Saturday, February 4, 2012

More from Janet Heimlich on Problematic and Abusive Corporal Punishment within Evangelical Christianity


A previous post referenced Janet Heimlich's book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Malicious Child Maltreatment, noting that Christians have other “compassionate, healthy” alternatives that are available to them to help them in their duty to raise “happy, strong grown-ups” (pg 120). They do not need to resort to corporal punishment, certainly not some of the methods of aggressive discipline that many Evangelicals tend to promote.

The author goes on to point out several other trenchant points in the Conclusion section of the chapter entitled The Perils of Mixing Faith and Corporal Punishment which I believe are worthy of mention and discussion from a Christian view. The conclusion section appears on pages 119 and 120 of the book.

The Myth of Necessity

First, Heimlich quotes the executive director of the Faith Trust Institute, Marie M. Fortune, who states that too many people have made the wrong assumption that “children need corporal punishment” and that too many Christians believe that orthodox Christianity actually teaches this concept as a virtue if not a requirement. The author goes on to cite Phillip Greven who notes the false assumption that Christians must use physical discipline in Jesus' Name if they want to properly raise their children, see them become “saved” later in life, and thus ensure or encourage their eternal place in heaven. (I've also quoted material from the same source, Spare the Child by Phillip Greven, in this previous post on the subject of child discipline.)

The methods advocated by controlling evangelical Christian groups do manipulate parents into believing that spanking is non-optional. They teach that a parent's failure to use a literal rod or physical discipline itself becomes the first cause event through an act of neglect on the parent's part. Refusal to use physical discipline or parental neglect of the duty to both God and their child becomes forges the first link in a long chain of lifelong events which will eventually result in that child's damnation to hell. Such ideas not only misrepresent what the Bible teaches, but they also exploit the good will and legitimate concerns of parents through emotional blackmail and fear-mongering.

Janet Heimlich
Heimlich also goes on to make a very insightful and relevant statement at the very end of the chapter:
As long as the faithful require of children unquestioning obedience, see them as inherently sinful, and believe that adults must break the child's will to help them earn eternal salvation, children will continue to suffer injury and die violent deaths.

I'd like to break this statement down to note it's very direct, concise, and valuable elements.

          Unquestioning obedience. First, the issue of unquestioning obedience opens up a very wide and very critical topic of concern, especially for the Christian parent. In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts, we learn that the the author commended the people of Berea as those of noble character because they were willing to listen to the Apostle Paul's message, but not they were not willing to agree with it until they'd compared it to the Law and the Prophets to see whether it was consistent with the Truth. This post concerning Lydia Schatz introduces John Bradshaw's challenge to replace the dangerous outcomes of unquestioned obedience with a culture of virtue. He challenges those who control children through power and subjugation from a place of perfectionism to replace their methods with love, care, and respect for children which ultimately trains them to be Bereans. Raising children from a position of tolerance and loving respect produces adults who abound in God's liberty and grace as they freely choose to exercise wise discernment and obedience out of love and from a place of virtue instead of fear or a survival. In fact, evidence supports hat demanding blind obedience through domineering control stifles a Berean's critical thinking, and that abuse and trauma both inhibit and can actually arrest healthy brain development.

          Inherent Sinfulness. Whatever your viewpoint, I would hope that the reader would not dismiss the great value of the this statement which at first blush seems to be a challenge of the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Considering that the author seems to reject the idea that children are inherently sinful, balance that with the idea that chlidren are not diabolically sinful to the great extent attributed to them by the fringe groups that advocate aggressive corporal punishment methods. Many Christians within the pale of orthodoxy argue that children sin out of naivete and lack of experience and not out of malicious intent until they develop the capability to comprehend their moral responsibility.

As a commentary from someone outside of Evangelical Christianity who has gazed into this fringe subculture with a focus of understanding abuse and harm, I consider the author's commentary on “inherent sinfulness” as something that reflects the arrogant idea that parents possesses the power to do what only God can do by producing holiness in children through human effort and through the works of the flesh. I believe her statement actually critiques the arrogance of original sin as it manifests in those who legitimize and spiritualize their own sinful desire to be like God through domination and control which they support with misconstrued and misapplied religious principles. Such a concept is most notably not a Christian virtue.

          Breaking the will to ensure salvation. In the April 2011 episode of ABC's 20/20 called Shattered Faith, activist Jocelyn Zichterman describes in such a powerful way the teaching of some within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches (IFB) that physical discipline holds the power to drive away evil. She cites Proverbs 20:30 as one of the Biblical sources for the concept that discipline itself saves people from eternal consequences, and that bruises and the “blueness of the wound” literally drives evil out of the hearts of children. This teaching contends that men hold the power to deliver one another from sin – that a sinful man can purge another from the same nature at work in them. Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz of the IFB who beat their daughter to death using the Pearl Method pursued a similar cause through the belief that a Christian could attain a certain level of sinlessness through human effort. And we also have IFB minsiter, Ron Williams, proprietor of Hephzibah House, who preaches at length about the spiritual correction and salvation of children through corporal punishment. (And I thought good Baptists only believed that salvation came through the Blood of the Lamb?)

For Consideration

I applaud Janet Heimlich and her statement about the miserable nature of “the perils of mixing faith and punishment,” though I am saddened that this message of warning did not come from within the halls of Christendom itself. Kate Johnson of  Christian Coalition Against Domestic Abuse notes that many Christians actually believe that it is the work of the secular world to provide help and ministry in this area and do not see it as the responsibility of the church. (Christians should set the example and standard of ethics and ministry for those in the secular world. At least, that is how things should work in theory.)

I'm reminded of the comment of my friend, Jocelyn Andersen, the author of Woman Submit: Christians and Domestic Violence. She notes that because Christians find the discussion of domestic violence so distressing, they end up ignoring the victims and the conditions that foster the problem. She refers to sources like Heimlich's book and the support for Christian victims of violence from secular sources as the “rod of man” which should rightly bring most Christians to shame. Too few leaders from within the Church will step forward to care ethically and dutifully for the needs of the wounded lambs within the Body of Christ, so God has allowed the “rod of man” to do it instead. 

Though it so saddens me, I am grateful.

Preparing the Church to Respond to Domestic Abuse from FreeCWC on Vimeo.