Ted Grimsrud

A Theological Critique of Corporal Punishment

In Mennonites, Pacifism, Restorative justice, Theology on May 31, 2012 at 8:28 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #E.4

[Presented at the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” October 1999]

What difference does it make to assert that nothing is as important for our theology as pacifism (i.e., the cluster of values which include love, peace, shalom, wholeness, kindness, mercy, restorative justice, nonviolence, and compassion)?

I propose that one difference pacifism makes (or should make) is to cause pacifists to look critically at all justifications for violence – and to question all theological underpinnings for such justifications.  In this essay, I will focus critically on one case – theological underpinnings that help justify acting violently toward children (what is commonly called corporal punishment).

I want to reflect on six theses concerning the theological problem of the justification of violence against children.

(1) Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings.  We usually require some kind of rationale to justify such violence.  We must believe some value is more important than nonviolence.  For Christians, this value or conviction is usually expressed in terms of “God’s will.”

(2) A theological framework, that I will call “the logic of retribution”, underlies the rationale for the use of violence against children.  In “the logic of retribution,” God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness.  God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured.  Human beings are inherently sinful.  God’s response to sin is punitive.  Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping their deserved punishment.

(3) Consistent pacifists must raise theological concerns here.  When God is understood, as with the logic of retribution, primarily in terms of impersonal holiness, legal requirements, and strict, vengeful justice, the biblical picture of God as relational, compassionate, and responsive is distorted.

(4) Not only is it justified according to problematic theological assumptions, corporal punishment also has problematic practical consequences.  It may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence.  It may also contribute to a stunted experience of life for its recipients.

(5) Given that all theology is humanly constructed, we may (and must) reconstruct our understanding of God in order to foster consistently pacifist theology and practice.

(6) Foundational for such a theological reconstruction, the Bible may be read as providing bases for a “logic of restoration.”  According to the logic of restoration, God’s holiness is personal, flexible, dynamic, and relational.  God’s justice is concerned with restoring relationships and community wholeness, not with punishment, vengeance, and balancing the impersonal scales of an eye for an eye.  God’s mercy is unconditional, not dependent upon human beings in any sense earning it.

We are naturally reluctant to use violence

Thesis one:  Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings.  We usually require a rationale to justify such violence. We must believe some value is more important than nonviolence.  For Christians this value is commonly expressed in terms of “God’s will.”

I make an assumption here that certainly does not meet with uniform agreement.  However, common sense, I believe, tells us that human beings as a species do not kill other human beings without a rationale.[1]  All would surely agree that many acts of violence, at least, do have a clear, expressly stated rationale.  Wars are justified for many of these reasons:  Justice must be served.  We must defend our culture’s deepest values.  We must stop the immoral aggressor.  We must seek to change the behavior of those who misbehave.

On the levels of criminal justice and child-rearing, parallel rationales for violence refer to the need for punishment for misbehavior:  Justice must be served.  We must defend our culture’s deepest values.  We must stop the immoral aggressor.  We must seek to change the behavior of those who misbehave.

Underlying such rationales we may find the ultimate justification:  It is God’s willGod wants our nation, or our criminal justice systems, or those responsible for the raising of children, to act as God’s agent of justice, of discipline, using the “sword” to further God’s will for human existence.

Violence is a theological issue.  We overcome our reluctance to use it because we believe our most profound source of values and moral directives – God – desires for us to do so.

We may easily think of illustrations.  Certainly many rationales given for warfare claim warrant from God.[2]  So, too, do many rationales for violence toward those convicted of crimes in our society.[3]  In this essay, I will focus on a third area where this dynamic might be seen, rationales given for use of violence against children.

It’s important to define several central terms.  Violence is “physical or emotional force used so as to injure another person.”  Punishment is “the causing of pain (or injury) for a wrongdoing.”  Corporal punishment is “punishment inflicted directly on the body.”  Violence toward children, I suggest, is “adult use of physical force on children so as to cause pain (or injury).”  Finally, abuse may be defined as “extreme hurting by treating badly, causing physical or emotional damage due to the intensity and extent of the injuring.”

