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

Guest post: A voice from the African American Church crying out for Christians to stop embracing child abuse disguised as "Godly discipline".

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.