Christians’ shocking acceptance of abuse

Christians’ shocking acceptance of abuse

When is it acceptable for a muscular man who weighs 100 kilos and stands 1.85 meters tall to grab a stick and repeatedly hit a skinny, scared toddler half his size?

According to many conservative Christians, such behavior is acceptable when the small, skinny person is a four-year-old child and the big one is his father. In fact, some claim that beating children is not only acceptable, it is a crucial sign of parental love and devotion – and obedience to the will of God. And besides, it’s the way things have been done for a generations.

This is the skeleton of an argument being made by fans and supporters of American football star Adrian Peterson, above, who was recently suspended from play in the National Football League after pictures emerged of the bruises and lacerations he had inflicted on his four-year-old son.

According to the police report accompanying the images, Peterson has stuffed the child’s mouth with leaves and whipped him repeatedly with a branch. The pictures showed dozens of wounds, including to the front of the child’s legs, the genital area, and the arms. Peterson admitted to striking the boy, including on the scrotum, but defended the punishment.

Peterson is the highest paid running back in the NFL, on a $96 million contract that provided a base salary this year of $11.75 million. The victim is one of seven children that Peterson has fathered with five different women, and the case marks the third time that one of Peterson’s children has been the subject of physical abuse allegations.

Earlier reports indicate that a whipping delivered to another son by Adrian Peterson resulted in a cut to the child’s face that left a permanent scar. A third son was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.

Despite the family history, Peterson’s admissions, and the graphic photos, loyal fans of the Minnesota Vikings team have rallied to his side. One woman arrived at a Sunday game in a Peterson jersey, with a beer in one hand and a symbolic stick in the other.


Although research evidence shows that children grow up healthier and better disciplined without corporal punishment, the practice of beating children remains shockingly common in many American communities. Among African Americans like Peterson, 89 percent of parents say that they spank their kindergarteners, as compared with 79 percent of white parents.

In a New York Times op-ed, sociologist Michael Dyson traces the African American inclination toward physical punishment back to the practices of slaveholders, who beat adults and children alike. But another factor to consider is the high rate of biblical Christianity among African Americans, who are the most religiously devout ethnic group in the US (Peterson himself has a history of religious tweets that proclaim America a Christian nation.)

Almost half of Black Americans identify as Baptists, a Protestant sect that treats the Bible as the literally perfect word of God.

The implications for parenting are enormous because many Bible stories implicitly or explicitly treat children as possessions of their fathers and “wisdom” texts admonish parents to beat their children. Preachers and Christian parenting experts who teach “spare the rod, spoil the child” often cite chapter and verse, to which they add detailed instructions on how best to break a child’s will as God intends. The combination can make it remarkably hard for devout Bible believers to come down on the side of child protection, even after children die from Christian discipline gone awry.

To some, the question is one of intentions. As a defender of Peterson put it:

He was trying to discipline his child. Too many people need to mind their own business. We are already becoming a nanny state.

Even the victim’s grandmother came to Peterson’s defense, calling her son’s suspension cruel during an interview with the Houston Chronicle:

Most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant sometimes. But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world … When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, but love …  People are judging him, but they don’t know his heart. This was never his intent.

But in a wave of recent op-eds and editorials, many have failed to find merit in Peterson’s religious rationalizations. One such column, just published at On Faith and reprinted in part with permission below, has proven especially poignant and insightful to internet audiences.

In it, child abuse survivor and novelist M Dolon Hickmon gives a moving account of the broken relationship between him and his now deceased father, graphically illustrating the pain and lingering consequences of injurious whippings, doled out after the author’s father sobered up and began following a Christian pastor’s parenting advice.

My Father Repented of ‘Christian Spanking’ Too Late

My father’s old-fashioned discipline was rooted in the advice and example of his community, his parents, and his church. For me, the photos of the injuries Adrian Peterson inflicted on his young son stirred a particularly difficult memory: In it, I stand at the foot of my parent’s bed, frail and blond. Behind me, my father utters yet another masculine grunt of exertion. The belt licks my bare skin, and the pain is alarmingly severe – something of a surprise for a preschooler who’d grown accustomed to losing count after forty lashes.

The edge of the belt rips a gash, and a slick of wetness forms on my back. I plead: “Daddy, stop! I’m bleeding!”  He goes on chopping, not missing a beat. With each lash, I grow more certain that this is the time that he will go on long enough to kill me.

Thirty-four years later, that memory remains as vivid as if it had happened this morning. The images loop through my mind; I shake and pant like a wounded beast, my ears ringing and my heart racing.

My parents were not stereotypical child abusers. Sure, both were reared in what many would now consider abusive homes, and when they met they were both alcoholics. But the horrific beatings didn’t begin until my parents joined the Baptist church and gave up drinking.

Prior to becoming born-again, my father would whip my brother and me much the way his father had beaten him: snatching his belt from his slacks in a fit of pique and then raining lashes until his tension was relieved. It was a pastor who taught him the “right” way, which involved beating his children for the tiniest transgressions, reading scripture before, during, and after punishment, and the necessity of continuing and escalating until his children were reduced to submissive, plaintively whimpering heaps.

My parents divorced and my father left the state when I was fifteen.

