
 Ibid., 210. Also see 216.
 In Matthew 19:27–29, we see Jesus telling Peter, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” We are also told in Luke 9:60 that Jesus said to one potential disciple not to complete his duties as a son, which would include burying his father: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Even Jesus’s practice of addressing God as Father could be seen as a dig at the culture’s use of patriarchy, because he reserved this name for God and not other paternal authorities (see Carolyn Osiek, “Jesus and Cultural Values: Family Life as an Example,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 53 [September 1997]: 806).
 Osiek, “Jesus and Cultural Values,” 809–10; 1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 10:24, 44–48; and Acts 16:15, 33.
 Isasi-Díaz, En la Lucha / In the Struggle: A Hispanic Women’s Liberation Theology, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1993), 35.
 See Pineda-Madrid, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2011), 123 and 141.
 Ibid., 98 and 141.
 Osiek, “Jesus and Cultural Values,” 809.
 All interview quotes are gathered from structured face-to-face interviews by Ashley Theuring, Esperanza House, Spring 2014.
 Pineda-Madrid, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez.
 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 200–201 and 155.
Ashley Theuring is a doctoral candidate in the practical theology program at the Boston University School of Theology. Prior to her doctoral work, Theuring worked a number of years as an advocate and educator at Women Helping Women of Hamilton County, a rape, crisis, and abuse center. Her theological research explores religious practices, meaning making, and survival in response to trauma.