Following from these definitions, I suggest that corporal punishment, precisely understood, is a form of violence against children. If violence is understood as “physical force used so as to injure”, and if corporal punishment is understood as “pain or injury inflicted directly on the body”, corporal punishment is by definition a form of violence.

I want to make myself clear here.  I am not interested here in condemning corporal punishment per se.  I am focusing on describing and assessing the rationale for corporal punishment and its theological implications – though I will also be reflecting on some of the practical consequences.  I certainly do not mean to try to establish a new moral rule which parents must follow or else be judged.  And I do recognize that many cases of corporal punishment do occur in loving families, and that children in loving families are much better off than children who are not in loving families, even if some of the former are occasionally spanked.

My point in focusing on corporal punishment rather than more extreme forms of child abuse, then, is for the purpose of theological analysis.

Let us think analogously with just war reasoning here and use parallel criteria.  We may distinguish between “abuse” on the one hand (violence which is too extreme to be justifiable or violence toward children in which the punishment does not correspond to the wrongdoing – that is, inappropriate violence), and “discipline” on the other hand (what we might call justifiable violence against children – where certain criteria are met).

These justifiable-violence criteria include: (1) just cause [there is actual wrongdoing by the child], (2) for the sake of peace [discipline which will keep the child in line and help the child behave appropriately in the future], (3) limited [the punishment corresponds to the wrongdoing, the child experiences pain but the it is limited in duration], (4) proper authority [the discipline comes from the child’s parent or an authorized substitute], (5) clear beginning and end [the child is aware why the punishment is being offered and knows that it will be brief and that when it is over, the relationship with the parent can continue on peaceful grounds]).

To continue this just-war analogy, some may say that appropriate violence toward children requires clear justification.  This justification, as with the just war theory, often rests on certain assumptions concerning the character and will of God.  These assumptions especially relate to views of God’s holiness and justice.  We will look more closely at them below.

I want to be clear about my own perspective.  I am a committed pacifist when it comes to corporal punishment just as I am when it comes to warfare.  I reject justifiable-violence reasoning in both cases.  I want to think through theologically how we might construct an understanding of God and God’s will for human beings which does not lend itself to justifications of any form of violence.  I should say, as well, that I am a parent, and, of course, was a child myself.  Part of my thinking about corporal punishment surely stems from my own experience of not being spanked as a child and of not spanking my child.  So, what I propose follows not only from theory, but also from personal experience.

I am concerned with the theological logic that (I propose) lays behind much violence toward children.  I believe that even in the worst cases of abuse some sort of this logic operates on some level.  However, here I focus on what I am calling “corporal punishment” as distinct from what I am calling “abuse” – which is not to say that I do not recognize that abuse is much worse.  However, my argument most directly addresses what I called above “discipline”, or what people might call “justifiable violence against children” because I want to focus on overt justifications for the use of corporal punishment.

The role of the “logic of retribution”

Thesis Two: A theological framework that I will call “the logic of retribution” underlies the rationale for the use of violence against children.  In “the logic of retribution”, when all is said and done, God is understood most fundamentally in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness.  God’s law is seen to be the unchanging standard by which sin is measured.  Human beings are inherently sinful.  God’s response to sin is punitive.  Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary as a sacrifice to provide the only basis for sinful human beings escaping deserved punishment.

Certainly not all parents who use corporal punishment think self-consciously in the theological framework I am outlining here. Some may even reject this theology.  However, I suggest that even in such cases, on some level, punitive practices do rest on this general logic.  So one question that may arise for pacifists is if we are willing to consider whether we at times may accept non-pacifist assumptions with regard to our actions.

The theological rationale for corporal punishment rests on the view that appropriate punishment (causing pain due to wrongdoing) is God’s will or reflects God’s character.  The first, and most basic, attribute of God is holiness – the belief that God simply cannot countenance any kind of sin.  If God has direct contact with sin, God must destroy it immediately.

Theologian Millard Erickson explicitly advocates this position: The nature of God is perfect and complete holiness.  This is…the way God is by nature.  He has always been absolutely holy….Being contrary to God’s nature, sin is repulsive to him.  He is allergic to sin, so to speak.  He cannot look upon it.[4]

So, everything about God relevant to God’s ongoing relationship with human beings ultimately follows from God’s holiness.

