Shatter the silence: A call to the Black Church to protect our children

Print More
Looking at you looking at me - via Flickr

Looking at you looking at me - via Flickr

As the heartbreaking news of a football player abusing his son and calling it discipline surfaced this past week, I reached out to an individual who is undoubtedly qualified to speak on this grave subject.  Dr. Thema Bryant- Davis is a well respected expert on issues related to trauma with a focus on women and minorities.  Dr. Bryant- Davis has also been working with GRACE to develop a seminary curriculum on child protection.  

I am grateful for her contribution of this powerful guest post on a subject that can no longer be ignored by any church.  – Boz

Matthew 18: 10a   Take heed that you despise not one of these little ones…

From its inception, the Black Church has been a voice for the love of Jesus that stands in opposition to injustice, inequality, and degradation. We have stood against multiple forms of oppression as we uplift the gospel. In essence, we have seen the way we treat each other as central and reflective of our faith. One of the areas, however, that far too many of our sanctuaries have met with silence is child abuse.

Looking at you looking at me - via Flickr

Looking at you looking at me – via Flickr

Our children, like all of God’s children, are precious and sacred. Despite this fact, in the United States, between four and seven children die every day as a result of child abuse which leads to over one thousand preventable child deaths annually. Approximately 70% of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4. Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education. There are children in our pews that have been abused and there are members of our churches who are the abusers. While childhood physical abuse crosses all demographic categories, African American parents are more likely to endorse the use of severe physical punishment and African American children are disproportionately faced with the consequences of abuse including removal from the home.

The silence regarding the treatment of the “least of these” is disheartening, especially when Jesus taught that we should bring children to a deeper faith. On the contrary, child abuse not only dismantles children emotionally and physically, it can also scar them spiritually as they are left to wonder where is God and where is my faith community when I need them most.

There are a number of reasons many of us normalize abuse and remain silent while children are suffering. In order to take the mandate seriously to truly love our children, we have to shift our thoughts and spirits in each of these areas.

  1. Abuse is not that bad. Many of us normalize abuse because of its prevalence. We think of child abuse as a rare occurrence and therefore if everyone you know experienced it, we assume it must not be that bad. Some will even say if causing scars and bruises is abuse then everyone in my family is an abuser and would have to go to jail. The weight of that feels too heavy for most to carry so instead they conclude that it’s acceptable to cause harm to your children.
  2. Abuse is not happening. Like members of all cultural groups, we often hold a mythical view of what an abuser looks like. We assume an abuser is mean-spirited, always emotionally unstable, and definitely not a believer in God. For this reason, when we know someone who shows love at times, who is an active member of the church, and who is charismatic, we often dismiss from the realm of possibility that this person could ever cross the line into abuse. Essentially we believe a real abuser would look like a monster all of the time and since most of us don’t fit that description, we conclude there must not be real abuse happening.
  3. Abuse demonstrates love. Culturally, African Americans have historically and in contemporary times been subjected to greater violence by systems of oppression as well as members of our community. As a result, African American parents may feel that harsh treatment is necessary to ensure obedience from their children. The hope is this obedience will protect them from the violence that is pervasive and continuing to grow in our communities. When one lives with the sting of racism, community violence, school violence, and police brutality, one can fear that a child’s misbehavior at any time can cost them their life. This may lead to the feeling that the harsh parenting is a form of love that may in fact be well-intentioned.
  4. Abuse is necessary. Another factor that may contribute to child abuse is the belief that there are only two choices: being physically harsh or neglecting your children. African American parents who are abusive may see other permissive parents who do not engage in any effective parenting strategies and who as a result have children who are disrespectful. The mistaken belief that physical abuse is the only way to raise children who behave correctly promotes the use of physical abuse. There is a need for greater awareness of healthy parenting strategies that encourage children while also effectively addressing misbehavior.
  5. Abuse saved me. Some people defend child abuse because they falsely credit their successes to the abuse they endured. People may say things like “beatings” kept me out of jail; I’m glad I was beaten because it made me who I am today. When we make statements such as those, we ignore the many factors that truly helped to protect, nurture, and guide us. We ignore the times when our parents or another adult talked to us about why we should make good decisions in life. In the moment, we may minimize the role of mentors, education, supportive teachers, quality time with our parents, and even the role of God in keeping us despite the storms we survived. The truth is the prison is full of people who received beatings. The truth is children who experience physical abuse are more likely to experience depression, PTSD, addiction, difficulty focusing at school, distrust, anxiety, and confusion about their faith. Bruises and broken bones are not what saved us. God saved us and used a number of things to help us to survive despite the scars.
  6. Abuse is required by God. Finally some people defend physical abuse because they believe that they are doing what God requires us to do. Proverbs 22: 6 teaches “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it,” God does require us to teach, guide, and correct our children. Instilling discipline and responsibility in children is positive. Terrorizing, bullying, shaming, bruising, and breaking the spirit of children is not godly. Colossians 3:21 says “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”

