Beat your children well? A Review of Corporal Punishment in the Bible by William Webb
William J. Webb. Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
In the introduction to Corporal Punishment in the Bible William Webb introduces us to a former student of his, an Ethiopian gentleman named Fanosie. Webb recalls how he emailed Fanosie several chapters from the manuscript of Corporal Punishment, asking Fanosie whether he (Webb) should lecture on this topic during an anticipated visit to Ethiopia. When Fanosie failed to email a reply, Webb approached him in the seminary to ask him directly. Webb recalls:
“I still remember his vivid answer. He said nothing, nothing at all. Instead, Fanosie bent down his head and showed me a series of welts, scars and ugly disfigurations. He is a tall man and his dark curly hair hid these marks fairly well. He explained to me that he could take off his clothes and show me more marks from beatings he had as a child. He described being raised in a typical Christian home, and how not infrequently, his father beat him with a stick. In fact, Fanosie told me how it was still acceptable for many Christian husbands in Ethiopia to beat their wives as an act of corrective discipline.” (18-19)
Fanosie went on to admonish Webb that he simply needed to share this material with pastors in Ethiopia.
Fanosie’s story provides a particularly vivid reality check for the extent of “biblical violence” that is sanctioned in some cultures. To be sure, the typical Christian advocate of corporal punishment in North America would be horrified by the abuse that Fanosie suffered. Instead, they would advocate for a more moderate, measured approach to corporal punishment. But such disagreement simply heightens the hermeneutical and ethical tension. When it comes to corporal punishment who are the “biblical” Christians? Does teaching our children well require us to beat them well? And what does it mean to be biblical anyway?
Coming to terms with Corporal Punishment
Many North American Christians believe that corporal punishment is not only biblical, but that it is the only biblical way to discipline children. These people, I’ll call them “the spankers”, typically adhere to what Webb calls the “two smacks max” principle. In fact, the guidelines go much farther than limiting the blows to two. In addition, ths spankers generally commend open hand hitting on the buttocks, the better to distribute and control force to ensure there is no bruising. In addition, they warn that a parent should never spank in anger. There is no doubt that this mode of corporal punishment is far more humane than that widely practiced by the Ethiopian Christian communities. But is it more biblical?
That depends on what we mean by biblical. Ironically enough, it would appear that the Ethiopian Christians are actually following the letter of Scripture more faithfully than the spankers. Webb drives the point home by carefully going through the Old Testament instructions on corporal punishment which he ultimately summarizes in seven principles:
“1. Do not be duped by age restrictions. Teenagers and elementary school children need the rod just as much, if not more, than those in early childhood, and beatings are effective (not ‘ineffective’ for older children as presently claimed).
2. Forget the idea of a two-smacks-max limit. Apply a gradual increase in the number of strokes so that it fuses better with the forty strokes cap for adults.
3. Get the location right. Lashes are made for the ‘backs of fools’ not for their bottoms.
4. Remove the ‘no bruising’ restriction. Bruises, welts and wounds should be viewed as a virtue–the evidence of a sound beating.
5. Pick the right instrument. A good rod (hickory stick) will inflict far more intense pain and bruising than a hand on the bottom.
6. Stop thinking about corporal punishment as a last resort. Use the rod for nonvolitional misdemeanors as well as for major infractions.
7. Drop the notion of ‘love but no anger.’ Mix in a little righteous anger with your use of the rod.” (52-53)
This striking summary (please pardon the pun) is the result of a careful survey of the biblical materials on corporal discipline. To put this in concrete terms, according to these guidelines a father could take his six year old who surreptitiously takes a cookie from the cookie jar, and beat the boy across his back with a hickory switch until he is black and blue. What is more, he could take his sixteen year old who fails to top up the gas tank after borrowing the car and do the same, albeit with more lashes given the boy’s greater age. (In case you think I’m presenting a strawman, please note principle 6: relatively minor offenses are fitting occasions for beatings.)
This presents a serious dilemma for the spankers. While they’ve commended emulation of biblical corporal punishment, it turns out that their own two-smacks max teaching is not, in fact, biblical. So they have two choices: either adopt 1-7 or revise what it means to be biblical.
