Spousal Violence in a Confucian-Christian Context

Last Tuesday, Elizabeth Koepping gave a valedictory paper at the weekly World Christianity seminar here in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.1  Prof. Brian Stanley responded to her paper by saying that it was ‘truly disturbing… in a good way’, in that it exposed the problem of spousal violence that exists amongst Christians, validated by the Bible, and often ignored or hidden by church leadership.  Her field and documentary research was conducted in multiple contexts: Taiwan, Australia, Ghana, etc. – and Scotland.  But the underlying reality was the same: domestic violence is pervasive, within and without the church.  Moreover, she suggested that theologically the church must reclaim the understanding of the Imago Dei in both man and woman in order to combat these atrocities.

With my personal interest in East Asia, one of the things I was particularly concerned with is how spousal violence is validated not only with the Bible, but with Confucianism. One of the quotes Elizabeth read which really highlighted this for me was from a Protestant woman in Taiwan, in 2006:

The church, like Chinese culture, teaches me to be gentle, sensitive: I cannot be angry if [he] hits me.

Clearly there is a hermeneutical problem if one can rationalise the Bible as legitimising spousal inequality and abuse.  But this is also very much explicitly found in the historical practices of Chinese culture, thanks to Confucianism.2 Take for instance this passage from Mengzi 孟子 3B.2:

At the marrying away of a young woman, her mother admonishes her, accompanying her to the door on her leaving, and cautioning her with these words, ‘You are going to your home. You must be respectful; you must be careful. Do not disobey your husband’

In a context like Taiwan, where Confucianism is both explicitly and implicitly taught, the hermeneutical problem becomes even more exacerbated by an additional contextual legitimisation.

I guess to take this another direction, theologically, what advantage is it that men and women are created in the image of God?  I would presume that church leaders of the Presbyterian church, the Roman Catholic church, and the True Jesus Church (the three groups in her field work), would all teach from Genesis 1:27, at one point or another.

Yet a contextual theology which moves towards an integrated, hybridised Confucian-Christian faith must also reckon with this and address this head-on. Part of this may require, as Elizabeth recommended, a more careful reading of Ephesians 5 that emphasises a mutual submission to one another out of reverence to Christ (v.21).  Part of this may also require a more careful reading of Confucian texts like the writings of Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BC)3 who has underscored a clarification of the Mengzi’s five relations with a balance of yin-yang 阴阳 dualities:

The relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, are all derived from the principles of the yin and yang.

Indeed, Elizabeth’s paper is truly disturbing, in a good way, and should challenge us to constructively think, feel and act – theologically, emotively, and practically.

  1.  Somewhat related to her paper was one she published recently: Elizabeth Koepping, ‘Spousal Violence among Christians: Taiwan, South Australia and Ghana’, Studies in World Christianity 19.3 (Dec 2013): 252–270.  Available online
  2. See Li Chenyang, ed., The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2000). 
  3. Dong Zhongshu, Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals, ch. 53, translated in Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, 2 vols., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 2:42-43. See also Li Chenyang, ‘Jen and the Feminist Ethics of Care’, in Li Chenyang, ed., The Sage and the Second Sex, 36. 

2 thoughts on “Spousal Violence in a Confucian-Christian Context

  1. Very interesting post! I agree that Confucian worldviews often get in the way of good hermeneutics. I’ve never had to deal with this interplay in the context of domestic violence, but I’ve had many interactions with young graduates who felt the tension between filial piety and the pursuit of their calling. Actually, it is also often filial piety vs. spouse.

    I’ve heard the same sermon again and again at weddings on Gen 2:24, but it’s always supplemented by an explanation of the 5th commandment. This is perfectly good and all, but it just so happens to fit well into Chinese listeners’ Confucian worldview which more often than not gets right of way.

    1. Yes, the Confucian worldview does get in the way – but at the same time, it doesn’t have to. If you think of the household codes in the New Testament, for example, the text appears to show a negotiation between the Christian and Greek understandings. Likewise, the Confucian understandings need to be addressed head on since they are so well embedded into the East Asian value system, conscious or not.

      On the flip side, it’s interesting to hear your comment about weddings. In the Western individualistic contexts, I find the 5th commandment completely ignored. There are perhaps completely different value systems that need to be engaged in the discussion of such verses, as well.

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