In addition to the above factors, there are a number of sources of stress that are associated with an increased risk of parents crossing the line into abuse. They include poverty, lack of social support, and coping with life through substance dependence. Any real message of change for parents has to address the challenges that they face and the need for a greater sense of community so every family knows they are not alone.

There are 52 Sundays in a year. As we preach, teach, and minister, let us remember the children. Do not allow another year to pass without both speaking out clearly against child abuse and providing resources to help parents make better decisions. Let us raise a collective standard that says our children are sacred and deserving of love, respect, guidance, and corrective parenting that is not based in abuse. Let the love of Jesus show in the way we treat those with whom we have been entrusted.

Dr. Bryant-Davis is an ordained minister in the AME Church and an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University.

  • Lo

    Thank you for an excellent article, Dr Bryant-Davis. The sixth point is especially pertinent, as it seems to be the excuse that all Christian child abusers use to defend their actions. It amounts to, “God told me to do it”, which is sacrilege.


    Excellent article. I’d add that there are several studies which show that death row inmates have almost without exception been subject to severe abuse or violence. In addition, abuse is frequently not believed since the person is often seemed to be “good”. “He’s a nice guy – I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything like that.” This needs to be replaced with “I hope for both their sakes that isn’t true, but we’ll have to wait on more information and in the meantime, let’s give support to the child.

  • ucanmaketheBiblesayanythinguwant

    Haven’t most of our Christian forefathers black or white been programmed with the, ‘strike him with the rod, he shall not die’ mentality ? – Proverbs 23:13

    Douay-Rheims Bible
    Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die.

    King James Bible
    Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.

    As a kid I hated that verse. Its one on the most disgusting verses written in the Bible.

  • Oscar

    I am a New Zealand citizen, but spent much of my childhood in the third world as my parents joined a large Florida based missionary organisation. I have often regretted their decision to do this, because it certainly not the utopia that we were lead to believe and are still expected to portray it as.
    The staggering amount of sexual, physical and mental abuse is well documented elsewhere, but for a New Zealand citizen what was totally confusing was the racial abuse that was perpetrated by missionaries in a almost totally “white” (the terms “white” and “black” are not generally used to describe ethnic origins in Australasia, they would be deemed offensive, but let’s stick to what is more culturally well known in the U.S.).
    As a pre teen child going to the “mission field” for the first time, I was prepared/educated as to what to expect in the way of culture shock, in relation to moving into a primitive stone aged culture. What was more of a culture shock was the racial theory that was taught in the mission boarding school and lived by many of the missionaries. It didn’t add up that fervent “white” Christians could hold the racial views they did, teach their children and others children the same nonsense and justify it by obscure scriptural references. The only “non-white” missionaries on the “field” were a “black” U.S. citizen and a New Zealand Maori. Interestingly the “black” female missionary stayed with our family when visiting the mission base where we lived, a truly wonderful woman.
    The base itself was run by a missionary who beat the locals and had racial views that would have happily fitted in with the KKK. And worse, very few said anything about what they knew was going on, except the New Zealanders who found this deeply offensive and beyond comprehension. (probably worth mentioning, is the ban on interracial relationships that this mission maintained until into the 80’s, a ban that did not apply to New Zealanders, many of whom marry interculturally, myself and the aforementioned Maori missionary being examples).
    So I found myself wondering why many of the missionaries that I knew bothered to “serve” in a third world country where 99% of the indigenous population had “black” skin (the other 1% were Albino) and yet held and propagated the racial views they did. The indigenous people were often nothing more than cheap labour for missionaries who did very little physical effort and had a very comfortable lifestyle.
    My father, to his credit, dared to speak out about this sham. In due course he was evicted from the mission, as were most other New Zealanders and we had our house and possessions confiscated. Non U.S. missionaries were treated as second class citizens, with New Zealanders being at the bottom of the pecking order.

