I finally watched the Carte Blanche item on the SA Human Rights Commission’s challenge to the Joshua Generation Church regarding the teaching of corporal punishment techniques to parents. What a complex little opera this is turning out to be. On the one side, a community-minded middle class family backed by a matter-of-fact human rights lawyer, and on the other a zealous ex-surfer who claims to have been touched by Jesus, who proclaims proudly that he’s willing to follow the law of God over the laws of the land.
I’d suggest you watch the various pieces of footage before reading further. You can find the Carte Blanche item at their website (http://carteblanche.dstv.com/player/366574), and a public statement by Pastor Andrew Selley at his church site (http://www.joshgen.co.za/en/Catch-Up/Religious-Freedom-Video-Message/).
First, the Carte Blanche interviews. In terms of reasonableness, the Mosterts and the human rights lawyer Carol Bower stole the show. To anyone not involved in a fundamentalist church, Selley and his flock come across as wanting to create their own little walled garden in which to live, in which they can be left alone to live according to the standards that they believe have been communicated to them by their god. This is a trend I’ve noticed over the past few years, where christians seem to want to live in “virtual gated communities”, not necessarily in the same location, but with their own schools, a 24/7 church network and christian-only business relationships. This incident adds another concept to the mix, namely a form of special exemption from the law on the basis of nothing more than their faith and hope that the bible and their beliefs are actually true.
Now Derek Watts is a bastion of South African news enquiry, dry, unflappable - and when appropriate - even a bit obtuse. While his quizzical and sometimes bemused look when talking to Pastor Selley speaks volumes, Selley digs himself deeper into the mud by accusing the Mosterts of a vendetta, describing the almost scientific specification by Joshua Generation of the instrument of pain infliction, asserting that pain is required in the process of bringing up children, and then saying almost gleefully that he would have to break the law for his faith. He was able to avoid the issue of how the rods and switches get used on older children – one can only infer that longer switches and more pain are the expectation, all delivered “lovingly”, of course. Frankly, he comes across as an undercover zealot. By contrast, Mrs. Mostert's reference to their civic duty, and camera shots of the family out and about and at home show the couple to be concerned citizens wanting to address an issue that reaches to the highest arbiter in the land – the constitution. The whole piece was balanced in terms of everyone getting to have their say - but it seems to me that Andrew Selley is on the fringe and struggling to keep his head above the water.
What struck me was the lovely rhetoric used by Selley – for example, "a child's heart needs to be shaped". This is where religion is particularly evil, it uses language that is so ambiguous that it allows almost any position or action to be construed. I’m at a loss to understand how this statement translates into the use of corporal punishment.
Probably one of the more disturbing things was seeing Pastor Errol Naidoo trying to position his Family Policy Institute as christianity's advisor to the government ("the christian voice in government"). His claim that "family is a sovereign institution" has serious implications - what exactly does it mean? Words like “sovereign” are easily used to suggest that government has no right to interfere in family life, especially parental authority, which is indeed what he says - really?! Families are not exempt from the law, plain and simple. That’s why government has powers to remove children from abusive households.
This is a bit subtle, but watch Selley’s statement at 4:13. He isn't looking at the interviewer as he starts, and then he accuses the Mosterts of not having pure motives. What's interesting is how he nods his head forward as he emphasizes "not sure their motives are pure"; he doesn't do this anywhere else in this take - he has a problem with this assertion and he knows it. He does it again, but only slightly at 4:50 when referring to discomfort, which is something he obviously doesn't really want to admit. It’s a “tell” that gives away what he really feels as he speaks. "We're not saying that every person has to spank - we're saying simply give US the right to train OUR children the best way that we know how" - if viewers think about this, he'll lose the media debate.
As for Selley’s own video on the Joshua Generation website – nobody can claim that he’s been taken out of context here, since he was the producer of the video. He does a good and well thought out presentation, and even presents some of the correspondence from the SAHRC. But his response is no more than an appeal to authority – specifically the authority of a being for whose existence he has no evidence at all, other than his own faith and hope.
Now here’s the real point: the issue with Joshua Generation Church is not the spanking – that’s simply a trigger for the main problem, which is the wish by some groups, in this case a church, to be granted some sort of immunity from the protections inherent in the constitution. The precedents that this sets are extremely worrisome because it sets the basis for other practices to be allowed on the basis of religion, and puts our society a step closer to specific groups being able to manage their own laws according to their beliefs and traditions, exempt from the requirements of the constitution. And it might not even be christianity that requests it in future, but judaism, islam or hinduism – on the back of a possible precedent set here. We all know about the kinds of punishments that are meted out on wrongdoers in other parts of the world under the banner of other faiths, and some of them are truly horrific. All on a basis for which they have no evidence at all – only faith and hope, accompanied by the rhetoric “how I believe I need to train up my children in the way that God has instructed me to”. Perhaps the lawyers for the complainants should ask him for proof in court that his instructions are from God…
“The god I serve is not a vicious, mean god, he’s a loving god”. Of course, this is where we can get into all sorts of discussions about how that same “loving” god dealt with people in the Old Testament, smiting them and ordering all manner of genocide and ethnic cleansing upon them. Let’s just say that Selley is employing rhetorical fillers here to bolster his case. He further promises not to abuse his practices, but this is of course the thin end of the wedge – once the precedent is set, the abuse will naturally follow, performed by others outside of his control. He goes on to plead the case for religious freedom in general, as if his flock are openly suppressed in their beliefs and practices (they clearly are not).
“The state is getting involved in areas that it r-e-a-l-l-y shouldn’t, and doesn’t have a right to”, he declares. I believe that people have the right to practise their beliefs in the privacy of their own homes and organizations, but not to the extent that these practises infringe upon the rights of either the believers or others. And that is the critical knife-edge of the issue – whether what is advocated constitutes abuse or not. If the court decides that it does not, then fair enough. We’ll just regard these people as eccentric zealots. But if the outcome is that spanking is outside the law, then it’s clear that any group in the country must comply. That is one of the key functions of the constitution – to protect people who might not otherwise have the means or access to legal recourse in the event that they are on the receiving end of abuse.
Whichever way this case goes, one thing will be clear. And that is that as citizens we have the avenues and institutions to challenge the practices of others, to call them out and have their principles scrutinised in the glare of the public eye. That is a freedom that too few countries enjoy, and one that I welcome being exercised against practitioners of doctrines that emanate from primitive traditions, holy books and faith in entities that exhibit moral authority as poorly as the Abrahamic god and his worldly institutions.
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