07.28.14

What Stephen A. Smith Missed About Domestic Violence

When your job is to talk and you talk as much and as bombastically as Stephen A. Smith, you’re bound to say some things that get you into trouble. Usually Smith doesn’t care one bit. But last Friday the ESPN commentator made some comments about domestic violence that has him back pedaling and trying to explain himself.

For context, Ray Rice, a running back for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, received a two-game suspension in connection with a hotel video that shows him dragging his unconscious girlfriend from an elevator. The woman in question and the authorities reporting to the scene allege Rice knocked her out on the elevator. Following review of the video, the Ravens issued Rice’s suspension. Smith’s comments come in the wake of the suspension.

What did Smith say? To be fair, Smith got some things correct. He was unequivocal in repeatedly saying men “have no business putting [their] hands on a woman.” He expressed empathy and a protective concern for the women in his life—his mother, sisters and others. He suggested that a two-game suspension was not severe enough.

So why did the internet erupt last Friday following Smith’s comments? Why were his comments described as a “rant” and Smith himself as going “off the rails”? (see here) Well, it’s not because Smith was actually ranting. Anyone familiar with ESPN’s First Take can identity a Stephen A. Smith rant—he does it all the time. And we’ve seen Smith nearly come undone. But this was Smith delivering a sober and, for Smith, measured reply. He was serious and, from what I can tell, intended to send a message about the complete inappropriateness of men battering women.

The controversy stems from Smith’s comments about women needing to take measures to not provoke abuse or put themselves in situations with potential to end in abuse. Rambling and searching for words, Smith said:

“What I’ve tried to implore the female members of my family, some of whom you all met and talked to and what have you, is that again, and this is what, I’ve done this all my life, let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come, or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know, if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that doesn’t happen.”

That’s one daddy of a run-on sentence, full of asides and qualifications, so it’s difficult to interpret precisely what Smith means. But here’s my best guess. He’s attempting to say three things, I think:

  1. He’s always encouraged the women of his family not to “provoke wrong actions” from men (i.e., abusive actions).
  2. If a man abuses a woman, then the response of law enforcement and family members will always be after the fact, that is, too late to prevent the abuse.
  3. So, he believes women should do “their part in making sure” abuse ‘doesn’t happen.’”

I think Smith means well. I really do. Yet I think he demonstrates some dangerous ignorance regarding the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse.

Stephen A. Smith plans to make more clarifying comments on today’s edition of First Take. Here are four things I think he missed the first time, and that I hope shape his comments this time:

  1. We cannot qualify the basic message.

Had Smith simply stopped with his opening statement—men “have no business putting [their] hands on a woman”—period—end of sentence—then he would have delivered a clear, unmistakable, and most necessary message. That message got lost because there are no acceptable qualifiers for it. It stands alone. It should be shouted repeatedly into a culture among professional athletes that all-too-often turns the blind eye to gladiator men smashing around beautiful women.

But any time you add a qualifier like “women should do what we can to prevent abuse,” you shift responsibility from the abuser to the abused. You blame the victim. Rather than focus on the perpetrator of the crime—and that’s what battering is!—you saddle the already entrapped, manipulated and hurting woman with responsibility for herself and for the one beating her.

  1. Domestic abuse is not a “women’s issue.” It’s a men’s issue.

I wrote about this a little while back (see here and here). It’s related to the blame-shifting mentioned above. The battering of women and children would decrease dramatically if (a) men owned this as our problem and (b) those men who do not batter would hold accountable the men who do. But too often we speak of domestic violence in terms that leave men blameless. We say, “Debbie was beaten” rather than “Joe beats Debbie.” In the first sentence, our usual way of speaking, “Joe” doesn’t even appear in the picture. And that’s the major problem. The abuser vanishes in the shadows while good men stand by quietly and women are left with “the problem.”

  1. Men must prevent domestic violence.

Smith rightly calls for prevention. We need to do everything we can to prevent abuse. But the “we” who needs to do something is men—not women. So many people seem to forget or know very little about battered women’s syndrome. When we’re ignorant of even the most basic description and dynamics we end up doing things devastatingly harmful for the women and children who experience it. Taking five minutes to read the Wikipedia entry would be a very helpful first step in educating ourselves for prevention. Men must prevent domestic violence because the women and children trapped in the repeated cycles of abuse-reconciliation-blame-abuse-reconciliation are overwhelmed with the grooming and abuse much the way war veterans with PTSD are overwhelmed with the effects of war.

  1. Putting women in abusive situations will cost someone their life.

Asking women to take preventative measures while involved with an abuser costs too many people their lives. Women make up about 75 percent of persons killed by an intimate partner. But sometimes the victim is the male perpetrator when women take desperate measures to defend themselves, another effect of battered women’s syndrome. We can’t afford to be uninformed about the global problem of men battering women—especially if our comments are as high-profile as Smith’s.

GSS_Domestic_Violence1

Lessons for the Local Church

As I thought about Smith’s comments over the weekend, my mind went quickly to my role and the role of Christian men in our churches. Let’s not forget that many of the battered women in our communities are in our churches, worshipping alongside us, pretending everything is okay, hiding brutal bruises, and making excuses for their abusers. Sometimes the abusers are husbands who are also involved in our churches. And, worst of all, sometimes the abuser is a church leader.

Domestic violence shelters can no longer be the only safe places for abused women and children. The safest place should be the family of God.

But it’s not. And our churches won’t be safe until we get in the fight on behalf of our sisters. Churches aren’t safe because Christians pretend blindness, remain ignorant, and sometimes provide disastrous counsel. How many times have we heard leaders and Christians tell an abused woman “God hates divorce” or some such thing? How often have church leaders made women the villains when men were abusers? How often have women be ostracized or shunned while men continued their service in the church?

We’ve got work to do, brothers. It’s time for godly Christian men to make domestic abuse and intimate partner violence a men’s issue. It’s time pastors preach and teach on this issue in an uncompromising, courageous and visionary way (here’s an example). It’s time we end our complicit silence and speak up for our sisters. We’ve asked women to support black men in a thousand ways for hundreds of years. But truth be told, men haven’t even begun to return the love, support, protection and hope women have given us! We’ve taken their support and turned our backs when and where our sisters have needed us most. We need to repent. We need to call a moratorium on all our “save the black man” activities until we show some strength in saving, protecting and nurturing some black women!

Personally, I can’t blame Black women for debating whether they should continue marching and protesting in support of Black male causes. I pray the debate (see here, here, here for example) leads to some necessary repentance and action among us brothers. The Lord knows that when guys are knocking women out in hotel elevators and worse in private homes, our sisters need us to step up for them. May He give us strength to do so.

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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