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Lena Zezulin: The Russian Orthodox Church, the law, and family violence


Russian Orthodox Church Commission on the family opposes measures to prevent family violence

The Moscow Patriarchate’s Commission “On the questions of the family, protection of motherhood and children” recently adopted a resolution on the family, which includes positions on family violence entirely at odds with Orthodox theology and contrary to relevant evidence. The Commission organized three sessions on the theme “Christian family – domestic church” for the 24th International Christmas readings in Moscow on January 26-27, 2016. The three sessions were: “Family spiritual care in parishes: forms, approaches and experience,” “Practical activity of diocesan commissions on family matters,” and “Renewal of traditional family values: direction for practical work.”

A resolution was approved at this event to set priorities to support family life and human life. This note will address only one topic in the resolution: its opposition to legislation aimed at preventing family violence. This is the first problem mentioned in the resolution, before references to abortion or same-sex marriage. Clearly, the Commission views the introduction of legal measures to prevent family violence as a serious threat to Christian families.

The resolution critiques challenges to the modern family and bemoans an attack on marriage and traditional family life. It refers to “false ideologies, conceptions and approaches” to the family. One such false approach are legal measures to address family violence. The resolution refers to “gender ideology” as something that attacks the family and condemns the fact that “the family is also regularly portrayed as a source of threat and violence.”

Point 1 of the resolution calls for opposition to threats to the family. It describes as a threat “efforts to introduce in Russia a law on so-called prevention of family violence, the approaches and concepts linked to it, which under the guise of protecting women from violence conceal an anti-family ideology of radical feminism and legal mechanisms that are very dangerous to the family and society.” Point 2 calls for public information to combat threats to the family. Point 3 calls for improved communication by the church about the value of the family. This includes a critique of the “uncritical, thoughtless copying and use by certain clergy and laity of the concepts, terms and understandings that are far from neutral and have anti-family and anti-Christian ideological roots and directions, such as “family violence” or “domestic violence, “gender,” etc. The resolution goes on to say that Orthodox Christians should know that these terms will lead to perdition and should not be used. Point 4 calls for expanding activities to protect the family.

This note addresses several questions related to this resolution on family violence. First, is family violence a serious problem in Russia? Second, are programs to combat family violence in other countries hostile to the Christian family? And third, is it consistent with Orthodox values to oppose such programs? I approach the first two questions by comparing Russia with the United States, because the United States is more similar to Russia in size than countries of Western Europe, and also because it has a high homicide rate, due to gun violence, thus is a relatively violent country.


Is family violence a problem in Russia?

Compared to the United States, then, is domestic violence in Russia a very serious problem? The most crucial indicator is domestic violence that results in death. Data on family violence collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that worldwide 38% of murdered women are killed by their partners (data for 2013). It is difficult to find data on how many women die from family violence each year in Russia. According to estimates based on studies in selected regions by the Russian Ministry of Interior, a shocking 600,000 women in Russia face physical and verbal abuse at home every year. Out of those an estimated 14,000 die from injuries inflicted by husbands or partners. That is almost 40 a day. Yes, this is an estimate. Until there is a funded program to collect data, a correct count is difficult to make.

How does this compare to the United States with its gun violence? In the US 1706 women a year die from violence inflicted by husbands or partners. That is too many women, but the loss is so much less than in Russia, especially if we consider that the US population is more than twice that of the Russian Federation (US is 324 million and Russia is 143 million). To reach a rate like the US, Russia would have to drastically decrease its rate. One can discuss and quibble as to whether the statistics are comparable. I am not a statistician, so will not do that, I only note that the Russian rate, calculated by the Ministry of Interior, is monstrous compared to the US rate. Clearly Russia HAS a serious domestic violence problem. And of course, domestic violence that stops short of death leads to other ills for the 600,000 or so Russian women subject to it.

In addition to data there is cultural evidence that family violence is a major presence in Russian families, including in families that go to church. The recent outpouring of commentary of the videotape of Father Andrei Tkachev suggesting spousal abuse as an approach includes many heart rending comments, including comments that that make it abundantly clear that abusers exist within church walls and that horrific abuse occurs in the context of prayer and church life.


Are programs combating family violence anti-Christian?

Next, are programs to combat domestic violence in the United States anti-family or anti-Christian? Many faithful Orthodox people live in the US, with its government programs against family violence, and do not find that these programs threaten families in general or Orthodox families in particular. Churches participate in such programs.

For many decades the individual 50 states dealt with family violence as a matter of local law, and practices differed. Family violence has been criminalized in most states. In 1993 the United Nations declared family violence a violation of human rights. In 1994 the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) was passed to provide national guidelines, enforcement and services. It is a federal law. It provides funds to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women, imposes automatic and mandatory restitution, and allows civil redress in cases that prosecutors choose not to prosecute. The law establishes an Office on Violence against Women in the Department of Justice. Its informational function is very important.

