Most of us do not connect discussions of teen dating with Sunday School discussions about Good Friday. There may be some theological traditions who would use Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to bring a bit of perspective to the drama of teen dating. For example, “Jesus gave his life for us, how can you spend so much time worrying about who will take whom to the dance?” But that was not the discussion in the Sunday School class that I lead. Instead, we connected questions of atonement with teen dating violence.
April is domestic violence awareness month. It is also the month this year in which Christians celebrated Easter, a joyous celebration of Jesus’ resurrection after being publicly imprisoned, beaten, and crucified. Since my first sexual ethics course in seminary, I have never been able to view Jesus’ death as a benign sacrifice that has only positive outcomes in the lives of Christians. The popular versions of atonement theory suggest that Jesus’ gruesome and violent crucifiction substitute for human sin, thus freeing humanity from God’s wrath. Some religious traditions have interpreted Jesus’ suffering as the model for Christian behavior.
How does this relate to teen dating violence? My co-teacher and I start class with a short talk about the prevalence of teen dating violence and the theological issues that overlap with atonement as we move into celebration of Holy week. We discussed how those who have experienced and are experiencing sexual and domestic violence may feel, or have been directly told, that they should suffer their violence in silence or they should lift up their suffering to God JUST LIKE JESUS did on the cross. The valorization of Jesus’ death can justify suffering of others in violent contexts. Marie Fortune, in Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited, has pointed out that Jesus’ suffering is voluntary; he chooses to be crucified. Whereas individuals suffering domestic and sexual violence are involuntarily suffering; they do not choose to be abused. In direct opposition to substitutionary atonement theory, Delores Williams, in Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk makes the argument that Jesus did not need to die and his death on the cross does not save us. Instead, attention to Jesus’ life, his ministry and teachings, are what’s needed for salvation.
We then posed the following question to the class: If dating violence is involuntary suffering and we are to learn from Jesus’ actions and teachings, how can we respond, how should we respond? In today’s violence prevention language, we want to help the teens be upstanders (stand up and do something) rather than bystanders when they see signs of dating violence in their or their friends’ relationships.
In order to make this question a bit more real and practice what we might do, we engaged dating scenarios with differing levels of violence. Pairs of student volunteers left the room to learn dating scenarios so they could be “interviewed” about their relationship on our class talk show “Dr. Love.” The other students served as the audience and were tasked with identifying problematic behavior and offering suggestions and strategies if they felt one partner should end the relationship. The scenarios included cyberstalking, control of a partner’s friendships, emotionally abusive language, ignoring a partner around certain friends, physical abuse, and being coerced to engage in sexual behaviors.
The volunteer pairs did a great job of expressing the feelings they thought the “character” might experience, like love, shame, hurt, humility, joy, sadness, stuckness, and so on. As the talk show host, I asked them questions about the volunteers about their relationship and shared factual information with the audience. The “audience” sometimes argued with each other about ending the relationship versus working to change behaviors. They identified how the abusive behaviors violated values of a healthy relationship. They also gave realistic suggestions about talking to a parent, friends, or school counselor.
We ended our class by reminding the youth that no one has the right to treat another person in sexually, emotionally, or physically abusive ways. We also named how difficult it can be for some individuals who experience violence to tell someone and find help. The students were given the reference to LoveIsRespect.org if they needed more information. We wanted the students to all know we are adults with whom they can talk about these issues and come to if they need help.
Violence is part of the Christian story in a variety of ways. When we ignore this violence and the theologies that can surround it, we can silence those who experience various forms of violence. This is one example of how we might start a conversation with teens about ending one form of violence in their and their friend’s lives.
For more on responding to sexual violence see, Where do I start?
Dr. Kate Ott is a feminist, catholic scholar addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in technology, youth and young adults, sexuality, pedagogy and professional ethics. She is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. In addition to numerous articles, chapters, and two co-edited books, she is author of Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, and the forthcoming, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. To find out more, visit www.kateott.org.