The problem is even worse, for as Webb explains, biblical mandates for corporal punishment by way of the whip and rod apply to adults as well. Consequently, the consistent spanker should endorse beatings of adults. (Incidentally, you may remember the case of eighteen year old American Michael Fay who was sentenced in 1994 by a court in Singapore to receive four strokes with a cane across his, ahem, bare buttocks. The United States government protested that this was excessive. One can only imagine what they would have said if Fay had been sentenced to forty lashes across his bare back.)
Most disturbing of all is the stipulation for the use of the heavy knife for amputation:
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12, NIV, cited in 99)
Consequently, the consistent spanker is obliged not only to accept 1-7 for children and adults, but also to accept the amputation of a woman’s hand under the conditions described above. Is this really the cost of being biblical?
Webb’s Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic
Webb doesn’t think so. He contrasts the hermeneutic characterized by the spankers as a static (and, as he has illustrated, ultimately inconsistent) appropriation of biblical mandates. In its place he advocates an approach that seeks the underlying principle set against the backdrop of the redemptive flow of scripture. Webb contrasts these two views as follows:
“a redemptive-movement appropriation of Scripture, which at times encourages movement beyond its concrete-specific instructions in order to pursue an ultimate application of Scripture that yields a greater fulfillment of its redemptive spirit”
“a more static or stationary appropriation of Scripture that locks itself into the concrete specificity of, or as close as possible to, exactly what is found on the page….” (58)
Consequently, Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic takes into consideration the cultural and historical background of a passage as well as its place within the wider canon of redemption and its underlying spirit.
Webb introduces this hermeneutic in chapter 2 with the case of slavery. He notes that Scripture no where explicitly condemns slavery and consequently many Christians with a static hermeneutic have seen the Bible as justifying slavery. Instead, Webb argues that when we set the biblical passages on slavery against their wider cultural context we find biblical mandates consistently emerging as more humane than those of other legal systems. Moreover, the canonical direction and underlying spirit of discussions of slavery lead naturally to an ethic of human equality (e.g. Galatians 3:28) that undermines the assumptions which make slavery possible. So while a static reading of the Bible could be used to justify slavery, a redemptive-movement reading of the texts leads us naturally beyond slavery.
This example provides the basis for Webb to make a parallel argument in the case of corporal punishment. When set against the cultural and historical backdrop, the biblical mandates come across as more humane. Even the most horrifying case of amputation by way of the heavy knife in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is more merciful than the legal codes of neighboring cultures of the time which advise women have their eyes gouged out or their breasts amputated for the same crime. Couple this with the noble underlying principles that one seeks to attain in corporal discpline as well as the redemptive stream of compassion and mercy that develops in scripture, and we can conclude that being biblical need not require one to retain a commitment to corporal punishment today.
And this is precisely what Webb advises. As he points out, there are non-corporal ways to discipline which are far superior. In his postscript Webb notes how his own experience with his eldest son and the family dog provided real world discovery. When his son was about twelve the boy was diagnosed with a degenerative cognitive disease.
“Today Jon is twenty-four years old. But due to his cognitive decline, he has functioned for many years in his reasoning capabilities much like a preschooler. He is no longer able to reason as an adult or even as a teenager. When this happened, it shot several holes in the way I had formerly used reasoning capabilities (or lack thereof) to support my use of the two-smacks max method. With Jon I kept asking myself why I did not simply move back to the use of corporal punishment (spanking) now that he could no longer reason as an adult. I have no doubt that spanking Jon for certain actions would get the job done. It would still result in behavior benefits. But there is no way that I could ever bring myself to spank Jon now. Even the thought is revolting to me. He is an adult, and such an action, despite his childlike mental capacity, would degrade him as a human being.” (144-45)
This is the best kind of example of personal experience informing one’s theological and ethical reflection. And to Webb’s credit he recognizes that his unwillingness to spank Jon undermines the standard spankers’ justification for spanking children, i.e. compensating for their lack of reasoning capacity.
