Calvin: Domestic Abuse

We’re gonna swing back and forth a bit with Calvin, I think. From chapter to chapter he’s coming out with stuff that’s really sensible and interesting theology, and then stuff that just sounds awful. We’ve done the thing about God’s glory, about self-denial, and in 3.7.6 (Institutes of the Christian Religion), Calvin talks about how charity is a primary form of self-denial. He’s got a bit more of an expanded view on charity than what we have today, and frankly I think it’s also better. Today we think about charity in a very kinda human-rights sort of way. It’s all about the dignity of the individual – everybody should have the right to a decent life with food and housing and all the rest of it. We use the language of rights. For Calvin, though, charity is more in the realm of self-denial. It’s not about our mutual kinship as human beings, or about someone’s deservingness, their inherent human rights – nah, Calvin’s not interested in any of that. In the first place, of course, Calvin thinks that everybody’s shit and worthless. He wouldn’t have any truck with the human rights shit. But he would also say that the nature of Christ – and in turn the nature of Christians as followers of Christ – is to give to those who are undeserving. “Say that he [any given person] is unworthy of your least exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, is worthy of yourself and all your exertions.”

I actually reckon Calvin’s sense of charity goes further than our contemporary understanding, in that sense, specifically because it’s not predicated on anything that we deserve or merit. When we’re talking about all people deserving that certain basic level of healthy living – I guess the problem with using the language of what people ‘deserve’ is that some people can behave in such a way as to make you decide that they aren’t deserving. If you’re trying to help someone, and they’re just taking every opportunity to exploit and manipulate and actively hurt you – there’s a point where we’d all go, you know, I’d like to help, but fuck ’em. Maybe we justify it in different ways – oh, it’s not safe for me to help them, so I’ll leave them to their own depravity, or I’ll focus on people who are actually reachable, where I can actually do some good. But for Calvin, those people who have passed beyond help still deserve it. That’s the nature of charity – it’s not about what’s justified according to some system of rights or human dignity, it’s specifically extended to those who are undeserving in every sense. That’s a strong challenge to our modern ideas.

Anyway that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today we’re talking about Book 3 Chapter 8, where Calvin tells us that suffering is holy and it’s all from God and it’s somehow good for us. All aboard the HMS Religious Justifications for Domestic Abuse. The first step in this argument is pretty routine for anyone who’s spent more than two seconds in Christian community. Calvin writes that if you’re a believer, life’s going to be shit: “Those whom the Lord has chosen and honoured with his intercourse must prepare for a hard, laborious, troubled life, a life full of many and various kinds of evils; it being the will of our heavenly Father to exercise His people in this way” (3.8.1). According to Calvin, God wants you to suffer for two reasons. First, suffering builds our trust in God. God promises that He will support us through our trials, and so when we suffer, and feel that God is there with us, we can learn to trust in Him even amidst our suffering (which, by the way, He created) (3.8.3). Second, suffering helps us display the patience and other virtues that we have been gifted by God. Calvin notes here that when we talk about being tested by God, we’re not really being tested on any of our own merits per se, because everything that we have we received from God. So our resisting the trials that God sends us is really God giving us the fortitude to resist the trials that He sends us. Why is He sending us these trials, you might ask? Well, they serve as striking proofs of the gifts that we have been given by God. “He is pleased thus to attest and display striking proofs of the graces which He has conferred upon His saints, lest they should remain within, unseen and unemployed” (3.8.4). Can’t have that perseverance going unnoticed – got to torture your humans to show it all off. Oh – last reason, little extra one – if you’re being afflicted, you are still technically a shitty sinner, and so you probably deserve it for the bad things you did in your past (3.8.6).

So Calvin’s a shithead, obviously, and he and his thought carry some measure of responsibility for the Christian women who’ve remained in abusive relationships because they thought that suffering was holy. Calvin wasn’t the first Christian to hate women, but he’s absolutely carrying the torch. We know that Christian women are more likely to stay in abusive relationships, and we know that they use this kind of theology to excuse and explain away the behaviour of their husbands. If you’d like to read some of the research on that fact, you could start here (it’s open access, which we like), or you could read Carol Winkelmann’s The Language of Battered Women: A Rhetorical Analysis of Personal Theologies. Calvin plays a part in that problem. His theology is the theology of abusers.

And – ugh. You know, I almost didn’t want to write this article. It felt a little passe. I don’t think I’ve talked heaps about this kinda coercive theology before on the blog, so it wasn’t that – it was more that I just didn’t feel like it would be interesting. Like yeah, domestic abuse bad, coercive suffering bad, obviously. Our theology needs to be political – again, obviously. It needs to respond to the problems that exist around us. And – okay, here’s my thing. The only useful or interesting thing here is to say that our theology can be political (should be political, even), but it also has to be more than that. If you’re just gonna make political statements, you don’t need the religious baggage. You could do the same job just as well without it. So we have to think critically about what Christianity has to offer, in that sense. For me, it’s the eschatological vision, the vision of the end times. It’s the promise of justice. Where we see suffering and exploitation today, the promise of justice sits over them. It’s not okay that suffering happens, and we should be fighting to end it, but even when we don’t manage it, the core of our faith is the claim that there will still be justice. Those who mourn will be comforted. The meek shall inherit the earth. And I know that this kind of apocalypse thinking is often used as an excuse not to do anything about suffering now. It’s definitely tied to the thinking of victims who try to rationalise their abuse: it’ll be okay, we just have to wait it out, it’ll get better eventually. That’s obviously a problem that still exists. But to me, the problem there is that as a society or as a culture we’re failing to respond in full to the vision of the apocalypse. Justice is coming. You can either help to bring it into the world, or you can sit around and do nothing to build up the kingdom of God. Whichever we choose, we will be held accountable for our actions on the day of judgement. Justice is coming.


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