At its General Conference in Pittsburgh in April and May, 2004, the United Methodist Church passed two resolutions against corporal punishment offered by me and other members of Grace United Methodist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.
We began planning the resolutions early in 2003. Years earlier I had read Philip Greven's book, Spare the Child: the Religious Roots of Punishment. Greven quotes extensively from Methodist Church founder, John Wesley, and his mother Susanna. The Wesleys believed corporal punishment of children, even of infants, was essential to break their rebellious wills and save their souls. Greven shows that some fundamentalist spokesmen use exactly the same argument for corporal punishment today and identifies it as part of "the Protestant temperament."
The Inquirers Sunday School class and the Church and Society Ministry Team at Grace UMC felt it was important for the Methodist Church to separate itself from those ideas and not provide, even passively, a justification for them. Methodists honor John Wesley as a brilliant evangelist, administrator, and teacher with many good insights on social policy for today, but he also gave Methodists a way to respond to the advance of knowledge. His Wesleyan quadrilateral sets forth four bases for analysis and decision-making: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
We prepared separate resolutions on corporal punishment in institutions and in families. We called for laws prohibiting corporal punishment in all schools, day cares, and residential child care facilities. Within families, however, we called only for the church to "encourage" parents and guardians to use other methods of discipline than corporal punishment and to offer opportunities for education on discipline.
We buttressed the resolutions with points on the disadvantages of corporal punishment and the value of non-violent methods of training children. We pointed out that the purpose of corporal punishment is to cause pain while the purpose of discipline is to teach. We stated that it was "difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth condoning any action that is intended to hurt children physically or psychologically."
We avoided the issues of whether children have a constitutional right not to be hit and whether they should have the same legal protections as adults against being hit. Frankly, any suggestion of new legal rights for children is a red flag. In our litigious society, it conjures up visions of children suing their parents over being made to wash dishes. Over time, more rights for children will emerge through the courts or through ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. To make progress in other arenas, however, it is wise, in my judgment, to concentrate on explaining why corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful and why other methods are better.
After we submitted our resolutions to General Conference, our church program director promoted them to Iowa delegates going to the conference. There was general agreement that they were reasonable and worthwhile positions for the church to take, and they passed easily. The General Conference convenes every four years and is the only body authorized to make social and political policy for the denomination.
The United Methodist Church is the first Christian denomination to take a stand against corporal punishment of children in the United States. It is the nation's second largest Protestant denomination.
Twenty-eight states have laws banning corporal punishment in public schools, but only New Jersey bans it in private and parochial schools as well. Many states prohibit corporal punishment in state-licensed day cares and residential institutions for children, but some states allow church-run day care centers, boarding schools, and reformatories to operate without licensure and to hit children. Missouri has virtually no state regulation of church-run child care facilities, and many sadistic punishments have been reported in them.
See United Methodist Church General Conference 2004 rejects corporal punishment by parents and caretakers, May 3, 2004
See United Methodist Church General Conference 2004 calls for nationwide ban against corporal punishment in schools and child care facilities, May 3, 2004
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