The Scottish Government has indicated that it will support a proposed bill from the Green MSP, John Finnie, which will outlaw all forms of physical chastisement on children.
Cue incredulity on all sides.
For some the idea of 'physically assaulting' children (which is what they call it) is unthinkable. For others, including an American friend who gave me a book where a whole chapter was devoted to whether one should 'paddle' with the diaper on or off, it is unbelievable that anyone would 'spare the rod and spoil the child'! I have no wish to go into all the arguments about smacking – as it happens I am not that keen on the practice – but there are two areas of great concern for me here. The first involves the government, and the second the church.
I am opposed to the ban because it is unenforceable, will not protect or help children who are in danger of abuse; and is largely a relatively trivial form of virtue signalling allowing us to say how we are among the progressive 52 nations that ban smacking, and not among the backward 150 who don't. As Brendan O'Neill sharply observes in the Spectator: 'What we have in Scotland — and which we might soon have across the UK, if campaigners get their way — is the imposition of parenting diktats, the use of legal pressure to force every parent in the land to raise their kids in a way that the cultural elite approves of.'
Kevin McKenna writing in the Herald put it even more trenchantly: 'SNP seems bent on turning Scotland into a fantasy state; a holiday island for middle-class dilettantes where they can indulge their cultural fads and fetishes about how the working classes ought to behave.'
But there is another aspect that disturbs me about this smacking ban and the reaction to it - the response of some churches and Christian organisations. I am against the ban because of the reasons cited above – not theological ones. I know of fine Christians who support it and they are not heretics for doing so. This is a disagreement about process and politics, not about whether we should protect children or not. Which is why I think it is wrong for Christian churches and organisations to campaign against this ban. As individuals fine...we are free to argue our own political and philosophical views as we please – and indeed I often do. Over the past few days I have participated in discussions on BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Ulster, Talk Radio and various local radio stations on the burning issue of the day – banning smacking. I have even written about it.
But the Church as a whole should not be associated with this campaign.
Firstly we need to ask why we should specifically campaign on this issue? Is it as important as the fact that children are going to foodbanks? Or being sold into sex slavery? Or growing up in dysfunctional homes? I know we can't do it all but why pick on this one issue? Because to be frank in today's society it makes us just look weird – as though we are harking back to the hang 'em and flog 'em days. (Note – in principle I accept that Christians are going to look weird – but I would prefer that it was our basing our lives on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, rather than a defence of a particular form of child discipline!).
Secondly it opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy. After all hasn't there been much abuse within the Church? I have a friend who was a social worker in the Netherlands whose job was basically to identify and help children who had been abused by parents (usually fathers) who justified their abuse in the name of their God. Well – the God who encourages abuse of children is not the God of the Bible. Those who use Christ to justify their evil are the ultimate blasphemers. Of course the evil that others have done should not discourage us from doing good – but is campaigning for the right to hit our children, a 'good' that is worth fighting for?
Thirdly – even if this were an issue worth expending precious time and money on – is campaigning the right way to do it? We need to recognise what is going on here. This is not an attempt to criminalise parents. It is a sadly now all too familiar process in which our politicians seek to use the blunt instrument of the law in order to change the culture and the way people think. As Christians our concern is also about changing minds and hearts – but we don't use the law to do so. We do not use the weapons of this world. We are much more subversive.
Finally what does this have to do with the Church? Yes of course we are all for family values – a key one of which is discipline. But discipline does not necessarily mean hitting children. Besides which there are surely a thousand issues more important than this. Compared with same-sex marriage, abortion, poverty, racism and social injustice this is a relatively trivial issue. So why spend time and money campaigning on it? I know that some mean well but at the end of the day I wonder if Christian organisations are not themselves in danger of 'virtue signalling' – letting their supporters know that they are on the ball. I'm sorry, but this is not that important an issue.
So was it hypocritical of me to go on radio discussing the issue? No. It is precisely because it is a relatively trivial issue that I did the interviews and sought to stress more important things and use the opportunity to argue for 'the least of these little ones'. We make the most of every opportunity (and to be honest I also wanted to speak instead of those who would have argued the most extreme case!). Please don't let the church be known because of its weird and OTT defence of one aspect of discipline. Instead let us be known, on this issue, for our passionate defence of all the little ones. Isn't that what Christ would do?