The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy…Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
By Tom Airey, Co-Editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net & Lindsay Airey, MFT
Mainstream media outlets have homed in on the subject of domestic abuse in the wake of the release of the video of pro football player Ray Rice literally knocking out his fiance (now wife) back in Febuary. The footage is disturbing and has led to his indefinite suspension by the NFL. Rice is now out of a job, the commissioner is being investigated based on the initial 2-game suspension he leveled on Rice back in May (did he see this video back then and only give him a 2-game suspension?) and Rice’s wife, Janay Palmer, is under scrutiny because she is “standing by” her man (who was, ironically & painfully, “standing over” her for the duration of the video).
We just want to offer a few humble comments towards a restorative justice approach to this situation:
1. The NFL’s “punishment” (or in football terms “penalty”) approach seems to be, quite simply, a public relations move. It is largely based on the commissioner saving face and distancing himself (and the league) from Rice’s violent off-the-field behavior. It is, of course, expected in a culture saturated in what theologian Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence”: “dealing” with violence with more violence, in the form of prohibition, prisons, penalties or any other punishment. But, if this is what Ray Rice deserves, then it begs the question: who else deserves suspensions for their off-the-field sins–whether anger, addiction and/or aggression? A strong-armed response, however, is typical coming from an organization which has truly transformed denial into an art form.
2. Followers of Jesus, in the face of violence, are called to a different kind of script altogether. In Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Volume II, drawing on the fields of mediation, nonviolent activism, restorative justice & biblical scholarship, Elaine Enns and Ched Myers propose “a range of nonviolent responses to injustice, violation and/or violence in order to determine how to make things as right as possible between victims, offenders and their communities.” A response to Ray Rice’s violence ought to swear off punishment-only & shame-based approaches so that truth & reconciliation, forgiveness & healing can be, at the very least, an option.
3. As Enns & Myers point out, this begins with an understanding that violence does not just happen. It is a natural outcome of structural violence–poverty, racism, the cult of masculinity, etc–that plagues neighborhoods, homes, schools and playing fields, resulting in interjecting (addictions) and projecting (domestic abuse) violence on to self and others (see Loyola of Chicago professor James Garbarino’s Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent & How We Can Save Them). In order to heal violence, like anything else, we must go to the root: the social, political & economic systems of injustice. Of course, the gigantic elephant in the room is just how violent the sport of football really is and the obvious role this plays in the epidemic of violence in households of NFL players.
4. An indefinite suspension for Rice just leads to more shame and hiding: for Rice, and every other player, coach and executive in the NFL. Rice (and star running back Adrian Peterson, who was just suspended for child abuse allegations) needs help, not rejection. He is intensely caught up in a cycle of violence that will never heal with the reactive & violent “solutions” that are currently being utilized. He, most certainly, is not justified or excused for domestic abuse and must bear responsibility for it, seeking appropriate counseling, surrounded by an intimate community of love and hope and acceptance, always committed to rigorous boundaries.
5. Lastly, but certainly not least, Rice’s wife, Janay, the victim of this abuse, has been held up to critical scrutiny by men and women alike, prompting a myriad of testimonials all over social media trending as #whyistayed & #whyileft. This awful situation seems to be leading to a much-needed conversation about the complex dynamics of abuse, addiction & co-dependency. She needs support that moves far beyond the herd patronizing & pitying as a side dish to second-guessing her & rebuking him. Victims, like offenders, need circles of honesty & safety in order to experience healing & strength.
Stripping her husband of his vocation, salary & identity, however, places her in a more vulnerable position than before, increasing her risk of even more unmerited blame & rage from him. Furthermore, this zero tolerance policy will greatly affect all other current and future victims of DV in the NFL, as Kalimah Johnson, founder of Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness says, “Now, a woman may never say she’s abused if she knows her partner will be cut from a team or lose his job.”
The way of Jesus calls us away from simple denunciation, name-calling, scapegoating, shame & violence. After all, we pledge allegiance at baptism to the ultimate scapegoat, the one killed by the Powers because “it was better that one man should die for the sake of the nation” (John 18:14). We, unfortunately, share the compulsion of Caiaphas, living in a culture with a tremendously dysfunctional & destructive relationship to sexuality & violence. We, too often, yearn for someone to take the heat for the rest of us.
Followers of the ultimate scapegoat refuse all violent solutions. Instead, we are beckoned to look within, to take personal inventory of our own violent patterns, while extending our open hands (not closed fists) towards those caught up in the cycles of violence that rage around us. This is difficult, demanding and time-consuming work and many of our communities are beautifully modeling this kind of Beloved Community, and we are grateful for this leaven in the loaf.