According to many conservative Christians, such behavior is acceptable when the small, skinny person is a four-year-old child and the big one is his father. In fact, some claim that beating children is not only acceptable, it is a crucial sign of parental love and devotion – and obedience to the will of God. And besides, it’s the way things have been done for a generations.
This is the skeleton of an argument being made by fans and supporters of American football star Adrian Peterson, above, who was recently suspended from play in the National Football League after pictures emerged of the bruises and lacerations he had inflicted on his four-year-old son.
According to the police report accompanying the images, Peterson stuffed the child’s mouth with leaves and whipped him repeatedly with a branch. The pictures showed dozens of wounds, including to the front of the child’s legs, the genital area, and the arms. Peterson admitted to striking the boy, including on the scrotum, but defended the punishment.
Peterson is the highest paid running back in the NFL, on a $96 million contract that provided a base salary this year of $11.75 million. The victim is one of seven children that Peterson has fathered with five different women, and the case marks the third time that one of his children has been the subject of physical abuse allegations.
Earlier reports indicate that a whipping delivered to another son by Adrian Peterson resulted in a cut to the child’s face that left a permanent scar. A third son was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
Despite the family history, Peterson’s admissions, and the graphic photos, loyal fans of the Minnesota Vikings team have rallied to his side. One woman arrived at a Sunday game in a Peterson jersey, with a beer in one hand and a symbolic stick in the other.
Research evidence shows that children grow up healthier and better disciplined without corporal punishment, and in fact traumatic punishment may neurologically prime later adult psychiatric disorder such as PTSD. But the practice of beating children remains shockingly common in many American communities. Among African Americans like Peterson, 89 percent of parents say that they spank their kindergarteners, as compared with 79 percent of white parents.
In a New York Times op-ed, sociologist Michael Dyson traces the African American inclination toward physical punishment back to the practices of slaveholders, who beat adults and children alike. But another factor to consider is the high rate of biblical Christianity among African Americans, who are the most devout ethnic group in the US. (Peterson himself has a history of religious tweets that proclaim America a Christian nation.)
Almost half of Black Americans identify as Baptist, a Protestant sect that treats the Bible as the literally perfect word of God. The implications for parenting are enormous because many Bible stories implicitly or explicitly treat children as possessions of their fathers while “wisdom” texts admonish parents to beat their children:
He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. Proverbs 13:24
Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. Proverbs 23:13
For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines; And He scourges every son he receives. Hebrews 12:6
Preachers and Christian parenting experts who teach “spare the rod, spoil the child” often cite chapter and verse, to which they add their own detailed instructions on how best to break a child’s will as God intends. The combination can make it remarkably hard for devout Bible believers to come down on the side of child protection, even after children die from Christian discipline gone awry.
To some, the question is one of intentions. As a defender of Peterson put it:
He was trying to discipline his child. Too many people need to mind their own business. We are already becoming a nanny state.
Even the victim’s grandmother came to Peterson’s defense, calling her son’s suspension cruel during an interview with the Houston Chronicle:
Most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes. But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world … When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, but love … People are judging him, but they don’t know his heart. This was never his intent.
But in a wave of recent op-eds and editorials, many have failed to find merit in Peterson’s religious rationalizations. In one such column, published at On Faith, child abuse survivor and novelist M Dolon Hickmon details the broken relationship between him and his now deceased father, graphically illustrating the pain and lingering consequences of terrifying whippings that were, ironically, doled out after the author’s alcoholic father sobered up and began following a Christian pastor’s parenting advice:
My Father Repented of ‘Christian Spanking’ Too Late
My father’s old-fashioned discipline was rooted in the advice and example of his community, his parents, and his church.
For me, the photos of the injuries Adrian Peterson inflicted on his young son stirred a particularly difficult memory: In it, I stand at the foot of my parent’s bed, frail and blond. Behind me, my father utters yet another masculine grunt of exertion. The belt licks my bare skin, and the pain is alarmingly severe – something of a surprise for a preschooler who’d grown accustomed to losing count after forty lashes.
The edge of the belt rips a gash, and a slick of wetness forms on my back. I plead: “Daddy, stop! I’m bleeding!” He goes on chopping, not missing a beat. With each lash, I grow more certain that this is the time that he will go on long enough to kill me.
Thirty-four years later, that memory remains as vivid as if it had happened this morning. The images loop through my mind; I shake and pant like a wounded beast, my ears ringing and my heart racing.
My parents were not stereotypical child abusers. Sure, both were reared in what many would now consider abusive homes, and when they met they were both alcoholics. But the horrific beatings didn’t begin until my parents joined the Baptist church and gave up drinking.
Prior to becoming born-again, my father would whip my brother and me much the way his father had beaten him: snatching his belt from his slacks in a fit of pique and then raining lashes until his tension was relieved. It was a pastor who taught him the “right” way, which involved beating his children for the tiniest transgressions, reading scripture before, during, and after punishment, and the necessity of continuing and escalating until his children were reduced to submissive, plaintively whimpering heaps.
My parents divorced and my father left the state when I was fifteen.
As an adult, I didn’t speak to my abuser for more than ten years. I spent my late teens and early twenties in intensive group and individual psychotherapy. By my mid-twenties, I’d hit my stride; it seemed that I’d finally found a way to work around the emotional and psychological scars of abuse. But a chance encounter with a secondary trauma caused the flashbacks and nightmares to return — this time, so severely that I couldn’t function personally or professionally. Clawing my way back to normal would cost me six more years.
Before reaching that point, I despaired. In the grip of a terrifying madness, my thoughts turned from contemplating suicide to plotting to murder my dad. Sometimes, I pictured it quick and bloody; I’d pulverize his skull, splashing brains and bits of bone on the ceiling. Other times, I’d imagine revenge served with frosty deliberation: I’d keep him chained up somewhere, so I could return each moment of pain and humiliation that he’d burned into me.
I tracked him down by calling companies that sold supplies related to his trade. When I’d located him, I drove for hours to sit in my car, observing his habits. He worked for himself, out of an isolated woodshop in the back corner of a mostly unoccupied industrial park. He was by himself all day, every day. There were power tools. It would be perfect.
When I entered his shop, my father was hunched over a sawhorse ….
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
Writer and activist M Dolon Hickmon explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in articles around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession.