‘Blessed Are the Laptop Shooters …’

By now you’ve surely heard of or seen the video above, in which an angry father, disrespected on Facebook by his 15-year-old daughter, empties a clip from his handgun into her laptop. As of this morning, it has nearly 24 million views. The day Tommy Jordan released his video, numerous friends of mine posted it to their feeds, all of them with some variant of, “This is awesome!”

I agree it’s awesome, assuming the definition of “awesome” is “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great apprehension or fear” and not “extremely good; excellent.”

Yes, it’s a fun video. Who hasn’t wanted to do something like this? We’ve all felt disrespected at some point or other, and the idea of enacting irreversible, humiliating public consequences touches a nerve. It’s cathartic, in a way. But here’s the thing: That’s not how we’re supposed to parent. We don’t discipline because we’re angry or feel hurt. We don’t punish to soothe a primitive desire for retribution.

We do it because we love. And while I get that love looks different in different families, I have a hard time coming to grips with violence as an expression of it.

This is why I’ve talked so much about the genocidal passages of Judges and 1 Samuel. Jesus ascribes to God the qualities of a parent in the Sermon on the Mount, and viewed through that lens, it’s impossible to see how love – even our imperfect, incomplete, human view of it – is compatible with slaughter and bloodshed.

Emptying a round into a laptop isn’t the same thing as ordering ethnic cleansing, of course, but the video and the many positive reactions to it reaffirm that we have a violence problem in America. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, the problem stems largely from Christianity – more specifically, how Christians have traditionally read and interpreted the Bible.

Humanity as a whole has a violence problem, but it’s more acute here. We are the most heavily armed country in the world per capita, outpacing Yemen. We’ve only just this year extricated ourselves from a nine-year war caused essentially because we thought the ruler of Iraq might be thinking about attacking us. Abortion remains legal and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere; meanwhile, we’re one of the only nations in the world that authorizes its government to retributively end the life of its own citizens, even in light of numerous false convictions.

This is clearly antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and delivered the concept of turning the other cheek.

Yet how are his followers any different? In a Pew Research survey released last month, the strongest demographic support (outside of political affiliation) for capital punishment came from white evangelical Protestants, with 77 percent. White mainline Protestants were close behind (73 percent), with a solid majority of white Catholics (61 percent) bucking their church’s own position on the issue. Blacks largely oppose capital punishment – it affects them more than any other race – but the largest bloc of religious opposition outside the African American church comes from Hispanic Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated.

But let’s bring this closer to home. Christians are also more likely to support violence in the form of corporal punishment, rejecting what is becoming an undeniable mountain of scientific research that indicates spanking children leads to developmental problems. As of 2006, the states in which the highest percentage of schoolchildren were spanked as part of in-school discipline were, in order: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas – the so-caled “Bible Belt.”

The United States is one of the only developed nations to still allow parents to hit their children – which puts us behind Togo, Tunisia, South Sudan (all of seven months old), Congo, Moldova and Venezuela in that regard (though Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom allow it, too).

Tamar Moag, writing in the December issue of the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, takes a close look at the influence of religious tradition in the United States on our view toward corporal punishment, contrasting it with Israel, which has just as close a relationship with the Old Testament whose passages are used to support spanking.

In America, Moag points out, our conflation of corporal punishment, government policy and religion have some pretty unseemly theological undertones:

Several of these religious principles are important in the present context. The first and most crucial is the principle that is perhaps the key to the Reformation in general—precluding the need for any mediation between the individual and the divine. Three secondary principles derive from this: abiding by the literal text of the Scriptures, no acknowledgement of religious authorities as interpreters of the Scriptures, and an almost total avoidance of hierarchical and established religious structures. A supra-religious principle that is not specific to Protestant Christianity is the notion of original sin, and the assumption that, because of Adam’s sin, the child is born evil. As part of its belief in the redundancy of all agencies mediating between the individual and the divine, and unlike Catholicism, Protestantism lacks an ecclesiastic mechanism able to grant salvation, which it believes to be contingent only on God’s grace.

Another feature of Protestantism relevant to the present context, especially strong in schools with Calvinist foundations and deeply significant among the early settlers, is a particularly vivid image of heaven and hell. Several scholars have noted the link between these Protestant beliefs and educational philosophies. Christopher Ellison conducted a comprehensive study of Protestant conservative writing from the 17th century onwards on issues of education and human nature. His survey reveals an educational philosophy predicated on the notion of original sin. The parent’s role is to change these leanings through strong discipline, including corporal punishment.

