The Bible, Spanking, and Hermeneutics

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“‘Use the rod.  Beat the child,’ that’s my motto,” asserts Ms Trunchbull, Headmistress of Matilda’s school in Roald Dahl’s remarkable story, Matilda.

Sounds a lot like another motto, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” from another piece of literature.  The Bible?  Nope.  Good guess, though. The exact line is from a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler.  In the poem, a love affair is likened to a child, and spanking is commended as a way to make the love grow stronger.  I guess that’s for another post.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” may not be in the Bible but what’s in the Bible is close enough.

Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates their children. But the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.  Beat them with the rod and save them from death.”

Proverbs 10:13 “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of one who has no sense.”

Proverbs 20:30 “Blows and wounds scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.”  

Proverbs 22:15 “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”

Proverbs 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools.”

Denise (my wife of 33 years) and I raised our two boys on a “modified” version of the above verses.  I say “modified” because the spankings were…
-on the bottom not the back.
-administered not by a rod but by a paddle on our boys – You remember the paddle with the ball attached to it?  Devin, one of our sons said, “It’s messed up when parents spank their kids with their own toys.”  He’s right.
-not close to “beatings. Though from the perspective of a child, it may have felt like a beating.
-limited to 2-3 smacks.
-not so severe that they left marks.
-not given beyond 10 years of age.

But this is not a post on parenting.  It is an invitation to think about how we interpret the Bible.

You see, each of the above characteristics of spanking were “modifications” of the Biblical instructions found in Proverbs.  Nope.  We didn’t follow the teaching of the Bible when it came to corporal punishment.  We modified them.  But, we didn’t make these modifications on our own.  They were suggested by the guru of parenting instruction in our day, James Dobson. If you look at the website of the organization Dobson founded, “Focus on the Family,” you will find an article with this title:  “The Biblical Approach to Parenting.”   The “Biblical” approach, it says, is to spank.  But, as is asked in the first paragraph, “What does it look like to spank in a way that obeys Scripture…?”  Their answer doesn’t sound very much like what the Bible actually teaches about “spanking.”  So, what’s up?

They have, according to Dr. William Webb in his book Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts, gone “beyond the Bible biblically.”

Abolitionists went beyond the plain teaching of the Bible concerning slavery (Exodus 21:20-21; Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 2:18; Titus 2:9-10) to a “better ethic,” an ethic that reflected the spirit of Christ (See Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis).   It appears that some of the “pro-spankers” have gone beyond the plain teaching of the Bible concerning corporal punishment.

I’m glad they did.  So are my sons!

Here’s something Denise and I are contemplating and discussing:  If Dobson and other “pro-spankers” have moved away from the clear, literal teaching of the Bible to an ethic that is more in line with the spirit of Jesus, is it possible that as we learn more about raising kids, we can move away from spanking altogether?  Every pastor and parent needs to read Dr. Webb’s book before either lifts a hand or teaches others to lift a hand.

Something else… What does this say about how to interpret the Bible?
Especially those tough to understand passages like slavery and spanking?
Are we moving toward an ethic that reflects the spirit of Jesus?

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“12 Years a Slave” – We Need to See This

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I watched this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture last night – 12 Years a Slave.  It’s a powerful film based on the book by Solomon Northup, in which he recounts his experiences as a slave in Louisiana.  It’s not a feel good movie.   It’s a feel sad, feel mad movie.  It’s a movie that some want to avoid.  Who wants to to do something that makes you sad or mad?

Some are mad at the injustices that were committed against people.  Some are mad that the movie portrayed slavery in such a negative way.  Really.

It’s not a movie that you enjoy.  It’s one that you endure.   But we need to watch it.

We need to know.   The movie makes us confront the cruelty of which people are capable – yes, people who claim to follow Christ.

We need to remember.   “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  George Santayana

We need to recognize that slavery is not just history, it is the history of our country.

We need to do some serious soul-searching.  Is it possible that even though we’ve done away with slavery, the attitudes and stereotypes that surrounded it still exist? Think back to the Cheerios ad and the responses to it.