VAWA was drafted by the office of then-Senator now Vice President Joseph Biden and had bipartisan support. In the 2000 in the case United States v. Morrison, a divided Supreme Court struck down the VAWA provision allowing women the right to sue their attackers in federal court. This means the VAWA cases still proceed only in state courts. VAWA was reauthorized by bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2000, and again in December 2005.  The Act's 2012 renewal was opposed by conservative Republicans, who objected to extending the Act's protections to same-sex couples and to provisions allowing battered undocumented immigrants and those with uncompleted visa documents to claim temporary visas. The Catholic Church opposed interpreting any provisions to apply to same-sex couples. Nonetheless, VAWA was again reauthorized in 2013, after a long legislative battle.

VAWA protects victims who are evicted from their homes because of events related to domestic violence or stalking, funding for victim assistance services, like rape crisis centers and hotlines, programs to meet the needs of immigrant women and women of different races and ethnicities, programs and services for victims with disabilities and legal aid for survivors of domestic violence. The provision of VAWA that assists women whose immigration status is incomplete has been used to help battered Russian women coming to the United States as mail order brides. There are Orthodox priests who know and rely on VAWA to help women.

Whether VAWA has caused a decline in family violence can be debated, but violence has declined. And VAWA has not undermined American families. Many American churches have programs to support victims of family violence and to prevent violence. The case of the Catholic Church is particularly interesting, given its opposition to divorce and pro-family policy positions. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have made clear that “violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form- physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal is sinful; often it is a crime as well.” (When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women). Some abused women believe that Catholic Church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship. They may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. They may fear that they cannot re-marry in the Catholic Church. The Catholic bishops emphasize that “no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.” Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. The abuser has already broken the marriage covenant through his or her abusive behavior. According to the Catholic bishops, abused persons who have divorced can investigate the possibility of seeking an annulment.


It is un-Orthodox to oppose programs to prevent family violence

The resolution of the Russian Orthodox Church Commission opposes the use of the term “family violence” and views the goal of protecting victims of family violence as opposed to the institution of the family. It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church concluded that an admission that there is family violence through a prevention program undermines the family. This position is fundamentally contrary to the Orthodox concept of family and marriage. The Orthodox marriage is not a property or subservience relationship. It is a relationship built on love. It is a domestic church. The Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch. 5, read at each Orthodox wedding, contains the essence of the Orthodox view on marriage. The relevant lines are:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy… In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if he lives with his wife as if she were a slave, and not with a woman by her own free will? Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church.

The essence of marriage is love and self-sacrifice. Family violence of any sort is clearly contrary to this objective. A man who loves his wife as his own body cannot subject her to physical or mental abuse. This point was made centuries ago by one of the most revered church Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, who in his famous homilies on marriage forbid men to hit their wives, and pointed out that even pagan laws forbid this. “But one's partner for life, the mother of one's children, the source of one's every joy, should never be fettered with fear and threats, but with love and patience. What kind of marriage can there be if the wife is afraid of her husband?” Given that the Russian Orthodox Church rightly wishes to protect marriage and the family, should not preventing family violence be a concern of Orthodox clergy in Russia, as much as it is a concern of Catholic clergy in the United States? Indeed, why would every Orthodox Church not strive to prevent family violence? Refusing to name the problem will not make it go away. Refusing to name the problem is a lie.

In addition to murder, family violence has other un-Christian consequences. It has affects the physical and mental health of women and their families, according to the WHO. It contributes to depression and to excessive use of alcohol. Women subjected to family violence are twice as likely to abuse alcohol (which has an impact on children they may bear). Also according to the WHO, women who are subject to family violence are twice as likely to have an abortion. This should be a concern for any Orthodox Church. Is it un-Christian to recommend that a woman subject to violence leave her husband, perhaps seek a divorce? No. The Orthodox Church recognizes divorce for such cases and does not prohibit divorce.

The Russian Orthodox Church needs to admit that family violence exits, and work to prevent it. The Russian Orthodox Church should oppose family violence in conformity with the Orthodox doctrine of marriage. Churches do so in other countries. The Resolution of 26-27 January therefore expresses an un-Christian, indeed dishonest position on the family, since it refers to family violence as “so-called” and seeks to deny its existence. In adopting this Resolution the Commission refuses to even acknowledge the pain of family violence widely experienced in Russia. There may be problematic language in some of the proposals being considered in Russia, but the response to that is to improve them, not to oppose them. Without admitting that family violence exists, and without a program to prevent family violence, it is impossible to know the exact scope of the problem in Russia or to begin to address it. The Resolution should be rejected by the appropriate Russian Orthodox Church authorities.

Lena Zezulin is a US attorney and international development advisor on democracy and governance and economic reform. She has served in 30 countries. She lived and worked long term on legal reform in Russia, Armenia and Tunisia. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland and attends services at parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.