Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Ian Boyne | The Bible and the belt

Published:Sunday | November 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
In this 2009 Gleaner file photo, a woman flogs a child on East Queen Street, downtown Kingston. Prime Minister Andrew Holness will have a fight on his hands if he tries to ram through legislation banning parents, among others, from flogging their kids.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
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Andrew Holness has stirred up a hornets' nest, and if he does not navigate this one skilfully, he is going to get a sound whipping over his temerity to want to ban parents from beating their own children.

The State can 'tolerate slackness' by banning corporal punishment in schools, but to barge into people's homes and legislate how they discipline their children is trespassing on people's 'God-given' rights, many Jamaicans believe. Holness has played it safe by stating his own position while deferring to Parliament to decide. He knows the 'hataclaps' that would descend on him if he dared take any government action on this without full bipartisan support.

But the parliamentarians know that however enlightened and progressive they might want to appear to international donors and United Nations agencies, their constituents would rain fire and brimstone on them if they went 'against the Bible' and voted to outlaw corporal punishment in the home. There are fiery, passionate fundamentalist Christians raring to wage war on this issue, incensed that our politicians are weakening to pressures from abroad on homosexuality and abortion and are now infringing on parents' rights to spank their own children.

I predict that this is one issue that will unite Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP) fundamentalist-influenced supporters in opposing any move to outlaw corporal punishment in the home. If it were outlawed, it would mean that parents could be prosecuted for slapping their children, as that would be defined as abuse.

This is a hot-button issue, and Andrew Holness does not have to depend on social media to know this. All he has to do is to read the quick-on-the-draw letter to the editor by one of his most ardent and unswerving (until now) supporters, Carlton A. Gordon, writing in The Gleaner on Thursday, November 9, 2017, 'Distinguishing between discipline and abuse'. Writes Gordon: "Loving, self-controlled spankings are not the same as 'violence against children'. There is a difference between the discipline and corporal punishment."

But not according to UN definitions, Brother Gordon. I go to the document that prompted the prime minister to go against his cultural norm in that parliamentary speech on Tuesday. The prime minister referenced the just-released UNICEF report, A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents, which shows that eight out of 10 Jamaican children in the two-to-14 age group experience violence as a form of discipline. UNICEF defines physical punishment to include "spanking or hitting on the bottom with a bare hand", which Gordon would no doubt regard as acceptable if done in a "self-controlled" way without anger.

No, Brother Gordon, you can't do that if Andrew Holness would have his way. So, yes, many would be against the kind of 'murderation' that was featured in that viral video recently circulated. But the international community is not referring to just those extremes as abuse and violence. The UNICEF document says, "Violence against children in all its forms, from the slap of a parent to the unwanted sexual advances of a peer, is harmful, morally indefensible and a violation of the child's fundamental human rights." Gordon, in his letter, acknowledges: "It is true that parents do not own children but neither does the State."

Well, the fact is that the Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates states to enact legislation against all forms of violence - defined as including spanking.

The prime minister was quoted by the Observer last Wednesday as having told parliamentarians that banning corporal punishment even in the home would be a "forward-leaning step", and "it would send a powerful message about the State respecting the inviolability of the person, whether or not the person is a child or an adult". So the prime minister is saying that the child under your roof has rights that the State has an obligation to enforce.

The Gleaner quotes the prime minister as saying boldly that in reference to the widespread acceptance of corporal punishment in the Jamaican home: "I don't see how we can maintain this aspect of our culture and claim that we want to advance as a modern, civilised society." These will be interpreted as fighting words by fundamentalists who will say yet again a 'modernist agenda', conceived and promoted from overseas, is being foisted on Jamaicans, who are told that they are backward if they resist it.

I see clearly why secularists are incensed by religious people. I see why they feel that they have always stood in the way of progress and enlightenment. Many have died of AIDS while Christians have fought contraception. Slavery was justified by the Bible. Oppression of women has been, too, and so has been the oppression of gay people because of allegedly 'bigoted' passages in the Bible.

The Gleaner highlighted botched abortions on its front page last Sunday, but abortion is still illegal largely because the Church is violently opposed to it, irrespective of the harmful consequences of that "outdated law" being on the books, progressives say.

If religion were just a private thing between you and your God, that would be one thing. But when it crosses over into the public space and makes life miserable for all and encroaches on the rights of non-religious people, that is what infuriates secularists and atheists.

Violence against children, they say, is legitimised and even sacralised in the Bible. If the parliamentarians dare try to criminalise people's beating their children in Jamaica, they will see what will hit them. Ronnie Thwaites can support it, for Ronnie is a Catholic, and Catholics are not fundamentalists and have traditionally opposed capital punishment. The majority of our Christians are conservatives and fundamentalists.

How is Andrew Holness and his fellow parliamentarians going to get around these 'plain Scriptures'? "Withhold not correction from the child. For if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod and shalt deliver his soul from hell." (Proverbs 23:13-14) "The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." (Proverbs 29: 15.)

"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction will drive it far from him." (Proverbs 22: 15) "Chasten thy son while there is hope and let not thy soul spare for his crying." (Proverbs 19:18)

"He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." (Proverbs 13:24) I tell you as a journalist who has covered religion since the 1970s, this is a big issue for Jamaican Christians, and even for those who don't go to church but who have been socialised by fundamentalist Christianity. If Holness had ever campaigned on this in South East St Mary, the non-Jamaican citizen Shane Alexis would be MP today. You can't be seen as going against the Bible and win by nearly a thousand votes in rural Jamaica.

If the PNP tells Ronnie to shut up while they take on Holness on this issue - even hypocritically - they would finally find something many would be outraged about. But Holness is smarter than that, and like his ducking the homosexuality issue (referendum), he has skilfully kicked that ball in Parliament - and not for his Cabinet (decision)! You can't catch him so easily, Dr Phillips. No one will beat him for expressing his personal opinion on corporal punishment, but he won't go further than that unless the people (and Parliament) are with him.

Religious people feel besieged and set upon. Foreigners are setting our agenda, they allege. The UN has now set this matter of corporal punishment in one of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and UNICEF's A Familiar Face report says global commitment to address violence against children has "reached an all-time high" with its integration in the SDGs. The document says bluntly: "All children have the right to be protected from violence inflicted on them by anyone in their lives - whether parents ... ."

Jamaicans know they can't 'batter-bruise' their children in America. They will grin and bear that while slaving for the greenback, but dem not tolerating that in low-wage Jamaica.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com at ianboyne1@yahoo.com.