Michael Pearl to Domestic Abuse Victim: Suffer Silently

Last week this email was posted on the No Greater Joy blog:

Dear Mrs. Pearl,

I don’t want you to think I am dishonoring my husband. My heart is to lift him up and be a good wife. Something has happened over the last year that is scary. My husband has always been somewhat given to the flesh and occasionally angry, but now his anger is out of control. He often comes home from work mad—mad at me, the dog, the kids, the car, the guy next door… anything and anybody can bring on his rage. The kids have nightmares and cry out begging him not to hurt their dog because he threatens crazy stuff when he is having a fit. We all try to have everything just right, but he still finds something wrong. We are all a nervous wreck. Sometimes I wonder if he is demon possessed, but then he still goes to church and teaches. What do I tell the children, and what can I do to lessen the anger?

—Sarah

Sarah’s description of her husband, in her email to Debi Pearl, makes clear that he is severely emotionally abusive. Indeed, not only is she scared, her children are waking up with nightmares because their father has threatened to hurt their dog. Of course, while Sarah does know something is wrong, she doesn’t use the term “abuse”—and probably doesn’t use it in her head, either. She likely doesn’t have the vocabulary she needs to understand what is happening to her family.

While Sarah addressed her email to Debi, it is Mike who responds, and his response is so awful it has left me absolutely shaking in rage. I’ve covered the Pearls and their fundamentalist Christian ministry many times in the past. While Debi advises women to obey and honor their husbands unconditionally, Mike advises parents on how to properly beat their children into submission. This, though? This takes the cake. It is completely and overwhelmingly appalling.

This post comes with a major trigger warning for domestic violence.

Mike begins his response as follows:

First, choose a time when you are alone and he is not angry. In a non-confrontational manner, share with him how his anger hurts you and the children. Assure him of your desire to make him happy, and just ask him what you and the children are doing that makes him angry.

Right off the bat, Mike counsels Sarah to assume that her husband is angry because of something she and the children are doing wrong. That is not an auspicious start.

It may be that he feels he is not respected at work or at home, or it could be that he feels threatened by his financial affairs or job insecurity or any number of things that can leave a man feeling that he is losing control.

It may be that he feels he is not respected at home. Gee, I wonder why. Fundamentalist Christian gender roles are set up such that wives are to respect their husbands whether their husbands have done anything to earn that respect or not. So if Sarah’s husband is angry and abusive, the responsibility is on her to show him she respects him—not on him to act in such a way as to earn her respect.

Despite this discussion of fault, Mike does identify Sarah’s husband’s anger a sin:

He may be venting at home the emotions that have built up at work, knowing he would lose his job and look like a fool if he acted that way in public, which means he has self-control when he needs to. He just does not see the need to exercise it in a place where he doesn‘t have to earn his place of authority. He takes his “lordship” over the family to be a license. In his thinking, God makes the dutiful wife and children take it in silence. His sin is hidden and unidentified.

In a humble manner, rise up from the floor and name his sin to him. Never get mad in return. But look his anger in the eye as one who has personal dignity and will not be crushed by verbal abuse and unreasonable demands on you and the children. He wants you to break before his wrath. He wants to control you. Make your heart and spirit bigger than his smallness and love him, knowing he is willfully addicted and afflicted.

Um. This may be just me, but if your husband “wants you to break before his wrath” you need to get out. As for Mike’s advice, confronting a partner with anger issues is risky, even if you do it at a moment when he is calm. Mike does not address what Sarah should do if her husband responds to her confronting his “sin” by becoming physical, which he very well might. Sarah, remember, has stated that her husband’s behavior is “scary” and that he “threatens crazy stuff when he is having a fit.”

Mike’s advice is downright dangerous.

“Human nature” would prompt you to strike back, to stand in defiance, to attempt to break him in return, to make him repent and admit he is wrong, to force him to come crawling in contrition. That is a satisfying human emotion but one that will end in divorce.

That line about human nature prompting Sarah to “force [her husband] to come crawling in contrition” is strangely telling. I say that because I’m pretty sure “crawling in contrition” is about as inimical to Mike’s nature as you can get. I very much suspect that for Mike, that would be the ultimate degradation. In some sense, then, Mike is imagining that Sarah may want to make her husband face complete humiliation—a horrible thing—when in fact all Sarah wants (per her letter) is to stop being afraid all the time, and for her children to feel safe in their own home.

In other words, this paragraph is about portraying the two sides as equally inclined to wrong—Sarah’s husband may be given to anger, but if Sarah had her way she would have him “crawling in contrition.”

Let’s be clear about what is going on here. Mike tells Sarah not to “strike back” or “stand in defiance.” He also portrays divorce as the worst possible outcome, and never mentions leaving as a possibility. What exactly is Sarah to do, then?

