Football fans turned their attention to the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens on Monday, after TMZ released a video of Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in a casino elevator. The league ultimately suspended him indefinitely, and the team terminated his contract.

After the incident back in February, Rice was charged with assault, and video from outside the elevator showed him dragging her unconscious body. Without the hard evidence of his attack, though, he had initially only been suspended two games.

This high-profile case provides an opportunity for us to consider our response to domestic violence, which can often seem too little, too late.

Ray Rice’s now-wife Janay Palmer Rice, who did not press charges, says her husband’s punishment and the media attention over the case feels like a horrible nightmare. She hates having “to relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day.”

Like many survivors of domestic abuse, deep down, she may be asking, “Is it my fault?” Most assume they did something to spur their abusers on, that they were too passive or too demanding, or that they are somehow to blame for the abuse.

Yet, research on domestic violence reveals that a woman’s behavior actually has no bearing on the abuse. Psychologists Neil Jacobson and John Gottman say it plainly: “There was nothing battered women could do to stop the abuse except get out of the relationship.”

Unfortunately, victims not only blame themselves, but are also blamed by the perpetrator and society. Social psychology researchers have found that we hold prejudices against domestic violence victims. These negative stereotypes make victims feel socially derogated, which can prolong their substantial psychological and emotional distress.

The common question of “If it’s so bad, why don't you leave?” can further this sense of stigma and victimization, since it puts the responsibility on the victim, the one experiencing abuse. Countless people have directed that question at Janay Palmer Rice, who married Ray Rice in June and is still with him. The hashtag #WhyIStayed has been trending in response.

This is an important question; however, focusing on the abuser’s behavior—rather than the woman’s response to his behavior—is crucial for survivors to overcome any feelings of guilt for what has happened to them. Our hope is that people will instead begin asking, “Why does he choose to abuse?”

Article continues below

While characteristics vary from person to person, all abusers share one thing in common: they choose to abuse deliberately. They may blame their behavior on their partners, an abusive childhood, stress, alcohol problems, their cultural background, financial problems, or their personalities.

Others aid in this false claim by assuming violence and abuse only happen because the abuser isn’t able to control his behavior. Or they believe abusers do what they do because they were abused as a child, or that their behavior is dictated by mental illness. Certainly childhood issues, alcohol, drugs, mental illness, and other health problems may be factors of domestic abuse, but they are not the cause.

The truth is, the only reason an abuser abuses is because he chooses to. Abusers are able to control their behavior—they do it all the time. Just look at how they behave when they are not around their victims.

We know that certain factors intensify an abuser’s desire to abuse, but none of those factors cause abuse. Abusers abuse for one reason: because they want to. Yet, there are no acceptable reasons for a partner to abuse another in an intimate relationship.

That means the abuser is the only one to blame. Of course, he does not want anyone to see it this way. Men who abuse share some common characteristics—and one of these characteristics is to blame-shift. They want others to believe that woman is fault or at least shares some responsibility for the abuse she is receiving. But this is not true.

As Christians react to the pain and suffering of women who are abused, we should meditate on God’s love and care for women revealed on the Bible. But God’s love should do more than just make us feel better—it should lead us to imitate his care for those hurting, take action against evil toward the vulnerable, and pray for God’s peace and salvation to cover the earth.

Those suffering abuse need to know that God sees their suffering and that God cares about them and hears their cries and prayers. He cares for them so much that he wants them safe and delivered from threat and violence. He wants them to heal from the many ways they’ve been hurt and wounded.

The deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and the Bible is the grace of God to all of us because we are all broken people in a broken world. Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness.

Article continues below

To Those Suffering Domestic Abuse

If you are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, or family member, you can create a personalized safety plan.

No matter what kind of abuse you have experienced, there is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you think that makes you deserving of it. There is no mistake you could have made and no sin you could have committed to make you deserving of violence.

You do not deserve this. And it is never your fault.

You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. You are not damaged goods, forgotten or ignored by God, or “getting what you deserve.”

But you are created in the image of God. You should be treated with dignity, love, and respect, but instead you are or were the victim of abuse and violence, and it was wrong. You were sinned against.

God knows and sees you in your experience of violence and abuse, He loves you through it all, and he greatly desires your safety and protection. 
God has not forgotten you. He grieves with you. And we hope that knowing this will embolden you to be honest with both him and others, and know that it is courageous—not shameful—to reach out for support.

God says to you clearly, it is not your fault. You were made for more than this. And it is his great desire to see you safe, healed, and made whole.

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and adjunct professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Lindsey Holcomb counsels victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, and she conducts training seminars to service providers and pastors. Together they wrote Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic ViolenceandRid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.