Humans have been told what we must avoid doing in order to avoid violating God’s holiness.  When humans sin, it is by diverging from God’s laws.  Since the laws come from God, sin is against God himself: The law is something of a transcript of the nature of God.  When we relate to it, whether positively or negatively,…it is God himself whom we are obeying or disobeying.  Disobeying the law is serious…because disobeying it is actually an attack upon the very nature of God himself.[5]

In violating God’s holiness, such sin makes God angry.  God must (due to God’s holiness) punish sin.  Violated holiness must be satisfied.

According to the logic of retribution, then, God (in effect) is governed by inflexible holiness and human beings invariably violate that holiness.  Because of the fundamental nature of this holiness, God is not free to act with unconditional mercy and compassion toward rebellious human beings.  Simply to forgive would violate God’s holiness.  Compassion without satisfaction is not possible for God: For God to remove or ignore the guilt of sin without requiring a payment would in effect destroy the very moral fiber of the universe, the distinction between right and wrong.[6]

Justice, in this framework, works to sustain the balance of the universe.  If the balance is upset, justice requires recompense to restore the balance, payment to satisfy the requirements of the balance.  This payment is made through punishment, pain for pain.

In Christian theology, here is where the doctrine of the atonement enters.  Due to the extremity of the offenses of human beings versus God’s law, the only way God can relate to human beings is if there is death from the human side to restore the balance.  The only way this can happen is through the enormity of the death of God’s own Son, Jesus, whose own holiness is so powerful that it can balance out the unholiness of all of humanity.

Human beings, when they confess their own helpless sinfulness, may claim Jesus as their savior from God’s righteous anger.  Jesus satisfies God’s retributive justice (pain for pain) on our behalf.[7]

Within the logic of retribution, salvation (defined as the restoration of harmony with God) is consistent with the basic nature of the universe as founded on impersonal holiness.  Salvation happens only because God’s holiness is satisfied through the ultimate act of violence – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  In this view, God is no pacifist.  In fact, it is part of God’s plan that God’s own son be violently put to death.

In light of this understanding of the nature of God and of the fundamental nature of the universe, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence” against children (i.e., corporal punishment).

This view says that children need to be taught and reminded that the holiness of God is the most fundamental characteristic of the universe.  Since God cannot countenance rebellion against God’s laws, parents must take with utmost seriousness their responsibility to warn their children of the consequences of violating God’s law.  Physical punishment can give this reminder.

Child psychologist James Dobson, an advocate of corporal punishment, writes that God is utterly inflexible in the face of sin: If we choose to defy [God’s] moral laws we will suffer certain consequences.  God’s spiritual imperatives are as inflexible as His physical laws.  Those who defy those physical laws will not long survive.  Likewise, the willful violation of God’s commandments is equally disastrous, for “the wages of sin is death.”[8]

Of course, children invariably do violate God’s rules.  So, corporal punishment also reinforces their awareness of their unworthiness before God and their need for Christ as their substitute.  As well, corporal punishment also provides a means of curbing the expression of willfulness (that is, the inherent selfishness and rebelliousness in human beings).

Dobson (and other advocates of corporal punishment – including many of the most influential Christian leaders from past generations such as Augustine, Martin Luther, and Menno Simons) emphasizes the need to shape the wills of children, using justifiable violence against the child as necessary: We have a God-given responsibility as parents to shape the will….When a youngster [acts out with] stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier.[9]

Christian parents face the challenge of acting early on with their children to help the children internalize the logic of retribution: Little children are exceedingly vulnerable to the teaching (good or bad) of their guardians, and mistakes made in the early years prove costly, indeed.  There is a critical period during the first four or five years of a child’s life when he can be taught proper attitudes.  These early concepts become rather permanent.  When the opportunity of those years is missed, however, the prime receptivity vanishes, never to return.[10]

One of the main goals of corporal punishment, in effect, is that children learn deeply within themselves of God’s holiness, human unworthiness, the role of retribution, the need to follow God’s law, and the untrustworthiness of their own emotions.

