Last week we were confronted with domestic violence in the most tragic of circumstances as a NSW father became the brutal killer of his two teenage children. Most Australians will have found this news inexplicable. How could a father submerge natural feelings of paternal care and responsibility in an ocean of anger and bitterness to enable such a terrible act? If the chief role of Government is to ‘keep its citizens safe’, as politicians from the Prime Minister down constantly remind us to justify the enormous spending on national defence; is enough being done to combat what is a far greater threat to citizen safety?
Marriage breakdown is as common as it is understandable. People grow apart. Circumstances change, and folk find they have less in common. Pressures such as financial stress, disability suffered by one member of the family, a crisis of some kind, poverty; there are as many contributing reasons as there are breakdowns. But breakdowns should not lead to enmity, let alone violence. Common decency and respect should prevail. So why is violence so prevalent, why do so many (primarily women and children) suffer abuse?
Violence is a misdirected expression of power, the need for which grows exponentially as the inner integrity and self-worth of a person decline. It should be impossible for a healthy, integrated human being to succumb to acts of domestic violence. A healthy human being does not need to ‘own’ or ‘control’ another human being. A healthy human being’s sense of self worth is fed through mutuality, not control. So how do so many become so unwell that violence becomes a tool in the expression of longed for self-worth.
I would like to venture some reasons.
First, we have become a society in which ‘gold and silver’ are deemed to be the prize, whereas in many ancient civilisations, including indigenous dreaming, wisdom is the prize. Wisdom is the virtue derived from understanding how things work. In the Jewish and Christian traditions wisdom is the energy which holds all things together. Wisdom is to be found through observance of the natural order and how it works. Wisdom is found not in things themselves, but in the space between them. Thus, wisdom manifests itself in honour trust and respect. Because ‘gold and silver’ are the prize, our society does not honour and respect the natural order, inclusive of individual human beings, for we are part of that order.
An ancient definition of wisdom is ‘the capacity to cope’. Various situations, including poverty, contribute to dysfunction. Government and government policy need to be far more empathetic to consequences that contribute to and flow from social dysfunction.
Institutional religion has long since lost any authority to be wisdom in and to the western world. Institutions have thought their institution to be the prize, as the royal commission into institutional child abuse and the matter of the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide have demonstrated. Also, religions have become far too interested in their doctrines and insufficiently focused on wisdom. And yet there is no greater source of wisdom than understanding that Jesus is the wisdom of God. Love, service, equality, sacrifice, this is how things work, this is where blessing lies, this is our destiny. Much debate has rattled around proposals emanating from the Ramsay Centre about understanding Western Civilisation. Perhaps a benefactor can be found who will dedicate resources into wisdom and where this might be found in an increasingly polarised, competitive and binary world. We must find a way for children not simply to be educated, but to be immersed in wisdom. We know that actions, or potential actions in adulthood, very often have their genesis in childhood.
Second, as much as we do not wish to admit it, there remains residual and institutional inequality between men and women. It demonstrates itself in unequal pay for the same work, in positions of power being held disproportionately by men, by women remaining poorly represented in government etc. Senator Leynhelm’s offensive use of language in the Senate is a shrill reminder that some men consider it appropriate to belittle women on the basis that being offensive should have no gender barrier. His words give justification to likeminded men to treat their partners with the same disrespect. As has been correctly pointed out, it is women who are raped and murdered, not men.
To my great embarrassment I must acknowledge that significant elements in the Anglican Church, especially the Diocese of Sydney, teach that women should ‘submit’ to their husbands. Those who defend this teaching try to do so on the spurious ground that women are submitting to ‘love and care’. The sad and painful reality is that many clergy wives, let alone lay wives, are abused by men who see it as their right to control their partners.
There is no place in our society for any teaching or action that imputes less value or dignity to the contribution of women.
Third, the use of ‘recreational drugs’ has to become culturally unacceptable. We cannot rely on law enforcement to do this for us. There must be a growing culture, especially amongst the young, of non-use. It is obvious that too many acts of violence occur when a person is under the influence of one or a cocktail of these drugs. No parent should set an example of their use to children. Government could invest far more money in a programme like the anti-smoking campaign. Government must also be better guided by experts in the field, less influenced by populist demands and less reliant on law enforcement to develop strategies of amelioration.
No one should experience an act of violence perpetrated against them in their life time. Many do. Increasingly those who suffer bullying do so because of social media, another area which deserves far more attention from government. For children, the most likely place they will experience violence is at home or from what should be a trusted and known adult. For women it is their partner, or estranged partner. We appropriately have a culture in which the privacy of another’s home is sacrosanct. However, such is the gravity of the problem we face that it is no longer acceptable for a neighbour, friend or family member to remain silent when suspicion of violence has become obvious. Silence is not neutrality, it is to side with the perpetrator. We have a culture of hating ‘dobbers’. But we should be wise enough to understand the difference between not interfering in a matter of minor consequence and taking responsibility for the very life and security of another.
George Browning is a retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra Goulburn