    So I read the above article with interest. For it dares to go back to the issues that disturbed me most about my childhood, that of child abuse and racial intolerance.
    How many “white” Christians have ever been near a “black” church? Very few of the ones I grew up with. There was no child abuse by “black” Christians in my missionary childhood, because there were almost no “black” missionaries. But there was a staggering amount of child abuse committed by “white” missionaries. Rape, beatings, mental manipulation, coverups, incest was all done in the name of God.
    The grass was not green on our “White” side of the fence and whatever sins were committed on the “Black” side of the fence were well documented for the naïve to hear and formulate their racial prejudices on.

    As for me, I was disgusted by what happened (and is still happening) on the “White” side of the fence and disgusted that there was a fence at all. So I gave up on it all and are to ashamed to label myself as “Christian”.

    Apologies who find the raw nature of my post offensive, it is a glimpse into the world of which thankfully I do not live in, but have a reflective interest in and an interest in making amends for the many lives it detrimentally affected.

  • Wendy

    Abuse is NEVER loving and certainly NOT necessary. God experiences joy over His children, loving us, guiding us, allowing us choices, aching with our mistakes and groaning over the impact sin has on our lives. “Bruises and broken bones are not what saved us. God saved us and used a number of things to help us to survive despite the scars” While abuse may comprise a part of my story, the abuse itself was not a chapter God wrote into my life; it’s a chapter he liberally edited. I am forever grateful for His skilled touch and consistently healing interventions.

  • opheliart

    It has been written and interpreted incorrectly. The rod is a symbol for measuring. They used a rod to measure back in the day it seems. The rod, much like the understanding on the staff, has to do with “shepherding.” It has nothing to do with beating children, or abuse of any kind. That he shalt not die has to do with SPIRITUAL MATURITY—growing. The striking/beating are odd terms to use in this, but what I have gleaned from other passages of Holy Scripture shows me this:

    And do not lead us into temptation … but deliver us from the Evil.

    It is more in line with Wisdom Prophesy and is, surprising, the opposite of aggression towards others. The children referenced are not necessarily youth as man understands youth, but those young in the Spirit, and having moved into some Awareness in the Paradox on Love.


  • Raz

    I keep checking to see what kind of comments this article will receive from Christians in the African American community. This is an excellent article, Dr Bryant-Davis. I wonder if it is going to be met with the same silence from your target audience as I receive from my target audience, when I try to call attention to this very same issue in the fundamentalist white Christian mission community. It’s disappointing, isn’t it.

  • Oscar

    My Dear Raz,

    Disappointing and frustrating? Yes of course.

    However, try something a little different. Widen your excellent efforts to the whole world. You just never know who will take up the challenge and run with it. Never know, in all the billions of people on this planet there might be one or two who are on the same journey as yourself, after all child abuse is no respecter of colour, country or creed.

    Take me for instance. I am neither “black or white”, “American” or “Christian”, but I do have my eyes and ears open. At a quick glance we have little in common, but a more careful examination would quickly reveal that we have much in common and our journeys and points of view are very similar when it comes to child abuse within missions. And to those who know us well, there is little doubt that the two of us speak out loudly about the issue of child abuse.

    If we limit our target audiences, we limit ourselves. Let’s tell the world and let’s do it together 🙂

  • A Smythe

    Half the world does not have the freedom to speak that many of us enjoy and yet very few speak out about child abuse.
    Are we cowards, who just let the bullies prey on innocent children or are we to complacent in our own little world and naively think that it only happens in someone else’s patch.

    If we don’t speak out about the atrocities that are happening around us to innocent children, who will?

    Those that speak out are our real heros, be they black, white, American, Australian, Christian or of other or no faith!

  • rob

    child abuse
    would also be telling a child they can make a decision to accept Christ ..

    it also would be abusing Gods word ..

  • Pingback: Asociación para la Defensa de la Libertad Religiosa » Titulares Internacionales de Libertad Religiosa del 24 Septiembre 2014()