Teaching Note: On Confronting Violence Against Women in the Christian Tradition

When I teach theology to undergraduates, I make sure to spend some time on Augustine, typically his Confessions. I don’t think this is a necessary practice for all theology instructors, but I personally find Augustine to be a useful entry point for broader, complex theological and hermeneutical questions.

Specifically, I have noticed that studying Augustine is like holding up a mirror to ourselves. More specifically, how we as contemporary readers weigh in on Augustine’s views of women is greatly telling about our views of women.

Obviously I am not squarely in the subfield of the history of Christianity. I am a systematician who seeks to be historically well-versed, and this concern for how historical ideas are received in our present theological context shows up in my teaching.

That said, onto the specifics.

In particular, I work to insure that, among the many passages we discuss over the course of two weeks or so, we touch upon Augustine’s grief over his mother Monica’s death in Book IX. And within that, I make sure that we touch upon his reflections about her in relation to his father Patrick. Here is the passage I like to focus on (and I have broken down a very long paragraph into sections for ease of reading):

[Monica] was thus nurtured in an atmosphere of purity and temperance, and was subjected by you [God] to the authority of her parents rather than by them to yours. When she attained full marriageable age she was entrusted to a husband; she served him as her lord, but she made it her business to win him for you by preaching you to him through her way of life, for by her conduct you made her beautiful in her husband’s eyes, as a person to be respected, loved and admired.

So gently did she put up with his marital infidelities that no quarrel ever broke out between them on this score, for she looked to you to show him mercy, knowing that once he came to believe he would become chaste.

Although he was outstandingly generous, he was also hot-tempered, but she learned to offer him no resistance, by deed or even by word, when he was angry; she would wait for a favorable moment, when she saw that his mood had changed and he was calm again, and then explain her action, in case he had given way to wrath without due consideration.

There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior; but she checked their talk, reminding them in what seemed to be a joking vein but with serious import that from the time they had heard their marriage contracts read out they had been in duty bound to consider these as legal documents which made slaves of them. In consequence they ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.

These other wives knew what a violent husband she had to put up with, and were amazed that there had never been any rumor of Patricius striking his wife, nor the least evidence of its happening, nor even a day’s domestic strife between the two of them; and in friendly talk they sought an explanation. My mother would then instruct them in this plan of hers that I have outlined. Those who followed it found out its worth and were happy; those who did not continued to be bullied and battered. (Confessions, Book IX, #9, 19, Boulding translation)

I don’t know if this will surprise anybody (I really don’t), but I have noticed that most students typically want to defend this passage against critique. And it’s a very specific kind of defense. I have noticed that it is usually not: “Well, husbands beating wives as a matter of course is part of Augustine’s historical context, so it’s not really a surprise that he can’t see it for what it is.”

Rather (and this is important), the defense I tend to hear mostly is that, in this passage, Augustine obviously isn’t condoning men beating their wives; he is simply praising his mother for knowing how to avoid it. It’s praise for his mother, not his father, so it’s fine.

All of a sudden, then, a passage from an ancient Christian thinker reveals the students’ own perduring, contemporary, perniciously sexist assumptions about the dynamics of violence against women, particularly within the context of marriage.

When these discussions occur, I press back here and there, but, while it’s happening, I am mostly listening and watching and taking stock of what’s being said. Usually the only exceptions to what I said about the typical modus operandi of the students are a handful of female students who strike me as deeply uncomfortable listening to their male (and female) peers explain to me repeatedly that Monica was exemplary because “she knew not to poke a hornet’s nest.”

Let me be clear that I am not railing against college students en masse. I love my students. Many of them are still in touch with me from classes past; many of them simply come in to meet with me and talk to me. I very much respect them.

But something I’ve noticed while teaching a few undergraduate classes is just the deeply embedded nature of certain sexist, classist, and racist ways of thinking. Many students are very intelligent, and many more are open to growing intellectually and to changing, but it is also the case that the majority of them have not yet had time to take a step back from and critically interrogate the problematic thought patterns into which they have been socialized for about two decades. And, in a theology class at a Christian university, the instructor is, in one way or another, going to have to confront and even try to dismantle that to some extent.

