Church against church?

May 3, 2007

There has been considerable debate here over the past few months over what has come to be known as the “smacking bill”, the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act which states that parents are justified in using force by way of correction towards the child, if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances.

Proponents of the law change state that children are entitled to the same legal status as everyone else. Although hitting children is not legal now (under section 12 of the Crimes Act) Section 59 gives a defense for parents who physically abuse their children.

Opponents argue the new law would effectively criminalise “any parent who uses ‘reasonable’ force when applying proper corrective discipline to their own children”, and that police will be forced to prosecute parents if children claim they are smacked.

In a fascinating turn of events, the debate has set church against church in a very visible way.  Today we had a march on parliament by church groups opposed to the bill- mostly fundamentalist, pentecostal & evangelical churches.  Just up the road in Wellington Cathedral an ecumenical service was led by church leaders who support the bill.  Quite apart from the obvious question about just whose prayers would be answered, I think today’s events shed some interesting light on the social and political leanings of the respective churches.

It also highlights the changes I have been through is the past few years.  I grew up in a pentecostal church, and was spanked myself as a child, but I now find there is something quite disturbing to me about the arguements used by the protesters.  To state you have a God-given responsibility to hit your child is a horrible thought. My sympathies now clearly lie with the dignified and quiet support given the bill by mainline churches, and the care they show towards the weaker in society.

As Anglican Archbishop David Moxon has stated-

“Reading of the Bible must always be done through the lens of Christ’s teaching and life. It is inappropriate to take texts such as Proverbs 13:24 [“Spare the rod and spoil the child”] out of their ancient cultural context and out of the broader context of scripture, so as to justify modes of behaviour in a modern situation very different from that for which they were given.

“This isn’t about going into people’s houses and telling people off for smacking. It is about removing a loophole of using reasonable force as a defence in court. It’s not an invasion of privacy, it’s a way of keeping children safe.”

Of course the protesters had the wind knocked out of their sails by this mornings announcement of a political comprimise that “affirmed that police have the discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent of a child, or person in the place of a parent of a child, in relation to an offence involving the use of force against a child where the offence is considered to be so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution.”

I am not sure what to make of this, and I guess there will be more commentary on it over the next few days but I do wonder if this takes us almost back to square one.  “Inconsequential” force may be easier to define than “reasonable” force, but it is still a judgment call, and one that could potentially become a loophole.  I don’t think anything short of a complete ban on smacking would remove legal loopholes- something it seems our society may not be ready for, because in one sense the protesters are right.  Enforcing such a ban would be intrusive and risk punishing otherwise good parents.

It certainly is a debate we need to have, and churches are leading the way.

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