Pretty much all I remember from my prep school are the beatings: that lonely wait outside the headmaster's study; the cane, the slipper, the table tennis bat. I remember my underpants filled with blood. I remember seething with frustration when they beat my brother. My mother had asked me to look after him. But there was nothing I could do as he was led towards the study in his little tartan dressing gown.
That was 30 years ago, but in time measured out by the psyche it was yesterday. Thank God such things are now illegal. But there remain those determined to turn back the clock. "We are told that in England it is a crime to spank children," writes Debbi Pearl from No Greater Joy Ministries, following a row that has erupted over the distribution of their literature in the UK. "Therefore Christians are not able to openly obey God in regard to biblical chastisement. They are in danger of having the state steal their children."
The Pearls are evangelical Christians who believe corporal punishment is "doing it God's way". With a mailing list of tens of thousands of parents, the Pearls say that the justification for their approach is in scripture: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes" (Proverbs 13:24).
Chastening begins early. "For the under-one-year-old, a little, 10- to 12-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient," writes Michael Pearl. With older children he advises: "After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his backside. Somehow, after eight or 10 licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment. The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand-new child emerges. It makes an adult stare at the rod in wonder, trying to see what magic is contained therein."
It's incredible to me that books such as this are readily available on Amazon; it is little short of incitement to child abuse. What makes the whole thing doubly sick is that it's done in the name of God. Apparently, the "proper application of the rod is essential to the Christian world-view". Note "essential". Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise. For, as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father's anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel.
It's terrifying how deep this teaching penetrates into a philosophy of child rearing. Just as divine anger is deemed to be provoked by the original sin of human disobedience, the beating of children is seen as punishment for rebellion. According to Ted Tripp, in his monstrous bestseller Shepherding a Child's Heart, even babies who struggle while having their nappy changed are deemed to be rebellious and need punishment.
Last month Lynn Paddock of North Carolina was charged with the murder of her four-year-old son, Sean. She had apparently beaten him with a length of quarter-inch plumbing line - plastic tubing. Like many in her church, Paddock had turned to the Pearls' resources on Biblical parenting. The Pearls say chastisement with plumbing line is "a real attention getter". Sean Paddock's autopsy describes layers of bruises stretching from his bottom to his shoulder.
What Jesus said about those who would harm children comes inevitably to mind: "It would be better for them if a millstone was hanged about their neck, and that they were drowned in the depth of the sea."
· Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney email@example.com
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