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Does the Bible condone corporal punishment?

2017-10-26 13:43


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Riaan de Villiers

We have a huge problem with violence in our country – it is out of control.

To add to that, we have people identifying themselves as Christians (supposedly followers of Christ) perpetuating, condoning and in some cases enforcing their own form of violence with the Bible in hand; calling for the death penalty, castration, corporal punishment and spewing sexist, homophobic and racist views whilst quoting obscure Bible verses (mostly Old Testament laws) in support of their frightening views.

Somehow, they believe they are fighting "the good fight" against lawlessness and violence. I believe people like these are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Last week we saw a high court ruling that outlawed the use of corporal punishment by parents as a method of disciplining their children. It wasn't long before we saw this judgement take a beating on social media.

The ACDP and some churches and Christians are leading the criticism on this ruling, and this includes the usual Bible bashing.

I was raised in an Afrikaans, conservative, Dutch Reformed home, school and community where "buig die boompie terwyl hy jonk is" (meaning: bend the tree while it is young, which, by the way, is not a Bible verse) was understood to include a good dose of corporal punishment, every now and then, just to keep me on the straight and narrow.

After all, this is supposedly what God expects from God fearing people. However, in the end it was not the "pakslae" (caning) that instilled good values in me, but the examples of parents and various adults who acted with loving care and instruction that formed my values. The canings only instilled fear and caused pain. It taught me if all else fails, resort to violence!

As someone who spends a good deal of time reading the Bible, I must ask, "Does the Bible condone corporal punishment or other forms of retributive violence?" You can certainly argue that it does, but it also self-corrects, and here is why and how.

If you read the Bible, you must also go to the trouble of understanding the context in which this book (compiled of many books and genres) came to light. The Bible story starts out in a context of extreme violence – an 'eye for an eye' world.

The dominant empire of the day was that of the Babylonians and they were the epitome of bloody violence – it was engrained in their religion, politics and social structures. Their views dominated and influenced the world and everyone in it. It is in this context that the Israelites (the people of the Biblical God) were trying to write a new story.

We begin to see traces of the development of such a new world view in the Old Testament amongst the Israelites e.g. the Genesis creation story compared to the violent Babylonian creation story (known as the Enuma Elish).

Some of Israel's laws regarding Sabbath, foreigners, the poor and marginalised also tried to reflect the emergence of a new way of living, compared to the world they found themselves in.

Israel's language and practices were, however, still mainly and understandably informed by the surrounding dominant world view and therefore it is no surprise that violence and violent practices were continuously reflected in Old Testament laws and stories. 

Jesus in his wisdom, teaching and lifestyle broke with these contaminated Old Testament laws, understandings and practices. He reflects more clearly on the way of God, in contrast with the way of violence. We must therefore also be able to discover and discern from the Gospel's account of Jesus that he does not stand for or represent everything that is written in the Bible.  

Jesus himself becomes a victim of violent methods when he is sentenced to be disciplined by corporal punishment and in the end executed by means of the death penalty – leading Christians to confess to this day that in his violent punishment Christ has carried the sins/transgressions of all on him, exposing the way of violence and the death it represents. Loving his enemies without seeking revenge and punishment and declaring victory for the way of love, the way of God.

Christians call themselves disciples of Jesus, and the word 'disciple' has the same root word as discipline. Jesus 'disciples' (read disciplines) through his example which is shaped by various forms and expressions of love. None of these include any mechanism or practice that causes fear or pain. The New Testament even explicitly states that love expels fear.

Violent practices and retribution won't solve the problem of systemic violence so ingrained in our culture. Rather, it will add to the death spiral. We need new ways to address the problem and Jesus demonstrated such a way.

Christians should rather use the Bible to discover these new methods of instruction, form values and discipline through example and seek to replace current violent world views with the world view Jesus so clearly embodied in the Gospel stories.

Churches should celebrate, rather than criticise, the abandonment of corporal punishment.

- De Villiers is a minister with the Groote Kerk Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town.

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Read more on:    bible  |  spanking  |  smacking  |  corporal punishment  |  high court

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