We need to look at our use and understanding of the Bible.
The Bible plays a prominent role in the movie – as it did in the days of slavery – something I’ve mentioned before.

In one scene, slave owner Edwin Epps holds a church service for his slaves and quotes the Bible, Luke 12:47, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” After he reads this passage, he waves his Bible in the faces of the slaves and says, “and that’s Scripture!”

Each lash of the whip from the hand of Epps upon the back of Patsey – played by Oscar winning Lupita Nyong’o – was punctuated with Biblical justification.

Hopefully no Christian today still quotes the Bible to defend slavery.  But how many still use the method of interpreting the Bible that allowed slave owners to use the Bible as a spiritual whip.

We need to see God as the slaves saw God.  The “slavers” used their faith as a tool to control and dehumanize. The slaves used their faith to endure the degradations, indignities, and cruelties of slavery.

We need to make a “hypocrisy check.”  After Solomon arrives on the plantation, his master, William Ford, gathers the slaves and gives a sermon, quoting Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”  We had just seen, in the previous scene, Ford buying and thus separating a female slave from her children.  We can’t miss the hypocrisy.  I should see my own hypocrisy as clearly.

We need to let the spirit of Jesus shape us – the spirit of justice, the spirit that sees each person as one made in the image of God.   The voice of justice in the movie belongs to Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt, a Canadian surveyor and abolitionist.  He tells Epps, “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it… Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.”

It is Bass’ intervention that leads to Solomon’s deliverance and return to freedom – deliverance and freedom, but not justice.  Solomon does not find justice.  Because of racist laws, he was unable to hold the men accountable who sold him into slavery. In what ways do we need to intervene?

We need to see this film because it can change us for the better.  Maybe that’s what art does.

Necessary? True? Kind?

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I don’t know if it’s because I’m an “aging baby boomer” or what, but I kind of cringed at a couple of age jokes by Ellen at this years Oscars.

I like Ellen.  A lot.  So I tried hard not to cringe.  To overlook the jokes.  To think, “She didn’t really say that, did she?”

Her best joke, according to TIME, was when she said, “Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.  And now welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway!”

Her worst joke?   There were two nominees.
One was aimed at 84 year old Best Supporting Actress nominee June Squibb.  Ellen mentioned the Nebraska actress, and then turning to Ms Squibb, she shouted “I’m telling everyone you were very wonderful in Nebraska,” as if the elderly actress must have hearing problems. Granted,  It may be true – it’s true for me.  A lot of music booming in this baby boomer’s ears has surely lessened my hearing.   The comment still seemed hurtful

The other nominee for worst joke was one directed at 67 year old Liza Minnelli.  Ellen complimented the crowd for including “one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators she’d ever seen…Good job, sir.”  She was, of course, referring to Minnelli herself.  Ouch.

Liza came to the Oscars with her siblings to see their late mother, Judy Garland, honored in a tribute to the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz.”  Not sure how “honored” Liza felt.

The “age theme” was set early in the show with this joke,  “I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world. I’m not saying that because the most important thing in the world is youth.”

Sadly, the joke represented reality to a lot of people.

Last week, Ellen promised on “Good Morning America”  that she would not be doing any “mean joke”.  “My intentions are to make people happy, “ she had told Robin Roberts, “and my intentions are to never hurt anybody, and my intentions are to have compassion and to hope I can spread that a little bit every single day.”

I believe her.   Few people set out to intentionally hurt others.  “Hurt,” though, doesn’t know the difference between intentional and non-intentional.  It just hurts.

There is truth in the African proverb, “The ax forgets.  The tree remembers.”

As one who speaks publicly regularly, I know people have said about me what I said about Ellen: “He didn’t really say that, did he?”   I get that.  So, I look at this situation not as a judgment against Ellen but as a mirror in which I can see myself and the power of my words.

I was accepted into membership of an international service fraternity last week.  Its members commit to live by the following:
Of the things we think, say or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER RELATIONSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

As a Christ-follower, should I commit to anything less?

Buddha put it like this, “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”
Or check out the Bible, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).