A distortion of the biblical picture of God

Thesis three.  Consistent pacifists must raise theological concerns here.  When God is understood, as within the logic of retribution, primarily in terms of impersonal holiness, legal requirements, and strict, vengeful justice, the biblical picture of God as relational, compassionate, and responsive is distorted.

The problem here lies with the view of God characteristic of the logic of retribution.  Problems with practices that follow from that logic will be addressed in the next section.

The logic of retribution seems to minimize biblical themes of interdependence and mutuality.  A sense of relief over escaping punishment replaces a healthy sense of self-worth and sharing in God’s unconditional love.

Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock points out that this logic fosters the human tendency to split off parts of ourselves that we see as impure and to project them onto others.  As a result, people we see as different and undesirable are labeled “unclean” and either ostracized or persecuted.[11]

Historical theologian Timothy Gorringe develops a strong critique of the logic of retribution as it came to be expressed in the theology of Anselm during the Middle Ages.  Anselm’s theology of atonement, according to Gorringe, is ahistorical. For Anselm, God does not act out of a commitment to human history, but becomes human out of a metaphysical necessity.  Jesus’ life is reduced to payment to God of the debt humans owe God due to sin.[12]  However, Jesus lived in history, and in his actual life he insisted that canceling debts is a fundamental Christian practice.  By portraying God as rigidly insisting on debt, Anselm turned Jesus’ teaching on its head.[13]

Jesus’ God liberates from legalism. Jesus asserted, “the Sabbath is for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”  Anselm’s God, on the other hand, is “understood as…personified law.  Rather than transcending law God is infinite law, law in himself.”[14]  The consequences of such legalism have been grim in the Western world – uncounted acts of violence toward wrongdoers in the name of God’s rigid, unforgiving holiness.

The roots of the transformation from Jesus’ unconditionally merciful God to the logic of retribution surely go back much further than Anselm.  However it happened, the portrayal of God as merciful was utterly dwarfed by God as “holy.”  Walter Wink, in reflecting on this transformation, asks:  “What is wrong with this God, that the legal ledgers can be balanced only by means of the death of an innocent victim?”

He notes the contrast between Jesus’ teaching and the God of the logic of retribution.  Jesus simply declared people forgiven, with no hint of any need for a sacrificial victim as a prerequisite.  “The nonviolent God of Jesus came to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required.”[15]

These theological problems with the logic of retribution have multiplied in being put into practice.

Practical problems with corporal punishment

Thesis four:  Not only is it justified according to problematic theological assumptions, corporal punishment also has problematic practical consequences.  It may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence.  It may also contribute to a stunted experience of life for its recipients.

Social scientist Murray Straus, in his quantitative study of corporal punishment, concludes “corporal punishment predisposes a society to use aggressive and punitive methods for dealing with social problems.”  He admits that corporal punishment is not solely responsible for punitive public policies in our society.  However, harsh prison sentences and dehumanizing prison conditions, minimizing public assistance for families in need, cutbacks in aid for people with mental illness, and the harsh violence of military intervention against poor, so-called “outlaw” nations and “terrorist havens are unthinkable without the groundwork of widespread corporal punishment as part of the “complex system of…causes of a society’s punitive attitude.”[16]

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu argues that violence is learned behavior.  With tragic irony, corporal punishment (meant as a necessary curbing of the chaos stemming from the presumed inborn human tendency toward violence) may actually have the effect of teaching children a “skill” they would not otherwise learn—the skill of being violent.

Human aggressiveness seems to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we assume that we are violent, we will shape our practices to conform with that assumption.[17]  If we believe otherwise, and numerous cultures past and present have, we tend to grow up and live our lives without acting violently.

Montagu sees human behavior as almost totally learned, not instinctive.  That is, for example, we are not hard-wired to be invariably aggressive and violent.  We are not born aggressive; that is something we must learn.[18]

He uses the concept of natural selection to support this point.  In our long evolutionary history, human beings have had to be responders, not reactors, in order to adapt: Instincts…would be adaptively useless to a creature that responds to the challenges of the environment by the use of intelligence and learning….Instincts would simply have got in the way of the responses that were called for – not reactions but responses.[19]

Another piece of evidence Montagu cites to support the “learning” over “instinctual” explanations is simply the fact of how much even the physical brain itself of human beings grows and develops after we are born.[20].

