May 6, 2009
In the second article in our series on religious attitudes to child discipline, Rev Dr Margaret Mayman explains why she strongly supports a YES vote.
Two years ago, our congregation, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, supported the law change that removed the defence of reasonable force for the purposes of correction of children. Now we are arguing that the law change be retained and that citizens should vote “Yes” in the referendum.
Prior to the law change, there had been terrible cases of child abuse that had not resulted in an assault conviction because of the use of this defence. New Zealand has appalling rates of lethal and non-lethal child abuse and there is strong evidence that abuse often occurs as an escalation of physical punishment. The law needed to be changed to ensure that the children received equal protection.
The engagement of religious groups in public policy matters is controversial. Our view follows that of twentieth-century German theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer rejected the idea that faith was something inward and private with no relevance to society or politics. He wrote as a Christian engaged in profound opposition to Nazism and in criticism of Christian withdrawal from politics. He believed that the Church had a prophetic imperative to speak out for those who could not speak. In his case, for the Jewish people who were being brutally persecuted by the German state. Bonhoeffer believed that the witness of the Bible, and particularly the life and teaching of Jesus, required public advocacy. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote: We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled – in short, form the perspective of those who suffer.
Our faith community, located in twentieth century Aotearoa, is engaged in supporting the law change, and in voting ‘Yes’ in the referendum, because we believe that suffering children are the ones whose perspective should be the basis our public response. We do not expect that our voices, as religious people, should be given more weight than any other group participating in the public discourse, but we nevertheless have an imperative to speak out and a right to be heard.
Progressive Christian voices are needed to balance those of religious conservatives who advocate for the continuing use of physical force to discipline children.
We believe that the Bible “contains the inspired word of God.” This word is mediated to us through the words of human beings who were subject to their culture, religion and history. We read it now with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (the aspect of God that is present within and among us all) in light of our cultural and scientific knowledge. The Bible was written down over a period of 1500 and covers a historical period even longer than that.
As followers of Jesus, we see a clear mandate toward non-violence in all aspects of our lives. We believe that the recorded interactions of Jesus with children in the New Testament call us to a radical respect for the personhood, and therefore the bodily integrity of children.
Key biblical passages for our understanding of our responsibilities towards children include passages such as Matthew 19: 13-15. When the disciples tried to rebuke people who brought their children to Jesus. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. And he laid his hands upon them and went on his way.”
Jesus clearly felt love and compassion for children, adding that his disciples should “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. …So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:10, 14)
Reading the stories of Jesus teachings about children, and his interactions with them, in the gospels, we find no justification for physical punishment, let alone any directive for it.
It is true that there are biblical verses that might suggest that physical punishment is endorsed. They consist of a smattering of verses, primarily from the Book of Proverbs. The commonly quoted “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not actually from the Bible, though Proverbs does include “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.”
Thousands of years of physical violence and assaults have been justified by this proverb and a number of others. However, twenty-first century Christians are bound to interpret the Bible contextually and in light of knowledge developed since the scriptures were written. This includes knowledge about child development and of the damage caused by physical punishment.
No one today interprets the Bible literally on this issue, despite the claims of conservative Christians that they do so. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses told the people of Israel that “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21).
For those Christians who insist that the Bible requires parents to use physical punishment, they must account for this instruction that parent is required to put to death the persistently disobedient youth.
Within Christianity, the teachings and actions of Jesus, and his consequent understanding of the person and will of God, transformed the systems of violence and punishment. The religious narrative changed from an authoritarian God to a God who relates to Jesus and to all people as a loving parent.
Progressive Christians believe that Jesus teaching about love, forgiveness, and reconciliation compel us toward a path of non-violence in all aspects of our lives, including the way we raise children in families and communities.
The only words attributed to Jesus that could be construed to justify punishment can be found in Revelation, which relates a vision recorded by John long after the death of Jesus. In Revelation 3: 19, he said: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.” It contains nothing specific about children and reproving and disciplining are not necessarily physical.
Another text cited from the New Testament is Hebrews 12: 5-11. The author justifies physical punishment by drawing upon an understanding of ancient history filled with divine punishment. He refers to his own experiences of childhood punishment as “painful at the time.” Nowhere does the author invoke the teaching of Jesus to confirm his beliefs. His words have been used to justify much suffering. His is a theology of an abused child.
Other New Testament sources include Paul’s epistle to the Colossians. Paul commanded children to obey their parents, but added an important injunction to parents, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” In Ephesians 6: 1-3, Paul again urged children to obey and honour their parents, but he again added the instruction: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4).
In other passages in his letters, it is clear that Paul accepted the institution of slavery while at the same time seeking to soften it. Nineteenth century Christians realised that to take seriously the teaching of Jesus about the dignity of all people, required that slavery be ended. Our interpretations of the Bible do not stand still.
It has been an assumption of Protestant theology, since its inception, that children are born sinful and disobedient and that parents must use physical discipline in order to save them from their depravity. This understanding was developed in detail in Christian parenting manuals from the nineteenth century and continues today in parenting material written by some evangelical Christians.
Progressive Christians are reclaiming a new theological anthropology that stresses the blessing of children, not their sinfulness. We have particular responsibility to guide them into a mature relationship with God and we cannot do that by fear or violence.
Parents, like all Christians, are required to show compassion and gentleness, including in the way they discipline their children.
Christians have contributed negatively to a culture of violence in the home. It has been reinforced by inadequate biblical interpretations and inadequate ethical reflection. As a faith tradition, we bear responsibility for the damage done to so many children in the name of our faith. In advocating for repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, and in supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum, we are beginning to redress that injustice.
Creating a Good Society for Parents and Children
I am concerned pastorally for parents and children in Aotearoa. Many of our congregation have children of our own, and we understand the enormous challenges that parenting presents. We sympathise with parents who in times of great stress lash out violently towards their children. We believe that the law change sends a clear message to parents so that in times of stress they will be able to curb the emotional response to hit their children. Rather than increasing the burden of parenting, it will provide a very strong message that there are other, more effective ways of disciplining their children.
We also respond to those who claim that physical punishment did them no harm as children, and that they are able to control the delivery of violence in such a way that children will not be injured. This claim is contestable in that there is increasing evidence that harm is caused even when physical injury does not result. Given the very high incidence of child abuse and death in New Zealand, we all have a moral responsibility to protect children from parents who are clearly unable to limit physical punishment to a non-injurious degree.
In the end, violence is violence wherever it occurs. In a civilised society, we should not refuse to protect those most vulnerable. Our statistics, on international scales, are truly a cause for shame. We must do better to protect and cherish children, who are like all humans, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:2).
Religious groups do not have a right to compel government to adopt their understanding into law. However, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak, those who are vulnerable and powerless. In this case, we speak for the rights of children to bodily integrity and spiritual well-being, believing as we do that that the law change benefits adults as well. Inflicting violence on others damages the spirit of the one who perpetrates violence.
The law is working well. The wording of the referendum question is misleading and misguided, ignoring the discretion that the police have in regard to prosecution. I strongly support a “Yes Vote.”
Rev Dr Margaret Mayman
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
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