14. The Theological Roots of Violence Against Children

The Theological Roots of Violence Towards Children[1]

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 what follows, I will examine the practice of corporal punishment among Christians in light of my pacifist convictions.

Human beings tend to be reluctant to act violently toward other human beings. We usually require a rationale to justify such violence. We must conclude that some value is important to override our reluctance to use violence. For Christians this value is commonly expressed in terms of “God’s will.”

God 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 violence when necessary 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.

Let’s start with some definitions. 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 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,” then corporal punishment is by definition a form of violence.

However, I do not seek to condemn corporal punishment carte blanche. 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 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 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.

We may think analogously with just war reasoning. We may distinguish between “abuse” (violence that is too extreme to be justifiable or violence toward children where the punishment does not correspond to the wrongdoing—that is, inappropriate violence), and “discipline” (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 to 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 limited in duration], (4) proper authority [the discipline comes from the child’s parent or an authorized substitute], and (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 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 logic of retribution

“The logic of retribution” underlies many rationales for the use of violence against children. In “the logic of retribution,” God is understood in terms of impersonal, inflexible holiness. God’s law serves as 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 suspect that even in such cases the punitive practices do on some level rest on this general logic.

The theological rationale for corporal punishment rests on the view that appropriate punishment (causing pain due to wrongdoing) is God’s will. For this view, the central 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

Justice, in this framework, works to sustain the balance of the universe. If sin upsets the balance, 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 light of this view of the nature of God and the universe, the logic of retribution indeed leads to acceptance of “justifiable violence” against children (i.e., corporal punishment). 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’.”[5]

Of course, children invariably do violate God’s rules. So, corporal punishment also reinforces an 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 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.”[6] 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 permanent. When the opportunity of those years is missed, however, the prime receptivity vanishes, never to return.”[7]

The use of corporal punishment seeks to teach children of God’s holiness, human unworthiness, the role of retribution, the need to follow God’s law, and the untrustworthiness of their own emotions.

Theological concerns

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 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.

Rita Nakashima Brock points out that this logic fosters the human tendency to split off parts of ourselves we see as impure and project them onto others. People we see as different and undesirable are thus labeled “unclean” and either ostracized or persecuted.[8]

Timothy Gorringe critiques the logic of retribution in Anselm’s theology during the Middle Ages. 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. Gorringe argues, by portraying God as rigidly insisting on debt, Anselm turned Jesus’ teaching on its head.

Gorringe suggests, in contrast, that Jesus’ God liberates from legalism. Jesus asserted that “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.”[9] 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. 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?”

Wink notes the contrast between Jesus’ teaching and the God 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.”[10]

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

Practical consequences

Not only are the theological assumptions that justify corporal punishment problematic, they also have problematic practical consequences. Such punishment may well intensify the dynamic of responding to violence with violence, actually educating young people into the practice of using violence.

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.”[11]

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.[12] If we believe otherwise, and numerous cultures past and present have, we tend to grow up and live our lives without acting violently.

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. 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. Its development into full-scale aggression will depend on the subsequent training children receive in the expression of aggression.”[13]

James Gilligan, in an analysis that complements Montagu’s, sees a clear connection between violence as a learned behavior and corporal punishment. 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, and, even more, emotional pain, damage children’s souls.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.”[17] 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. 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.”[18]

(3) The recipients of such violence learn to repress their anger that 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 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.

(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.

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—which also represents God. “The political leader has only to harvest what has been sown.”[19]

(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.”[20]

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.

A theological alternative

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 all theology is human work. 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, we appropriately 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.

Recognizing the human origin of all concepts of God, Gordon Kaufman challenges us continually to evaluate these concepts. In particular, we are responsible to discern the effects of our God-concepts have human life. What are the criteria for such evaluation?
Kaufman argues that the fundamental criterion is to what extent these God-concepts enhance humananization (well-being). 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.”[21] God-as-revealed-in-Christ gives us a vision of life understood at its very core as personal, loving, compassionate, relational, peaceable.

If Jesus ultimately 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.

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.

The logic of restoration reflects the core message of the Bible much more than does the logic of retribution. Biblically, God’s holiness and God’s justice both find their paradigmatic expression in God’s responsive love and 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” is a common term in the Bible. A careful examination of its usage reveals an understanding quite different from impersonal, retributive, “English-speaking” justice.

Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah) present justice as tied up inextricably with life (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 establishes relationships, meets needs, corrects wrongs. Justice is concrete, practical, and historical. It is tied to specific acts and people.

God’s justice seeks redemption (cf. the visions concluding Amos and Micah). Even the judgment God brings on Israel serves that end: it seeks 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 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 not through coercive force but through persevering love. This biblical theme symbolically comes to its completion in the book of Revelation, where the Lamb 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).

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. 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.


1. This chapter originated as a presentation to the conference, “Mennonites and the Family,” Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, October 1999.

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

3. Erickson, Christian Theology, 803.

4. Erickson, Christian Theology, 816.

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

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

7. Dobson, Dare, 20.

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

9. Timothy Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 102..

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

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

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

13. Montagu, Nature, 100.

14. James Gilligan, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 48-49.

15. 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.

16. For an overtly theological treatment, deeply influenced by Miller, see Donald Capps, The Child’s Song: The Religious Abuse of Children (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).

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

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

19. Miller, For Your Own Good, 44.

20. Miller, Breaking, 167.

21. Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 388.

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