Children are born with strong desires to give and receive affection.  In a loving and nurturing environment, these desires are by and large met, and the child flourishes and relates to others with care and respect.  Children only become selfish, withdrawn, or hostile when their affectional desires are frustrated.[21]

Children do not react “spontaneously” or “instinctively” with aggression toward others, Montagu insists.  They do have the genetic potential to act with aggression, but they must be taught how to do this.  “Aggressive behavior has to be provoked,” he writes.  “Its development into full-scale aggression will depend on the subsequent training children receive in the expression of aggression.”[22]

James Gilligan, in an analysis that complements Montagu’s, makes the connection between violence as a learned behavior and corporal punishment explicit. According to Gilligan, “violence to the body causes the death of the self because it is so inescapably humiliating.” When parents physically hurt their children, they communicate (no matter their intentions) a withholding of love. Such physical pain, and, even more, emotional pain, damages children’s souls.[23]

The heavier the punishment, the stronger the impact.  Violence leads to further violence.  “The more harshly we punish…children, the more violent they become….Punishment…does not prevent or inhibit further violence, it only stimulates it.[24]

Therapist Alice Miller has raised perhaps the strongest, most passionate voice in recent years protesting the harmful consequences of corporal punishment.  She has relentlessly insisted that violence against children has profound long-term, harmful consequences.

Miller details numerous consequences from the use of corporal punishment.

(1) In agreement with Montagu, she believes that violence is learned behavior.  Children learn violence from the way they are treated by their parents.

From the very beginning of its life, a child rapidly learns “the nature of good and evil—learning faster, and more effectively, than it ever will again.”[25] When they are manipulated, controlled, even hurt physically, children learn about pain, about coercion, about how the strong exploit the weak. In time, they put these lessons into practice when they too gain power over others.

(2) When we experience painful punishment as young people, Miller argues, we learn to keep our emotional distance from suffering, our own suffering and the suffering of others.  We do not develop empathy.[26]

We learn to keep our pain at a distance.  We must develop protection from our suffering.  We must avoid empathy for our own childhood. Inevitably, lack of empathy toward oneself leads to lack of empathy towards others. “When what was done to me was done for my own good, then I am expected to accept this treatment as an essential part of life and not question it.”[27]

(3) The recipients of such violence learn to repress their anger and hatred which naturally wells up in response to the pain they are experiencing – but which they are strictly forbidden to express.  As a consequence, this hidden anger and hatred waits to find expression later in life – directed at “acceptable” recipients such as the enemies of one’s nations, social deviants, or, perhaps most tragically, even one’s own children.

When they are hurt, children naturally feel anger, even hatred.  However, part of the punishment usually includes the strict forbidding of any expression of such anger.  However, Miller argues, the anger does not dissipate – as would be likely should the child be allowed to experience and express it.  The anger is repressed – that is, over time it is “deflected onto other people and onto [oneself], but not done away with.”[28]

(4) When young children are punished for alleged disrespect for the authority of their parents, they are essentially forced to render their parents blind obedience.  This lesson then comes to be applied to other forms of authority.  The twentieth-century has witnessed all too many cases of people blindly following orders that come from governmental authority that result in mass death.

When children are forced to obey their parents without question, chances are that when they become adults they will likely continue unquestionably to obey authority: Can one, in today’s Germany, still dispute the fact that there would never have been a Hitler, or Hitler supporters, if there had been no child abuse, if children had not been brought up, with the help of violence, to blindly obey?[29]

Children are taught, under the threat of punishment, that their parents represent God—and that, like God, parents have the right to hurt those who disobey.  Quite often another key link in this chain is the state—that also represents God.  “The political leader has only to harvest what has been sown.”[30]

(5) Finally, Miller argues that violence against children stifles the natural love for life with which people are born.  Children are born with a natural curiosity, a desire to learn, to explore, to experience.  Parents often feel threatened by a child’s spontaneity and lack of inhibition—since the parents themselves as children were punished and made to feel guilty about their natural, impulses and reactions (often in the name of God’s will).  So the vicious cycle continues.

