The Sins of Scripture Part 2

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“Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child” versus The Seven Principles

by Rev. Clay Nelson


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Clay Nelson © 19 October 2014

I arrived in New Zealand in 2005 to be greeted by a highly charged debate over what its opponents called the “anti-smacking” bill, a private bill by one of my New Zealand heroes, Sue Bradford. In truth the bill was called

the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill and was subsequently renamed the Crimes (Repeal Section 59) Amendment Bill. What its opponents managed to do was to cloud the reality that it was already illegal to assault any one of any age and had been since the passage of Section 139A of Education Bill 1989 that criminalised school corporal punishment.

What the bill did was repeal section 59 that stated:

Every parent of a child and every person in the place of a parent of the child is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances and is for the purpose of—
(a) preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person; or
(b) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that
amounts to a criminal offence; or
(c) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour; or
(d) performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting.

The problem with the section is defining what is reasonable. Prior to the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act, there were cases of parents who had disciplined their children using a riding crop in one case, and a rubber hose in another, who were not convicted because of the legal justification of “reasonable force.” Furthermore, it raises the question is violence ever reasonable?

The Labour and Green parties supported the bill and only because National, which was in opposition, allowed a conscience vote the bill passed surprisingly in 2007, with a couple of amendments, 113 to 8, with NZ First and Act in opposition.

Conservatives and especially the religious right were outraged and began gathering signatures for a referendum to repeal the bill. From 31 July to 21 August 2009 a non-binding referendum was held on the question: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” Only 12% said yes; 87.4% said no. The primary argument of those in opposition was that physical punishment of a child conformed to Judeo-Christian teachings. In particular, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

Aside from the fact that that line is not in the Bible but from a poem by Samuel Butler written in 1664, it does summarise the terrible texts in the “Word of God” I would like to address this morning. They are all from Proverbs:

  • Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
  • Proverbs 22:15: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
  • And Proverbs 23:13-14: Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod, you will save his life from Sheol.”

While these texts are found in a seldom-read part of Hebrew Scriptures, they have had a huge impact on Christianity and have played a major role supporting violence in our western culture. So big is their influence they are the only terrible texts I will address today.

A little about the book of Proverbs: Overall it is a pretty boring book. In churches that use a lectionary, readings from it are rarely included in worship. Scholars identify it as being part of the wisdom tradition of the Jews, made popular in the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It consists, for the most part, of utterances designed to guide the routine activites of daily life in Jewish culture. In Jewish piety this wisdom literature was attributed to King Solomon, building on his reputation as the wisest man in Jewish history. However, he could not have written it, having been dead for at least 400 years before either Proverbs or the wisdom tradition itself came into being. There is also the fact that Solomon was a particularly unwise king. His rule resulted in a civil war after his death that divided his nation into Northern and Southern kingdoms.

While a few other proverbs have entered our consciousness, like “the fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” “a soft answer turns away wrath,” and Paul’s quote of Proverbs 12:20 “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink: for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head,” those summarised by “spare the rod, spoil the child” have most influenced Christian history and thus, western culture.

We might ask why these particular texts from Proverbs have had such an influence. Words that affirm the rightness of punishment seem to touch something in the human psyche and illumine something deep in the human experience. If one is the victim of corporal punishment, these words suggest a sense of “deserving” and thereby play into a self-negativity that rises from a particular view of humanity. If one is the perpetrator of corporal punishment, these words seem to feed a human need to control, exercise authority or even to demonstrate that forced submission is a virtue. Traditional Christianity has maintained that a child is “born in sin,” thus it is clearly the duty of that child’s parents to curb that willfulness and to control with force that implantation of “the devil.” When this understanding of human life is coupled with a belief that the Bible contains holy and divine messages from God, all criticism is muted. It matters not that child psychologists and child development experts generally condemn this style of parenting. They are dismissed as godless people who do not understand the nature of our humanity as the Bible portrays it.

Parents punishing their children for their misdeeds fits comfortably into the view of a God who is also perceived as a parental figure ready to punish sinful adults, or at least to punish his son as a vicarious substitute for all the people. Christians from the very beginning have applied the image of the “Suffering Servant” from Second Isaiah to the story of Jesus, so that it is said of him, “With his stripes we are healed” (Isa 53:3) and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).

Bad theology leads to bad practice. The physical abuse of children under the guise of “proper discipline” has been practiced in Western history for so long and so frequently it has come to be thought of as normative. It has had the approval of our recognised sources of cultural values – tradition, Bible, church, school and family. Certainly it was normative when I was in school in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The threat of being sent to the vice-principal in charge of discipline to receive swats from a paddle (referred to as the “Board of Education”) was used by teachers to maintain control in the classroom. While I remember few who experienced it, it was effective in instilling apprehension and fear. Instead of enhancing life, corporal punishment seemed only to bruise fragile egos at least as much as backsides. It certainly taught by example that physical force was a proper way to deal with those who are smaller and weaker.

If the only victims of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” texts were children, they would still be terrible texts, but whole classes of people, besides children, were subject to corporal punishment during at least some portion of our Judeo-Christian world. There were basically four types of adults for whom corporal punishment was deemed, in years past, to be appropriate discipline. What all four had in common was that they were all thought to be deserving of the status of a child.

The first category was adult prisoners. Those who had violated the rules of society were not only imprisoned but punished. The reasoning was simple. If physical punishment made schoolchildren more pliable and obedient, to say nothing of being easier to control, then why not use the same tactic on those adults who disrupt the well-being of society? So the right to use corporal punishment was written into the penal codes of most Western, and by implication Christian, nations.