So, going back. After this discussion about how great Monica is at not getting beaten, I like to send the students a hand-out responding point by point to the arguments they made in class. I also tell them we’re going to be coming back to these issues in various ways for the rest of the semester, so they need to read and understand what I am saying.

The rest of this post is taken from that handout (with slight modification). I don’t think my points will be mind-blowing to the regular readers of WIT, but I thought some people might be interested in one instructor’s attempt to begin to dismantle sexism for college students.


First, let me make some remarks about the passage we discussed: Augustine’s praise for his mother and her ability to find a way to tiptoe around Patrick (Patricius) so that she does not set him off and get beaten.

Here is what we can and should agree upon about this passage:

-Augustine’s energy in this passage is geared toward praising his mother, who has “learned” not to get beaten (which may imply that she was, at least initially in their marriage)

-Men beating women, particularly within the context of marriage, was widely practiced and accepted at this time.

-We as twenty-first-century readers all recognize that such behavior is utterly despicable and we are glad that it is criminalized today.

However, there’s still a question on the table about Augustine’s attitude toward his mother learning to avoid getting beatings because she learns to read and to play Patrick. It is true that you can easily make the case that Augustine does not respect his father: Patrick doesn’t show up very much in Confessions, and, when he does, it is often negative. Augustine clearly admires his mother much more, so it is absolutely fair to say that he does not actively condone his father’s potential predisposition to beat his mother.

And yet, should his father beat his mother, it is not so easy to say that Augustine would entirely blame his father and not at all blame his mother. Perhaps it is the case that if Monica were receiving beatings, then Augustine wouldn’t lay any blame on her and would simply not put in anything about this in his story. Given that this is a speculation, all we can do is say that this is possibly true. However, we do need to look more closely at what Augustine actually does say in the passage to really get insight into this issue:

There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior; but she checked their talk, reminding them in what seemed to be a joking vein but with serious import that from the time they had heard their marriage contracts read out they had been in duty bound to consider these as legal documents which made slaves of them. In consequence they ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.

Now, the bolded words offer us some key information: the “gentler” husband still regularly beat their wives severely enough to leave “disfiguring” on their faces. And yet, Augustine seems more immediately judgmental about these women “gossiping” about getting beatings than he does about the men who actually issue the beatings. At the very least, he speaks approvingly of the way that Monica shuts down their conversation with each other about getting physically abused specifically by reminding them of their “wifely” subordination. And since Augustine approves so thoroughly of his mother’s actions in this story, we can by the transitive property deduce that he agrees with her worldview about marriage: namely, that it is constituted by wifely subordination.

This little section in this larger passage therefore clues us into what is likely Augustine’s attitude toward marital abuse: men should ideally practice self-control (and therefore not beat their wives) because part of the Christian life involves such self-discipline, but men do exercise a kind of ownership over their wives so that it is still their very understandable prerogative to issue physical punishment when  “tested” by their wives. Domestic abuse is within a man’s sphere of rights that have been arrogated to him by virtue of his role as head and husband, though he should try to avoid it when possible. A husband abusing his wife is not ideal but, realistically, it happens and is understandable given the fact that women’s subordination constitutes the structure of marriage at this time.

If Augustine didn’t hold these kinds of assumptions, then he wouldn’t be so seemingly irritated by women who talk to each other about getting beaten (why does he spend any energy on that, of all things?) and he wouldn’t approve of his mother shutting them up through an appeal to wifely subordination.