So you must understand the difference between the victim you have been, the adversary (which you could become to your detriment), and the child of God who unflinchingly and with confidence looks him in the eye and takes his verbal lashes as if they were confessions of his weakness.

So wait. Wait wait. What Mike is doing with the word “victim” here is fascinating—and horrifying. Mike tells Sarah to “take his verbal lashes as if they were confessions of his weakness,” insisting that if she does this while confidently looking her husband in the eye she is not a “victim.” This is not how words work.

Oxford defines “victim” as “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” If Sarah is being verbally and emotionally abused, she is a victim whether or not she looks her husband in the eye while he does it. Of course, Mike isn’t the only one to define “victim” more narrowly, and there are those who have experienced abuse who prefer the term “survivor.” Still, in Mike’s hands, the term is used to keep a person in an abusive situation.

And Mike’s response only gets worse:

There is great victory in the Christian heart, and great dignity. If you crush a rose it releases its fragrance. An angry husband cannot defeat a Spirit-filled wife, nor can he take satisfaction in her silent suffering, for she stands straight and unapologetic as she looks him in the eye with a knowing that pierces to his innermost being.

I’m not sure whether Mike has ever crushed a rose, but I’m go out on a limb and say more happens than a release of fragrance. You know, things like broken petals, torn leaves, and, ultimately, death. Mike knows he is telling Sarah to stay in an abusive situation. He uses the term suffering for god’s sake. But in Mike’s fundamentalist Christian worldview, suffering is not a bad thing. Christ suffered, and he often calls his followers to suffer.

And what about Sarah’s children? What of them?

As to your children, do not allow them to grow up thinking his anger is normal and acceptable, that they are to blame and must alter their actions in unreasonable ways to quash his tirades. Take this as a blessed opportunity to teach them the virtue of Christ. Explain that Daddy is walking after the flesh and displeasing God, that he is a sinner in need of the Spirit of love and mercy. This is an unparalleled opportunity for you to demonstrate the contrast between true Christianity and a hypocrite. By showing mercy and loving him anyhow, you will be drawing a contrast that will commend them to Christ. But if you come down to his level and fight with him, they will forever hate Christianity, which is a reasonable response that has produced many emotionally driven atheists.

Um. What? No, that is not how this works. The people I know who grew up with domestic abuse (whether physical or emotional) tend to wish their mother had left their father, both for her sake and for their sake. And yes, some of these individuals were raised in fundamentalist Christian homes and are now atheists. Watching your entire community accommodate an abuser and turn a blind eye to your suffering doesn’t exactly point you to the gospel.

And then there’s this, because yes, it does get worse:

The children will take their cue from you. They will not be harmed by his anger if you display a Christian response and compassionately give verbal context to his anger.

This is not how this works, this is not how any of this works. There is no magic opt-out-of-harm button if your mother tells you your abusive father is doing wrong, while doing nothing to stop his abuse. Sarah wrote that her children are waking with nightmares because her husband threatens to do unspeakable things to their beloved dog when he is angry. These children are being harmed.

Mike has advised Sarah to tell her husband that he is in sin and that his anger is hurting them, and then to look him steadily in the eye without flinching when he unleashes his anger on her and the children. Given his admonition that she suffer silently and take his verbal lashes, Mike does not appear to believe that Sarah’s telling her husband that he is in sin will necessarily change anything. Indeed, his focus is on triage.

Dear ladies of angry husbands, first, make sure you are not exacerbating the problem with antagonistic responses. Be humble. Stand tall with dignity. Submit yourself to the love and rule of God. Say no when it is needed. Look him in the eye as one who is informed with the truth and not afraid of anger or lying accusations. You are a child of God and are loved by God; love in return. He may repent or he may not, but you will grow to be more like Jesus and your children will know the difference between a true martyr and a victim. The victim is timid and afraid, whereas the martyr can “rejoice and be exceeding glad” (Matthew 5:12).

That’s right, this appalling response just got worse. What is the difference between a victim and a martyr? Oh, I don’t know: Martyrs die. Now I don’t think Mike meant to imply that Sarah might die, though she might. He seems to be redefining the term “martyr” like he is redefining the term “victim.” Both victims and martyrs suffer, he suggests, but victims are afraid while martyrs rejoice in their suffering and thus point people (including their children) to Jesus.

This sort of advice could get someone killed. While I’d be horrified enough that Mike is urging this woman to stay with her abusive husband and accept his abuse with a smile, he’s also telling her that her children will not be harmed (even though they have been harmed already) if she does so. This is the absolute height of irresponsibility.

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