Philip Greven reaches similar conclusions from his historical survey of Protestant educational views, and emphasizes two characteristics. One is that this philosophy rests on the assumption that the aim of education is to break the child’s natural will. The other, resting on the first, is that failure to do so dooms the child to hell. At the centre of the parental role, therefore, is the parental obligation to save the children’s souls. …

Greven analyses in his study how these religious approaches come to the fore in the language used in parental guidebooks and in Puritan theological writings describing the nature of children and the aims of education. He notes, for instance, the recurrent use of words such as ‘stubborn’ and ‘rebellious’ to describe children’s nature, and words such as ‘conquer’, ‘subdue’, ‘obedience’, and ‘repress’ to describe the parental role. A 1732 letter by Susanna Wesley to her son John offers an instance of this type of writing: ‘When a child is corrected it must be conquered, and this will be no hard matter to do’.

This kind of language, Moag argues, can be seen as late as the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1977 upholding the legality of corporal punishment in schools: “‘We cannot believe paddling a child, a long accepted means of disciplining and inculcating concepts of obedience and responsibility, offends current notions of decency and human dignity.” [His emphasis.]

Since then, under the guise of “parents’ rights,” legislation has been proposed as recently as 2009 to codify spanking in the Constitution (South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint is a cosponsor, big surprise). Moag writes:

The driving force behind the efforts to anchor parental rights in American law is a group of organizations from the religious right that, for many years, has focused its efforts on limiting the role of public education, recognizing the right to home schooling, and other issues related to school curriculum. The success of right-wing Protestant groups in preserving permission for corporal punishment is not solely a function of the political power of these groups. They have also managed to convey a message whereby any involvement in corporal punishment, and generally in the broader realm of the parents’ right to educate their children as they wish, is a violation of religious freedom.

Jewish tradition, of course, has moved in a different direction. It recognized quite early that Proverbs if taken literally could result in physical and emotional damage to the affected children and began restricting the use of corporal punishment. Israel now bans the striking of children in all contexts.

Indeed, we now have numerous studies indicating the positive effects of spanking are nearly, if not completely, nonexistent.

The study, published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, reveals that kids who are spanked are more likely to be depressed, aggressive, antisocial and anxious. They also tend to have lower IQs and as adults they’re more likely to have substance abuse problems and mental health issues. One study even showed that kids who were spanked are more likely to lie to avoid getting hit.

Of the 80 studies reviewed a few indicated that spanking has no or little negative effect on children, but not one study proved that physical punishment enhances developmental health.

My goal is not to sit in judgment on parents who spank their children – or even Terry Jordan’s decision to shoot his daughter’s laptop. Parenting is hard. I spent more than enough time judging the parents of toddlers until I had one two three kids of my own. I’ve learned my lesson. And, yes, in our earliest days raising a toddler (all of two years ago), we resorted to corporal punishment a couple of times, though we saw almost no benefit and a big increase in aggression, which – along with our guilty consciences – made it an easy decision never to do that again.

No, I’m mostly trying to get an understanding of how a man can discipline his daughter with a firearm and be praised as a model parent. Culturally, this phenomenon is intriguing – and more than a little disturbing to me. Certainly Jordan’s daughter deserved discipline. She clearly proved she was not mature enough to handle owning her own laptop. But what was the benefit of publicly shaming her and destroying her things? What lessons are being taught here that couldn’t have been taught if Jordan had taken a day to calm down and think about his response?

Many people have questioned why Jordan didn’t take his daughter to the nearest thrift store, consignment shop or Goodwill and donate the computer so someone in need of one could own it instead. I echo those questions, and add this one: Why was violence needed to resolve this situation? The lesson this teaches – that weapons and violence can resolve an intractable problem – is needed less in American society, not more.

In the end, it seems we remain enslaved, however unknowingly, to the mindset of our fundamentalist, literalist forebears, who saw in their children an evil to be eradicated, no matter how painful the cost. But there is a different way of reading scripture and modeling it to our children. It’s the way of Jesus – the way of peace, grace and love:

Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.

It’s not an easy way, and there are no guarantees when it comes to children, but when facing the choice between love and violence, I remain convinced love must win.

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