If Augustine were truly clued into the horror of marital abuse (in the way that we hope we today are) but he still wanted to praise his mother for surviving in a terrible situation with limited options (and it is this interpretation that I saw most of you arguing for in our class discussion), it is likely that we would have gotten even one sentence where he condemns the phenomenon of men beating their wives. Here’s an example that I made up of what we might read if that were the case:

“O God, through his hot temper my father was prone to beat my mother until she learned how to offer him no resistance and to avoid his bad moods. Why is it that men feel prone to think they can beat women, especially their wives? Why be so cruel to the people they are to love the most? This is certainly a result of the sin of Adam. Such men make themselves very far from you because they are in love with their own filthy pride and display of power. A man can be very learned and civilized and polite within society but then return home and, at the slightest agitation, fly off the handle and issue the most severe beating upon the woman he has vowed to love. What greater hypocrisy and tragedy is there?” (Not bad, huh?)

But guess what: we don’t have anything like that from Augustine. The same man who writes at great length about the glorification of violence in the gladiatorial rings, in the theater, and in the school system cannot take the time to devote one sentence to bemoaning the violence of domestic abuse. He cannot forgive himself for stealing the pears, but in relative silence he passes over his father’s potential predisposition to beat his mother.

Based on what I have said, it is not unreasonable to conclude, therefore, that he does not have the same moral sensitivity to the issue of domestic abuse that we hope we have today. For this reason, throughout this passage he slips into a dangerous logic whereby he ends up shifting a great deal of the moral responsibility of Patrick’s actions to Monica, and in general of men’s actions to women. For Augustine, women have the moral responsibility to avoid “getting beaten.” Please note how this sentiment presupposes that men don’t have to take moral responsibility for the violence they render unto women (men should be offended by this assumption since it suggests a very low view of men’s moral reasoning capabilities, by the way!). Presumably this is the case for Augustine because men are “naturally” in the leadership role and, in a sense, “own” their wives, so part of their role might be rendering violence “when necessary,” and it’s the correlative job of women to try and avoid this. All in all, Augustine’s words suggest that women are the ones who decide whether they themselves are brutally beaten by their husbands or not (which, by the way, is not true to reality since those who have more power in a relationship and who choose to abuse tend to do so whenever they feel like it, regardless of how the other person acts). This is the status quo regulating the terms of a marriage.

And why would we as contemporary readers expect Augustine to have the same moral sensitivity about domestic abuse that we try to have today? He was a man who was born in the fourth century and who died in the fifth. We acknowledged at the outset that domestic abuse was an accepted part of Augustine’s context; how could this not warp his moral sensitivity here?

On that note, though, I encourage you to do a Google search on “Christian pastors deal with domestic abuse” and see what comes up. Apparently it is still quite a problem today that Christian leaders counsel wives to stay with abusive husbands to help them “change” (we can acknowledge that this trivializes the horror of this violence and, again, reduces men’s moral agency while inflating women’s). Augustine’s skewed moral sensitivity on this topic is not at all a thing of the past. So are we even as morally sensitive as we think we are?


The end.

16 thoughts on “Teaching Note: On Confronting Violence Against Women in the Christian Tradition

  1. Really?? Your students typically want to defend this passage from critique? It made me want to throw up.

    Your teaching strategy seems very sound to me. Since the passage compares marriage to slavery, I wondered whether Augustine anywhere writes on the relationship between masters and slaves and how violence may or ought to come into play there.

  2. I knew some church fathers had dysfunctional beliefs about women. However, I had no idea how bad it really was.

    This past week I wondered, ” If the Catechism of the Catholic Church were written in earlier years, what would it have said about marriage, sex, the role of women, slavery, suicide and mental illness?” I wonder how this would have looked in the 4th century and in all the following years leading up to today.

    It would have said some crazy, abusive things based on ideologies that were embraced in the earlier church. When you put together a definitive “books of rules” you don’t take into account how theology and psychology evolves. Or how our understanding of human development grows. Or what it will mean when you have to eat your humble pie because you were not right. I am sure every mainline denomination has their own “book of rules” The Catholic Church has lost considerable respect as a moral authority with its stance on contraception, homosexuality and denying women ordination. It will take considerable humility to backtrack on those issues.