The public whipping post was a regular feature in the criminal justice system in Great Britain, the US, Australia and in New Zealand until the 20th century. It was removed from the statutes in New Zealand in 1941.

This year Anglicans in New Zealand are preparing to celebrate the bicentennary of the first Christian sermon preached on our soil by Samuel Marsden at Oihi Bay in the Bay of Islands on Christmas Day. Before bringing Christianity to New Zealand, however, he was assigned by the Church Missionary Society to be a chaplain in New South Wales where he had authority over convicts that he used for labour on lands granted him by the crown. He found the entire colony a mass of sin peopled by infidels in the higher as well as the lower orders. Drinking, fornication and adultery were their “besetting” sins. He saw Satan intent on opposing in New South Wales the name and works of Jesus the saviour of mankind. In 1819 he wrote to the Church Missionary Society: “Never was true religion more abhorred than in this Colony, or vice practised…The clergy have little hope of any reformation amongst the people in such circumstances.”

Nevertheless, he tried by using the whipping post so frequently he became known as the “Flogging Parson.”

The second class of adults to be treated in this phyically abusive manner were slaves. Even in the New Testament the institution of slavery was accepted as normal. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he directs a runaway slave named Onesimus to return to his master Philemon, not with the request for his freedom, but with the request that he be treated kindly. In his letter to the Colossians, he orders slaves to “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters.” (3:22) and urges masters to “treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (4:1). As slaves had no rights and were defined as subhuman and therefore, childlike, it followed that punishment for disobedience was to be administered to them in the same manner that it was deemed appropriate for childen.

It is a matter of record that in the US slaves were lashed for everything from disobedience to running away. The master had the right to do to his property whatever he wished. The slave had no rights or legal protections. After slavery ended in the South these tactics of intimidation continued to be employed against powerless blacks by quasi-religious groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan frequently used the ultimate corporal punishment of lynching to maintain control over a whole group of people. Violence is always violence. The degree of violence is the only difference.

The third category of adults who were defined as fit subjects for corporal punishment in our deeply patriarchal society were women – but only at the hands of their husbands. This exercise of power was carried out with the full approval of both the state and the church. A husband could beat his wife whenever the husband deemed it beneficial or expedient to do so. She was, if not his property like a slave, his ward, with no more status than a dependent child. During this time in western history domestic violence was legal. It was sanctioned in the marriage service when the woman promised to obey. While today the marriage service is usually conducted between two equals making the same vows, the English prayerbook of 1662 still in use today in England and on occasion even here still makes the woman promise to obey. Wherever obedience is assumed to be appropriate, the subservient person is deemed to be dependent, childlike and by implication an appropriate recipient of the displine of the authority figure.

This view of women is still found among the conservative parts of the Christian church and why they have resisted so deeply and so emotionally the women’s liberation movement with its goal of the total emancipation of women. Certainly the Evangelical wing of Protestestant Christianity has accused the movement of being a home-breaking, familiy-violating, godless and lesbian assault on traditional family values.

Lest we think we have become more civilised in our thinking about corporal punishment of women, the New York Times this week reported that “Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist cultural critic, has for months received death and rape threats from opponents of her recent work challenging the stereotypes of women in video games. Bomb threats for her public talks are now routine. One detractor created a game in which players can click their mouse to punch an image of her face.

“The threats against Ms. Sarkeesian are the most noxious example of a weekslong campaign to discredit or intimidate outspoken critics of the male-dominated gaming industry and its culture,” the paper reports.

The final category of adults who were subjected to corporal punishment during the earlier days of our Western and Christian history were members of religious orders. This violence was seen as appropriate inside the vows of the religious life, in which obedience joined poverty and chastity as sacred obligations. Obedience again and again lends itself to the creation of a childlike and dependent person, one who is subject to the discipline of his or her superiors or God.

In the 14th century in response to the bubonic plague, a movement arose among Christians called “the flagellants.” They walked through the cities, sometimes in the tens of thousands, lashing themselves with whips in an act of public pentitence. Not knowing anything about viruses and germs, they only knew what their bad theology told them. God was angry at them. The hope was by punishing themselves God might relent and withdraw his divine punishment of the Black Death. We might think this practice was long ago. Not so. Karen Armstrong, a brilliant progressive theologian, whose books like the “History of God” I consider a must-read, spent her early adult years in a convent. In her autobiography she describes her experience as sister in the 1960’s. Confession and penance were a regular part of her life. On occasion her penance was to be given a small whip and told to go to a private place and lash herself for her sins, for this would please God.

These four categories of people defined as dependent and sinful and deserving of punishment all come under the “Word of God” summarised by “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” They leave unrestrained our apparent human predilection for giving and receiving violence. These words have made violence sacred and thus acceptable. It does not take much of a leap for countries to view other countries as subhuman and deserving of violent punishment. We only have to look at the fact that a country with as small a military force as New Zealand’s is considering joining an international force to punish Syrian rebels invading Iraq. The “Word of God” has sanctioned it.

The world needs a new “Word of God.” One that respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. One that demands justice, equity and compassion in human relations. One that seeks the goal of a world community of peace, liberty and justice for all. I would invite each of us to examine how these terrible texts have infected us, giving acceptability to many forms of violence, that we might reject them and embody these three UU principles. That we might enflesh a new “Word of God.