On Wednesday, my neighbour Merv turned up at my front door, and invited me to attend a march against the amendments to Section 59 of the Crimes Act.
"If you're a Christian, you should be going," he informed me. "God's the only one who should be telling us how to raise children -- not childless Labour Party lesbians like Sue Bradford."
We discussed Merv's grasp on reality in terms of Sue Bradford's party affiliations, sexual preferences, marital status, and childlessness -- eventually concluding that I would not be accompanying him on the march.
But it's been interesting to read reports that many of the marchers appeared to share Merv's general viewpoint. A number of protestors carried placards which proclaimed the biblical basis for corporal punishment of children. Fifteen-year-old Carl Leenders -- who was given time off by his school to attend the march -- was quoted as saying: "If someone truly loves his children he will discipline them according to God's word, which is with the rod. If you don't, you hate them."
Craig Smith of the organization Family Integrity appears to have similar beliefs. He cites scripture such as Proverbs 22:15 ("Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him") in order to prove to parents that they have a religious duty to use corporal punishment on their children.
He also cites Proverbs 22:19 ("A servant will not be corrected by mere words; for though he understands, he will not respond") as evidence that you cannot properly discipline a child simply with a good telling off.
In his pamphlet 'The Christian Foundations of the Institution of Corporal Correction', Mr Smith concisely explains why corporal punishment of children is so effective:
I freely admit that I do not understand the connection between a physical smack on the bottom and a rebellious spiritual condition of the heart, nor how the first drives out the latter. But the Scripture declares it is so, therefore I am obliged to believe and practice it.
Deep-thinking stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. But is this really the most detailed possible analysis of God's view on punishment of children?
I decided to ask Dr Michael Grimshaw, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Canterbury, if he could shed a little more light on the subject.
How would you describe Mr Smith's analysis of biblical doctrine with regard to punishment of children?
It's just blind faith. You often get this in closed sectarian communities who view the world through a particular lens which is intensely Biblicist.
Typically they would see themselves acting as God for their family. In essence it's a reduction down to a very patriarchal family model.
How far can Mr Smith carry his logic that: "... scripture declares it is so, therefore I am obliged to believe and practice it"? I'm thinking of other bits of parental advice in the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 21:18-21 which states that parents should put persistently disobedient sons to death; or Deuteronomy 13:6-9 which says that you must kill your children if they try to convert you to another religion. Wouldn't Mr Smith be obliged to believe and practice this scripture as well?
Yes -- in a strictly logical sense. But there is a distinctly irrational rationality that occurs with this particular viewpoint of the Bible. A selective literalism. So there will be some verses that they take literally, and then other verses that they say: "This doesn't quite stand up".
When scripture fits with what they feel is the correct response, then they say: "Scripture declares it so". When the demand of scripture stands against what they perceive to be the right action, then they say: "Well, that's analogy or metaphor; or that's something that only pertains to that particular time and place; or that's something which has been corrected by the New Testament."
Leviticus is a great example. Conservative Christians are always very keen on the prohibition against male-male [sexual] relationships. But it's actually a question about purity in Leviticus, so any mixing is an affront. Mixing fibres is just as bad as mixing genders.
If you're standing there ranting about corporal punishment of children in a polyester and wool suit, then -- in a strictly literal sense -- you're causing just as much affront to God as engaging in a gay relationship.
In the end you can get anything you want out of the Bible.
So Deuteronomy doesn't require parents to use corporal punishment on their children -- or kill their children in certain circumstances?
Well, as I said, you can make the Bible say whatever you want. The more interesting question -- and it's one that the news media hasn't picked up on yet -- is why conservative Christians are particularly activated by this issue.
What you're seeing here are two distinctly different groups. On the one hand you're getting the secular opposition to Bradford's amendment: the Gary McCormick side, if you like. And then you're getting the religious groups -- the Simon Barnett side -- coming together. But the groups are talking about two entirely different things.
There's a particular conservative Christian response which says that being a Christian also involves corporal punishment of children. But their real point is to have their religious views not only taken seriously, but recognized by law.
So, despite appearances, the Libertarians and fundamentalist Christians were actually on two different marches?
Underlying all of this is a question which has bubbled up recently -- is New Zealand a Christian nation or not? And you're getting religious groups in various ways trying to make a public statement that we are a Christian nation.
We've got Destiny Church and the Exclusive Brethren involved in this now. So we've got to see it against the background of what happened in Australia, where religious conservatives formed an interfaith alliance that basically returned John Howard to power.
are very worried. They've seen the latest census figures which makes this country at least 50 per cent non-religious. And the conservative Christians traditionally expect more Christians with time -- not less.
So from their perspective the march wasn't so much about smacking, but more about whether there is going to be governmental legislative recognition of what these particular Christians believe is their religious right or duty.
Conservative Christians often emphasise the Old Testament. Is there anything in the New Testament which relates to corporal punishment of children? I think someone at the march had a sign asking: "Would Jesus smack children?"
The whole "what would Jesus do" question is deeply problematic.
It's like asking what Jesus would drive. Well, he expected the end of the world within his lifetime, he lived in a middle-eastern country with very bad roads, and he had twelve people to cart around. So he'd probably drive some dirty great four-wheel-drive like a Hummer.
As with the old Testament there's a concentration on different passages to suit different agendas at different times. Trying to answer the question "what would Jesus do" is just a reverse form of literalism.
I mean at one point Jesus says: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.". He also says: "Leave your family".
So you can selectively quote Jesus in a way that stands against the whole family values thing. Completely against the fundamental beliefs of the Christian conservatives.
The question of the Bible and smacking children is really a red herring. What seems like a simple question of right and wrong needs to be set against a whole host of other perspectives. Not least the motivation of Christian conservatives to have their religious
beliefs reflected in legislation.
It's a real can of worms once you get into it.