    The current catechism was written in 1992. A draft was circulated in 1989 and the final version of what we see is “considerably different” than the original draft. I wonder what that means. I am wondering who came up with the word “intrinsically evil” to define homosexual acts and contraception. Was it Ratzinger? The harsh wording on contraception is remarkable give that the majority of the hierarchy that weighed in during the birth control commission gave a green light to contraception. Were they really all that disconnected from God that they couldn’t identify something as intrinsically evil? (mmm….)

    I’m not sure if this stays on your topic. I’m not a theologian. But, what do you think the catechism would have said in earlier years in regards to the topics mentioned above. Has the church ever formally renounced some of the harmful things the church fathers have said? What do you think the catechism will say in the future? Perhaps an expanded definition of humility and expression of sorrow for the narrow view they gave humanity on certain issues?

  3. Furthermore, if we are to confront violence in Christian tradition why do we not clarify the dysfunction when we speak of St Monica? I just read a couple of descriptions of St Monica on Catholic sites. (I really wanted to know if she had other children and how they made out being victims of domestic violence themselves. Not sure about that….) However, there is no insight or explanation as to how dysfunctional and sinful it is to stay in a marriage where you are being beaten and your husband is unfaithful, putting your life at risk with exposure to disease. Also, there is no mention of how much being in a house with domestic violence harms children. It reinforces that the most saintly thing to do is “stay and pray” I read that Monica is that patron saint of abuse victims and is revered by mothers. Is she really the best example for abuse victims?

    Yes, there are some qualities we can admire about Monica. However, I would like someone to write a book on the saints and their unhealthy behaviors to be sure we don’t hold those up as ideals. I have been a Catholic for decades and I was completely unaware that Monica was physically beaten by her husband. I have been hesitant to hold up some of the saints as ideals to my kids. Some have set seriously unhealthy examples. There are many in christian circles that embrace Augustine’s theology still today.

  4. It is worth noting that not all late-ancient theologians were so sanguine regarding spousal violence. John Chrysostom, while still maintaining a hierarchical view of marriage, deplored such violence:

    “How can mere words describe what it is like when loud cries and wails travel
    through the alleyways, and neighbors and passersby run to the house of
    the one disgracing himself in this way, as though some animal were
    ravaging inside?” (In 1 Cor. hom. 26.7, PG 61:222)

    Elsewhere: “So many ways have been invented by men wishing to punish their wives!” (De virginitate 40.3; SC 125:234), among which he includes verbal violence as well.

    I am hardly a fan of much of what Chrysostom says regarding hierarchical marriage, but he has his wonderful moments.

    Thanks to Joy Schroeder for writing about this:
    Schroeder, Joy A. “John Chrysostom’s Critique of Spousal Violence.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12, no. 4 (2004): 413–42.

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  6. It’s obvious that Augustine doesn’t think beating women (or beating anyone) is ok, and throughout his writings he barely has time for his father, because he thinks his father a vile monster (hence the comment that the other violent men are “gentler”–how much worse his father must be). As for the stuff about his mother chiding the women who gossip, Augustine is trying to show how his mother’s life was virtuously shaped after the life of Christ, who endured suffering at the hands of the authorities and remained silent (Isa 53, Acts 8). This is the same advice that 1 Peter gives to male slaves and wives trapped in oppressive relationships. Since they are trapped in these places they should be as virtuous (Christlike) as possible, which includes using their language to bless their enemies (their husbands), not to curse them to others (though they clearly deserve it).

    It seems to me that in Augustine’s case and in the context of 1 Peter this is advice to someone that is legally (and literally) trapped in abusive relationships. In these cases one–whether male or female–is to pattern one’s life after Christ, who suffered in a way that led to the redemption of his captors and was ultimately vindicated. Augustine’s motive for portraying Monica in this way is ultimately to see her as a ‘saint’–one whose life conforms to the life of Christ.