The problem of God commanding and commending evil actions
Webb is consistently irenic, always concerned not to alienate the spankers and for that he’s to be commended. Rather than lampoon them he goes out of his way to affirm the shared goal to be biblical. But he avers that they simply don’t go far enough. When they move beyond a static reading of scripture to appreciate the redemptive-movement in the canon they will appreciate that the deeper principles of biblical justice, discipline and compassion will in fact commend going beyond, and thus abandoning corporal punishment.
Needless to say, I am very sympathetic with Webb’s reasoning. In my view the problem, ironically enough, is that Webb shares the problem of the spankers in failing to carry his logic through to a more consistent conclusion. Consider the case of his son Jon. Webb makes it quite clear that it would be wrong for him to beat Jon. As he says, that “would degrade him as a human being”. By the same token, Webb also clearly believes it is wrong to beat children and adults. But to say that an action is morally wrong is to say that the action is evil. That seems to leave Webb with the conclusion that certain actions which are commended in the Torah and Wisdom literature are in fact wrong and evil.
So how does Webb deal with this surprising implication? To put it bluntly, he tiptoes around it while providing a series of unconvincing half-measures. Consider the following passage where Webb unpacks the logic of the redemptive-movement hermeneutic:
“The idea of a redemptive-movement hermeneutic is not that God himself has somehow ‘moved’ in his thinking or that Scripture is in any way less than God’s Word. Rather, it means that God in a pastoral sense accommodates himself to meeting people and society where they are in their existing social ethic and (from there) he gently moves them with incremental steps toward something better. Moving large, complex and embedded social structures along an ethical continuum is by no means a simple matter. Incremental movement within Scripture reveals a God who is willing to live with the tension between an absolute ethic in theory and the reality of guiding real people in practice toward such a goal.” (67)
While this passage sounds winsome, take a closer look and you see that it presents God as being either impotent or evil.
Let’s return to the use of the heavy knife commended in Deuteronomy 25:11-12. While other legal codes commend that the offending wife have her eyes gouged out or her breasts amputated, Webb avers that God instead chooses to “gently move” the Israelites by commending a hand amputation. I’ll grant that hand amputation is not as bad as the alternatives, but it is still an evil action. Imagine three men pinning the screaming woman down while a fourth fixes her hand on a wooden stump and then begins hewing through muscle and sawing through bone with a heated knife. Why would God commend this?
Webb clearly rejects the conclusion that God is evil. But he does seem to leave us with the picture of a God who is in some sense impotent as he is limited to “accommodating” people within their current social ethic so that God must make do with evil commands like Deuteronomy 25:11-12 as “gentle” stepping stones to a more humane ethic.
But what reason is there to think God is impotent in this way? When the British came to India in the eighteenth century they were horrified to discover the practice of suttee (widow burning) according to which a widow would be obliged to climb onto the burning funeral pyre of her deceased husband and die with him. If we were to buy into Webb’s reasoning then the British should have sought to move the Indians gently to a more humane ethic. Perhaps they could have introduced a legal code stipulating that a widow be beheaded (a much more merciful fate than immolation). Later they could have ammended that to slavery, and then banishment, and then finally to a modest pension and a Christmas hamper.
There is another possiblity. Webb could espouse a form of cultural relativism according to which it was morally good in ancient Israel to beat children and slaves and amputate the hands of certain feisty spouses but this is good no longer. However, this option seems to be blocked off by the assumption of culture-transcending moral progress that under-girds the redemptive-movement hermeneutic.
Consequently, Webb leaves the reader with the implication that God was forced to command evil actions at various points in history, with no plausible account as to why this would be the case.
Webb correctly recognizes that many people who adopt the static reading of biblical texts think they are adopting the “safe” position. But is it really safe? Webb quotes nineteenth century Christian John Henry Hopkins who ultimately endorsed slavery because of an adherence to biblical teaching:
“If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I should be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian … I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusions.” (cited in 124)
In restrospect we can see the error of Hopkins’ thinking. His static reading of scripture was not a safe reading. Indeed, it put him on the wrong side of abolition and, from the perspective of most Christians, of God’s kingdom. Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic offers an important way to illumine this risk and offer another way forward. While it is an excellent effort, Webb’s failure to address why he believes God would command evil actions like beatings and amputations suggests he hasn’t yet gone far enough.