Beverly Gooden glanced at her Twitter feed and became incensed. It was Sept. 8, the morning after TMZ released the full video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay in an Atlantic City elevator. Twitter was full of opinions, but the tone was not in condemnation of the NFL player's violent act. Most folk on Gooden's timeline were talking about Rice's wife and her decision to stay in the abusive relationship. "All I saw were tweets asking, 'Why didn't she leave? Why did she marry him? Why is she so stupid?' Everyone was hyper-focused on Janay and her response to the violence."
In an attempt to counteract all the victim shaming she was witnessing on social media, Gooden started firing off tweets explaining how difficult it can be for abused women to leave their abusers. She used the hashtag #whyIstayed, thinking it would spark a Twitter dialogue among some of her followers. Little did she know that it would inspire thousands of women across the globe to share their own stories of domestic abuse.
Gooden's bright smile and warm demeanor exude joy and confidence. She stands tall. Her big, beautiful, wild, curly hair is unapologetic. She seems completely at ease in her own skin. You would never be able to tell, just from looking at her, that four years ago she escaped an abusive ex-husband because she feared for her life. "I wanted to live more than I wanted to be married," she tells me, matter-of-factly, over a cup of coffee at Amelie's.
Reading through the #whyIstayed tweets, I found a disturbing trend. Dozens of women said they stayed with their abusers because they felt as if their religion and spiritual leaders required them to do so. Gooden herself tweeted, "I stayed because my pastor told me God hates divorce. It didn't cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too."
Before she managed to escape, Gooden and her ex-husband met with their church's pastor and a Christian counselor. In these meetings, the ex-husband admitted to hitting her, but said he didn't think the situation rose to the level of domestic violence.
After hearing his admission and that she feared for her life, the Christian counselor told Gooden that she needed to figure out how to get her husband not to hit her. "Instead of holding him accountable for what he did, they told me I needed to be a better wife, that I needed to serve my husband better," she said.
This incredibly damaging narrative appears over and over again in the #whyIstayed tweets.
I stayed because my faith calls me to honor my husband.
I stayed because I was afraid of being judged by my church.
I stayed because I was told that prayer would make him stop.
I stayed because I thought I would go to hell if I left.
Religious women — from Muslims to Mormons to Catholics to evangelicals — are being told by their faith communities that they should stay with their abusive husbands. When they seek counseling, they aren't advised to call the police or make an escape plan; instead, they are told to pray, to submit, to take it. They are led to believe that it's what God wants, that leaving might put their eternal lives in jeopardy.
In a video posted to his website several years ago, Baptist preacher and author John Piper answers a question about women's submission in instances of abuse by saying, "If [the abuse] is not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church."
Four years after the video was posted, Piper issued a clarification where he mentions that finding recourse in civil authorities may be the right thing for an abused wife to do. He never apologizes.
Obviously, this sort of rhetoric is incredibly damaging to women, but what kind of message does it send to men? If, as a man, you hear in your church or mosque every week that your wife should submit to your authority, does that cause you to justify the abuse in your head? Do these men see their deplorable actions as godly?
Gooden doesn't know what her husband was thinking when he beat her, but he was actively involved in a church that often preached about and encouraged women to submit.
As for the #whyIstayed hashtag, while so many women blame the church and clergy with their reasons for staying, an equal or greater number credit God's love and strength with their reason for leaving.