Preventable Blindsides

Erin Martine Sessions, our new Domestic Violence Team Lead, writes about equipping Christian Leaders to prevent and respond to domestic and family violence.

Content warning: Discussion of domestic and family violence.

I was given Leigh Sales’ new book Any Ordinary Day for Christmas. It’s not your usual light-hearted holiday read, but that vortex of days between Christmas and New Year seemed like the right time to read something a bit heavier.

It matched my heavy heart: I had been writing and speaking on gender based violence (GBV) and I wanted a book in the same emotional register.  And not too long before that, my already-hurting community had collectively stopped going about the business of their day, held their loved ones a little tighter, and mourned the death of Olga Edwards. I wasn’t ready to move away from anger and grief and lament and the kinds of questions they raise, so I decided to read a book that was asking some of those very same questions.

Any Ordinary Day is a book about blindsides – devastating and unspeakable tragedies and disasters that strike out of nowhere, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of a person’s life. Sales interviews people like Stuart Diver and Louisa Hope and Walter Mikac and, in short, asks them how they have managed to piece their lives back together after experiencing far more than their fair share of unimaginable terror and pain. Sales shares their stories and gently and humbly navigates how they begin to hope and to heal. The book is built on the human capacity to rebuild after a blindside. And that, for the most part, blindsides are entirely unpreventable. But what if they were preventable?  

Louisa Hope is a survivor of the Lindt Café Siege, which was perpetrated by Man Haron Monis. Monis, along with other criminal convictions, had more than 50 sexual and indecent assault charges to his name and was on bail for a slew of violent offences, including being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. While there was absolutely nothing that Louisa could have done differently to prevent the attack, perhaps changes in society and culture could have. Maybe we should be asking: if Australia took violence against women seriously, would Monis have been out on bail? Could we have prevented this attack? Could we have prevented the deaths of Jack, Jennifer and Olga Edwards?

Any Ordinary Day also mentions Rosie Batty and how she has be able to channel her anguish into something positive; into the Luke Batty Foundation. Once again, while there was nothing that either Rosie or Luke could have done differently to stop Luke’s father from murdering his own son, what if our society failed Rosie and Luke? Our culture, for generations, has told men that it is weak to show emotion (unless it’s anger). What if Luke’s father, Greg Anderson, had grown up in a different kind of culture? A society where men are allowed to be vulnerable (and seek the professional help they need). A culture where women are taken seriously when they speak up about violence (or when they take out intervention orders, just as Rosie had). A culture where we are taught to have respectful relationships, and men and women are equal.

All the social research tells us that the “key predictors of violence against women relate to how individuals, communities and society as a whole view the roles of men and women. Some of the strongest predictors for holding violence‐supportive attitudes at the individual level are low levels of support for gender equality and following traditional gender stereotypes.”1 And yet it could be argued that Australia is regressing in terms of gender equality. We have slipped from 15th to 36th in worldwide gender equality rankings. We desperately need change. And this where Common Grace’s SAFER resource comes to the fore. SAFER is designed to help Australian churches understand, identify, and respond to domestic and family violence. Like all the best research that has gone before it, SAFER shows us that to understand DFV means recognising that strict gender norms and rigid gender hierarchies directly contribute to the kind of culture where violence against women is allowed to thrive. If we can do the hard but necessary work of changing our culture (things like calling out sexism and challenging oppression when we see it, pointing out when men take up too much physical, verbal and economic space, and realising that often men are not aware of the ways in which they are privileged, but women are acutely aware), we can prevent violence against women and children. Some blindsides are preventable.

But Leigh Sales didn’t just speak with survivors, she also interviewed the kinds of professionals you would expect to be present, helping when disaster and tragedy strike: police (and emergency services), doctors (and health care professionals), counsellors (and psychologists), and pastors (and chaplains). This prompted more questions for me: what kind of training do each of these professions undergo to know how to respond to a blindside? To know how to respond to DFV? Recent research out of the US suggests that people experiencing DFV are more likely to seek help from their pastor than a doctor or the police. And though the details may vary from state to state: Australian health service employees undertake training in DFV; likewise for the Australian Police Force; and for trauma counsellors. But what about pastors?

Regardless of the denomination to which they belong, or the college/seminary in which they trained, it is likely that your minister has received very little formal training in DFV. But that’s about to change. The Australian College of Theology (ACT) approached Common Grace with the idea of using the SAFER resource in the training of their students – current and future Christian leaders – from different denominations all over Australia, to prevent and respond to DFV. And so a new alliance was forged.

Common Grace and the ACT are partnering to develop a DFV prevention and response strategy for theological education providers. Students will be equipped in the primary prevention of DFV; trained in how to recognise, and change, the culture which allows violence against women (and their children) to occur; developed as informed and compassionate responders, and we will work together to foster safe spaces in each of the 16 ACT Colleges.

Responding to this need is a priority for the ACT, and for all theological higher education providers, especially in the light of the release of the Royal Commission’s recommendations and the introduction of TEQSA’s Higher Education Standards. But who am I and why am I telling you this? That’s a fair question. I have a penchant for poignant books like Any Ordinary Day and I’m Common Grace’s new DFV Justice team leader. I am an unmitigated nerd, which means that my strengths lie in researching, writing and teaching. More recently, my research has explored the prevention of intimate partner violence (IVP) and I’ve been writing poetry on GBV. I am also the Associate Academic Dean at Morling College, where I lecture in Church History and Old Testament. Working in both DFV and higher education, in one of the 16 ACT Colleges, means I’m well placed to help lead this project.

If you are a professional working in DFV or an academic who wants to integrate DFV into their courses (or maybe you are both), then I am – we are – eager to seek your input in this important and necessary work. We will be looking at a wide range of areas which need development: how to develop curriculum, strategies and safe spaces for preventing and responding to DFV within Australian theological institutions. Through this work, we are beginning to build a national network of Christian professionals who are committed to preventing and responding to DFV. If you are interested in being a part of this network, please email [email protected]

Leigh Sales ends her book by quoting one of my favourite poets, Robert Frost. She urges us to remember his wisdom about life: “it goes on.” So, let’s change our culture for the better, for those whose lives will go on after ours.  

Erin Martine Sessions is the Domestic and Family Violence Team Lead at Common Grace and Associate Academic Dean at Morling College. She’s an arrant academic and an errant poet. Erin is married to Will and they have made two tiny humans, Atticus and Eowyn. The Sessions coterie attend Thornleigh Community Baptist Church. Erin bends time and space to binge-watch Netflix.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022, 14 (Based on the research of VicHealth, 2009, National survey on community attitudes to violence against women 2009, Changing cultures, changing attitudes—preventing violence against women, Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Carlton.)

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