Such a stifling of the love of life cannot help but reap a bitter fruit – the fruit of wanton disregard for life: Wars continue to be accepted, for there are so many people who have  learned only to destroy life and be destroyed by others, people who were never able to develop their love of life because they were never given the chance.[31]

In the face of these critiques of the logic and practice of retribution, pacifist theologians face a major challenge to articulate alternatives.  In the remainder of this essay, I will address only the theological aspect of this challenge.[32]

A call to reconstruct our view of God

Thesis five:  Given that all theology is humanly constructed, we may (and must) reconstruct our understanding of God in order to foster consistently pacifist theology and practice.

The first step for a pacifist theological response to the problem of violence against children is to recognize that, as Gordon Kaufman states, all theology is human work.[33] The logic of retribution, no matter how deeply it is embedded in the church’s dogmas, is something human beings formulated.  No human theology comes directly from God.  Therefore, it is fully appropriate to evaluate any theological construction – both in terms of how is coheres with our vision for life in the present and with our understanding of our faith’s founding document, the Bible.

In recognizing the human origin of all concepts of God, Kaufman challenges us to evaluate these concepts continually.  In particular, we are responsible continually to seek to discern what the effects of our God-concepts are on human life and the world.[34]  What are the criteria for such evaluation?

Kaufman argues that the fundamental criterion is to what extent these God-concepts enhance what he calls “humanization”—human health and well-being, harmony with God and creation, inter-human mutual respect and compassion.[35]

Recognizing humanization as theology’s fundamental evaluative criterion leads to the Christian confession of Jesus as our clearest manifestation of God.  Kaufman cites Colossians 1:15:  Christ “can be characterized as ‘the image of the invisible God’.  It is here that Christian faith finds its model or paradigm for understanding God: the ultimate mystery, as it bears on us humans, is to be construed in terms of what here becomes visible.”[36]  God-as-revealed-in-Christ gives us a vision of life understood at its very core as personal, loving, compassionate, relational, peaceable – in other words, diametrically counter to the vision of life at its core assumed by the logic of retribution.

If Jesus ultimately, for Christians at least, serves as our paradigmatic basis for understanding humanization and for developing the best and most appropriate concepts of God, we need to look to the Bible as a central source for our theological construction.

Timothy Gorringe, in commenting on the place of biblical reflection in trying to rethink the logic of retribution with regard to criminal justice recognizes that, while many theologians in the past 2,000 years have read the Bible as justifying the logic of retribution, “the founding texts point in another direction.”[37]

The Bible’s “logic of restoration”

Thesis seven:  Foundational for a consistently pacifist theological reconstruction, the Bible may be read as providing the bases for a “logic of restoration.”  According to the “logic of restoration,” God’s holiness is personal, flexible, dynamic, and relational.  God’s justice is concerned with restoring relationships and community wholeness, not with punishment, vengeance, and balancing the impersonal scales of an eye for an eye.  God’s mercy is unconditional, not dependent upon human beings in any sense earning it.

To read the Bible itself through restorative rather retributive lenses reveals a remarkably different portrayal of God and justice.  From start to finish, we find in the Bible a “logic of restoration” fundamentally counter to salvation based on satisfying an impersonal principle of retributive justice.[38]

The Bible’s “logic of restoration” time after time reveals a God whose mercy is unconditional, whose compassion takes precedence over wrath.  The act of creation itself can be understood thus – God bringing peace out of chaos.  The story of Noah and the Flood concludes with God simply deciding to act henceforth with mercy and not destruction (Genesis 9:8-17).  Abraham and Sarah are called to form a people meant to bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3) based totally on God’s unconditional gift to them of an unexpected child.

Abraham and Sarah’s descendents are rescued from slavery in Egypt – simply as a gift from God.  Much later, God spoke similarly through Hosea in promising to continue to love the rebellious children of Israel (“I am God and not mortal, the Holy One in your midst and I will not come in wrath,” Hosea 11:9 – here God’s holiness explicitly leads to God not being wrathful).  After Israel’s fall and while in exile, more such words spoke of God’s persevering love and unconditional mercy (Isaiah 40–55).

