Social worker says Pacific men misinterpreting the Bible to justify domestic violence

New Zealand is ranked as the worst developed country in the OECD for family violence. (Photo: 123RF / RNZ Pacific)

There is concern over Bible verses being misinterpreted by some Pacific men to justify domestic violence, a Samoan-Chinese social worker says. 

Genevieve Sang-Yum, a lecturer in social work at Unitec’s Waitakere campus, runs programmes focused on helping Maori and Pacific men break cycles of violence in New Zealand. 

She has also provided cultural supervision for social workers, including seven years of service with Women’s Refuge. 

Sang-Yum noticed an increase in the number of Pacific males coming through her programme believing it is “normal to control or hit” their partners, she told RNZ Pacific. 

“A lot of our male Pacific people who have just migrated from overseas have only just discovered and learned about types of behaviours that are unacceptable. 

“I have observed that there is a bit of a surprise that what they are doing is wrong.” 

Although she recognised men can also be victims of domestic violence, she said the majority of cases involved men abusing women. 

She pointed to biblical texts being “misinterpreted” by both female victims and male perpetrators and highlighted some examples of scriptures being taken out of context. 

There is a lot of focus about “women submitting to men” when in actual fact, the Bible asks husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church – and Christ died for the church – an arguably greater responsibility, she said. 

Dunedin-based Samoan Reverend Alofa Lale said the Bible teaches “Jesus always acted in love”. 

“There is no justification for domestic violence. Jesus preaches the golden rule to love one another as he has loved us. 

“These verses are taken out of context when they are used as an excuse for being able to submit their partners to abuse. Relationships are based on love and respect for one another,” she said. 

“God sent his only son Jesus to the world out of love for people. Christ gave his life for us so that we would have life eternal. 

“Jesus showed us love so we should love one another and especially our spouses.” 

Sang-Yum is urging Pacific men to take responsibility to love their partners in this deeply sacrificial manner. 

Another misunderstanding is when Eve was formed from Adam’s rib in the Bible, it does not mean she a man’s property to “cohere or control,” she explained. 

During sessions with Pacific perpetrators of violence, she also highlights the word “partner” to re-define how men view their wives as an equal teammate. 

She said many Pacific men believe it is a women’s role “to bear children and to help him to do what he wants” but “when you pull the text out and highlight the word partnership, it changes their thinking, and we talk about equality and what this means”. 

“The Bible is harmless and we don’t tell people to stop believing” but we do examine the text in a wider context and explore abusive behaviours and “what the language of love looks like. Is love hurtful and abusive?” 

She said recently a Samoan man who was Christian came through her non-violence programme for assaulting his wife in public. 

“” hit my partner because it’s my right,” he told Sang-Yum, adding “she’s my partner and the issues I have with her is nobody’s business.” 

She explained that “he does not know any better” due to his upbringing, “childhood trauma” and beliefs. 

It was not until we explored the “language of love” and what that looked like that old mindsets began to change, she said. 

She said gender norms in the Pacific islands are challenged when people move to New Zealand because men and women are generally seen as equal. 

“A lot of our male Pacific people probably have never had the opportunity to talk about their upbringing, talk about the trauma in their lives growing up because they have been taught to just deal with it. 

“A lot of these men suppress their issues because they have been taught just deal with it.” 

There needs to be a cultural shift especially in Pacific men to prevent and stop domestic violence, she said. 

She said was important to have deep conversations through cultural frameworks and language and to examine beliefs and mindsets that are not true examples of love. 

New Zealand is ranked as the worst developed country in the OECD for family violence. 

Community programmes and a “collective approach” is the most effective way to tackle domestic violence in Aotearoa, according to She Is Not Your Rehab – global moment against domestic violence – co-founder Sarah Brown. 

The NZ government has helped to fund an online self-therapy for men lead by Matt Brown called InnerBoy which has impacted tens of thousands of men since its launch earlier last year. 

Sang-Yum agrees with Brown and said it was also crucial for the New Zealand government to implement better protection for migrants and custody of children for women in abusive relationships.