    I don’t find this understanding of how one responds virtuously to suffering, means that one is somehow consenting to the oppressive structures that give rise to the suffering in the first place. I think we should rejoice that there are ways that oppressed people can non-violently extricate themselves from violent situations. We should also seek to make it so that people can do this wherever possible. At the same time, there are still situations in the world where people are legally and literally trapped under oppressors and these people still draw strength from the example of Christ. They endure suffering and they bless those who curse them, and their lives are witnesses to the one they follow as Lord.

    Anyways: just making the point that Augustine’s account of Monica is based in Christology, and deals with a situation in which a woman probably had no other viable option. So yes, it’s another defense of Augustine.

    • “It’s obvious that Augustine doesn’t think beating women (or beating anyone) is ok…” -How are you substantiating this claim?

      “[T]hroughout his writings he barely has time for his father…” I already conceded this and yet my argument still stands. And?

      “As for the stuff about his mother chiding the women who gossip, Augustine is trying to show how his mother’s life was virtuously shaped after the life of Christ, who endured suffering at the hands of the authorities and remained silent (Isa 53, Acts 8).” -Do you think it’s virtuous for women who get beaten to keep silent about it, especially among each other?

      If you don’t think it’s actually virtuous for women getting beaten to keep silent about it, don’t you think it’s a problem that a Christology could be deployed in service of that very point?

      And by the way, Augustine has nothing to say about Christ in this passage. And even though he talks about Christic humility in other places throughout the Confessions, that doesn’t seem to prevent him from lamenting the violence of the school system and the gladiatorial rings AND THE THEATER. Nobody else in those situations is called on by him to “endure” in an act of Christological self-mortification.

      “It seems to me that in Augustine’s case and in the context of 1 Peter this is advice to someone that is legally (and literally) trapped in abusive relationships.” -What do you think Augustine’s attitude is toward Monica’s situation? It seems to me that he very much does understand her–and wives in general–as “slaves” via the institution of marriage, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. He wouldn’t call her “trapped” in the same way that we would when we say she’s “trapped.” When we say that, we presuppose that the situation is heinous and needs to be resisted. But he assumes it’s the way that it is in a world in which male headship has been divinely foreordained yet marred irrevocably by original sin. This is a crucial difference between our assumptions and Augustine’s.

      “In these cases one–whether male or female–is to pattern one’s life after Christ, who suffered in a way that led to the redemption of his captors and was ultimately vindicated.” –The thing you’re overlooking here is that Monica, according to these terms, actually isn’t Christ-like; according to Augustine, she found a way to “avoid getting beaten.” But if she really wanted to be Christ-like, according to your logic, she should have been “letting” herself get beaten all the time as a way of sharing redemptively in Christ’s suffering. Wouldn’t this have been an amazing witness to Christic love that may have inspired Patrick to convert even sooner? But supposedly she found a way to “opt out.”

      “I don’t find this understanding of how one responds virtuously to suffering, means that one is somehow consenting to the oppressive structures that give rise to the suffering in the first place.” It’s one thing to argue that somebody without options makes a way out of no way AND that the violent status quo should be resisted. Unfortunately, that is not Augustine’s argument. Augustine has nothing to say in terms of condemning domestic abuse.

      You need to go back and read the passage again. Analyze Augustine’s logic. What if Monica were just being herself and doing her best and still getting beaten anyway? How would Augustine weigh in on that? I am arguing that, according to his argument and the precise way that he praises her, he would have to blame her to some extent for not being able to avoid the beatings. Surely you can see that this is how his logic unfolds. Please don’t inject your own wishful thinking about non-violent gender norms into an ancient Christian thinker who seems acutely myopic on the matter.

      I really encourage you to take some time and think about what I am saying. Please re-read my post. A lot of your confusions can be clarified with a more careful reading of my argument as well as a greater understanding of the violence of Augustine’s own context (and ours).

      • Reading your the original comment and the response, I actually didn’t think about St. Augustine’s condemnation of violence in gladiator arenas. Instead, I can’t help but think how St. Augustine came up with an incredibly complex theory of what constitutes a “just war.”

        It is legitimate for men to resist evildoers, even violently, but it is illegitimate for women to resist evildoers.

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