The story of Jesus continues this account of God’s dynamic, responsive, unconditional saving mercy.  Jesus taught a gospel of mercy as seen in his extraordinary parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-32).  According to the Apostle Paul, the work of God to save even God’s enemies (Romans five) is an expression of God’s justice (Romans 3:21).  That is, God’s justice equals unconditional, life-giving mercy – mercy which heals, which restores broken relationships, which has absolutely nothing to do with punishment or retribution.

So. I propose, the logic of restoration much more centrally characterizes the core message of the Bible than does the logic of retribution.  Biblically, God’s holiness and God’s justice both find their paradigmatic expression in God’s responsive love, God’s unconditional mercy.

One way clearly to capture the radical difference between the logic of retribution and the logic of restoration is to look at how the latter understands the Bible’s view of justice.  “Justice” (Hebrew: mishpat and sedeqah; Greek: dikaisune) is a common term in the Bible.  A careful examination of its usage reveals an understanding quite different from impersonal, retributive, “English-speaking” justice.[39]

The Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah) present justice as tied up inextricably with life (cf. Amos 5:21-24:  “Let justice roll down like [life-giving] water, like an ever-flowing stream”).  Do justice and live; do injustice and die.  Justice is not an abstract principle but rather a life-force.  Justice establishes relationships; it meets needs; it corrects wrongs.  Justice is concrete, practical, and historical.  It is tied to specific acts and people.  It is not abstract nor ahistorical.

The ultimate goal of God’s justice is redemption (cf. the visions concluding the books of Amos [chapter nine] and Micah [chapter seven]).  Even the judgment God brings on Israel is for that end: it is intended to correct Israel’s self-destructive injustice.  The threats, warnings, and judgment of God are not for the sake of punishment as an end in itself.  They are not a matter of retribution, of repaying rebellious Israel an “eye for an eye.”  Rather, the threats and warnings offer hope of salvation, of transformation.

Biblical justice is not primarily a legal concept; rather it tends to merge with concepts such as “steadfast love,” “compassion,” “kindness” and “salvation.”  Justice has ultimately to do with enhancing life.  By enhancing life, we imitate our life-enhancing, loving Creator.

God’s love for enemies means that God hates that which sin and evil do to human beings, and God works to heal its effects.  That is, God seeks to heal, not to punish.  God is holy in the sense that God makes whole.  God binds wounds.  God transforms brokenness.  Evil only ends when the cycle of evil fighting evil with violence and retribution is broken.

God destroys evil, ultimately, not through coercive force but through suffering love.  This biblical theme symbolically comes to its completion in the book of Revelation, where the Lamb, Jesus Christ, wins the final battle with the powers of evil through his cross and resurrection – the basis for being praised for his just deeds (Revelation 19:11-21).[40]

To conclude:  Violence toward children is not necessary.  Violence toward children is not God’s will.  We may make this assertion based on analyses such as Ashley Montagu’s and Alice Miller’s.  We may also make this assertion based on a biblically based reconstruction of our concept of God.

We worship the God of Jesus—a God of peace.  Perhaps, as Christians, we face no greater challenge in our retribution-drenched culture than to insist that our God is a God of restoration, not a God of retribution.  For a pacifist, I want to suggest, any rationale for violence—including any rationale for violence against children—that claims to be God’s will is, simply put, blasphemous.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1]Psychiatrist James Gilligan, former director of mental health for the Massachusetts state prison system, makes a persuasive case that all acts of even extreme violence are “logical” in the sense that they have a clear rationale for their perpetrators, usually to be understand as acts intended to establish self-respect.  Gilligan denies that violent acts are random or gratuitous.  James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

[2]For a clear, detailed account of one set of examples, U.S. Christian leaders during World War I, see Ray Abrams,  Preachers Present Arms (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1969).

[3]See Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking God, Justice, and Treatment of Offenders,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35.3/4 (Fall 2002), 259-285.

[4]Millard Erickson, Christian Theology  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House, 1984), 802.

[5]Erickson, Christian Theology, 803.

[6]Erickson, Christian Theology, 816.

[7]Erickson,  Christian Theology, 804.

[8]James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 228.

[9]James Dobson, Dare to Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1970), 27.

[10]Dobson, Dare, 20.

[11]Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 56-57.

[12]Timothy Gorringe,  God’s Just Vengeance:  Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation  (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1996), 82

[13]Gorringe,  God’s, 102.

[14]Gorringe,  God’s, 102.

[15]Walter Wink,  Engaging the Powers:  Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 148-49.

[16]Murray A. Straus,  Beating the Devil Out of Them:  Corporal Punishment in American Families  (New York:  Lexington Books, 1994), xii.

[17]Ashley Montagu,  The Nature of Human Aggression  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1976), 293.

[18]Montagu,  Nature, 4.

[19]Montagu,  Nature, 77-78 (italics Montagu’s).

[20]Montagu,  Nature, 206.

[21]Montagu,  Nature, 99.

[22]Montagu,  Nature, 100.

[23]Gilligan,  Violence, 48-49.

[24]Gilligan,  Violence, 113, 150.  Further support for Gilligan’s analysis comes from Richard Rhodes,  Why They Kill  (New York:  Knopf, 1999), a report on the research and analysis of criminologist Lonnie Athens.

[25]Alice Miller,  Breaking Down the Walls of Silence:  The Liberating Experience of Facing Painful Truth  (New York:  Meridian, 1993), 151.

[26]An issue that deserves some careful research is the impact of widespread usage of corporal punishment among Mennonites.  My impression, based mostly on various conversations over the years with Mennonite friends and some occasional reading of fiction and non-fiction concerning Mennonite family life, is that Mennonites traditionally have relied quite heavily on corporal punishment.  If true, this would seem to put into question my assumptions in this paper about the impact of corporal punishment on fostering other forms of violence  – given the longstanding pacifism of Mennonites.  However, I suspect that careful consideration would show that the contradiction is more apparent than real.  For example, Mennonites are notorious for the frequency and intensity of their intra-church conflicts.  Personally, I have seen plenty of evidence during my 20+ years in the Mennonite church of a surprising and deeply troubling lack of empathy toward people who are different or people who violate community norms.  I have a highly tentative and impressionistic thesis that we would probably find a correlation between the practice of corporal punishment and the difficulty in expressing empathy I have perceived.

[27]Alice Miller,  For Your Own Good:  Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York:  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984), 115.

[28]Miller,  For Your Own Good, 248.

[29]Miller,  Breaking, 81.

[30]Miller,  For Your Own Good, 44.

[31]Miller,  Breaking, 167.

[32] Miller’s writings, I believe, contain a great deal of helpful implicit guidance for the practice of nonviolent parenting.

[33]Gordon D. Kaufman, God—Mystery—Diversity:  Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 42.

[34]Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), xii.

[35]Kaufman, Face, 407-411.

[36]Kaufman, Face, 388.

[37]Gorringe, God’s, 17.  Gorringe’s chapter nine, “The gospel and retribution” (223–247), makes an excellent concise case for his assertion that Christianity’s “founding texts” may be read as supporting a logic of restoration.

[38] I expand on my understanding of the Bible’s message in my book, God’s Healing Strategy:  An Introduction to the Core Message of the Bible, second edition  (Telford, PA:  Cascadia Publishing House, 2011).

[39]See Ted Grimsrud,  “Healing Justice:  The Prophet Amos and a ‘New’ Theology of Justice,” in Ted Grimsrud and Loren Johns, eds.,  Peace and Justice Shall Embrace:  Power and Theopolitics on the Bible  (Telford, PA:  Pandora Press US, 1999), 64-85.  On the contrast between biblical justice and modern, Western concepts, see  Albrecht Dihle,  Greek and Christian Concepts of Justice  (Berkeley, CA:  The Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1974) and George P. Grant,  English-Speaking Justice  (Sackville, New Brunswick:  Mt. Allison University Press, 1974).

[40]See Ted Grimsrud,  “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-53.

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