As an adult, I didn’t speak to my abuser for more than ten years. I spent my late teens and early twenties in intensive group and individual psychotherapy. By my mid-twenties, I’d hit my stride; it seemed that I’d finally found a way to work around the emotional and psychological scars of abuse. But a chance encounter with a secondary trauma caused the flashbacks and nightmares to return — this time, so severely that I couldn’t function personally or professionally. Clawing my way back to normal would cost me six more years.

Before reaching that point, I despaired. In the grip of a terrifying madness, my thoughts turned from contemplating suicide to plotting to murder my dad. Sometimes, I pictured it quick and bloody; I’d pulverize his skull, splashing brains and bits of bone on the ceiling.  Other times, I’d imagine revenge served with frosty deliberation: I’d keep him chained up somewhere, so I could return each moment of pain and humiliation that he’d burned into me.

I tracked him down by calling companies that sold supplies related to his trade. When I’d located him, I drove for hours to sit in my car, observing his habits. He worked for himself, out of an isolated woodshop in the back corner of a mostly unoccupied industrial park. He was by himself all day, every day. There were power tools. It would be perfect.
When I entered his shop, my father was hunched over a sawhorse ….

Click here to read the conclusion of this account at On Faith.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
• Writer and activist M Dolon Hickmon explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in articles around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession.


9 responses to “Christians’ shocking acceptance of abuse”

  1. Broga says:

    Religion poisons everything! What more can I say. I just feel so sickened reading this. This brute, and others like him, should be locked away for a long time. Anyone who behaves like this to a child is a sadist and a coward. As for those who support him………. Well, just return to my first sentence.

  2. John Coffin says:

    Peterson’s Christian virtues are so great that he has SEVEN children with FIVE different mothers?

    If the US was the ‘Christian Nation’ he thinks it is…how is he able to walk around free. Of course the Bible never specifies monogamy…

    Has Peterson married any of these women? I know he has been enough of a ‘Christian’ parent to put another boy in the hospital. And the boy who was killed, has anyone been convicted or sentenced?

  3. I think religion next to politics, encourages and facilitates a culture of enabling. People tend to feel okay about letting others do evil they would not do themselves. That proves them more concerned about looking good than being good.

    Every religion has doctrines that many members do not like or find too difficult. Avoid the dishonesty of picking and choosing doctrines as if from a menu and to respect the Church and its people by refusing to act like a loyal member when you are not. Cherry-pickers like to claim that the religion will improve if more members become like them. But that assumes the religion is just a social club. People who are lied to by a religion or who are victimised, feel even more victimised when they see others tacitly supporting that religion and going to its services and wearing its symbols. Cherry-pickers speak for themselves and not the religion and every religion has cherry-pickers. So how can they make out that they really are working in the proper manner for change? They are not. They hurt the cause of change with their hypocrisy and they enable a culture of deceit in a religion. They make a religion that opposes and ignores truth far worse. They antagonise the loyal believers by using the religion for their own ends and make them more trenchant . Their hypocrisy is an advert for taking the religion seriously. A cherry-picker is a poor advert for a religion that requires you to take it seriously but he or she is still an advert. To oppose your religion’s teaching or undermine it, you have to admit that it is your religion’s teaching and that you are not a faithful member . If the Catholic doctrines are revealed by the God of truth as that Church claims, then cherry-picking is not an option. A person who has the honesty to leave the Church politely and with respect and who dialogues with it if he wants change, is the one to be praised not the cherry-picker.

  4. Jimmy says:

    I am a Christian and a Conservative. I believe in corporal punishment, BUT I DO NOT believe in what this person, who I will not call a man, did to this child. I was beaten by a LIBERAL parent who DID NOT ATTEND CHURCH, with his fists when I was a child. This being said, I believe there is still a place for an open hand spanking on the butt. I see what a mess has been made of this country by people who were never told NO as a child. The same bunch who were never spanked when there was no other way of getting the message through. There are those who do not understand anything less than a judicious slap on the butt with an open hand. That slap on the butt should not cause the administrator of it any pain, if it does, they have gone too far. The purpose of a spanking is to teach a lesson of respect, not to cause pain.

  5. A Confused Atheist says:

    On this occasion, I would not put this down to Christianity; more like Christian Conservatism. I imagine that Christians such as the Society of Friends would deplore such acts of unkindness and abuse.

  6. EJ says:

    @A Confused Atheist – It would depend on each individual, just like for any religion.
    No one is born religious. Everyone is born atheist, so it tends to be an individual’s personal development, experience, and how much brainwashing they are assaulted with that is more likely to determine who will be violent according to a tenet of their cult or not.

    Just throwing out a label, like “Society of Friends” / Quakers, means only that they are likely to do certain things publicly.
    Secret, private family discipline might be something it would horrify you to hear about, regardless of what group they identify with publicly, atheist or religious or what-have-you. Just sayin’

  7. Dennis says:

    1. you brits are lucky most of the baptist got on ships and landed in the states back 3 or 4 centuries ago. these people are crazy! their real tenant is that the man (a man a husband a parent or man overseer is god in the flesh and could do no wrong ISIL )
    2. I would be traumatized in sunday school (honor they mother and father- take your beating as a god fearing child should) ups my mom and dad could do that kind of pain and god said it was good-what!! needless to say I keep my ass covered. I was lucky even with that beating motif from sunday school that my mom and dad had teaching moments not beating moments

  8. Marky Mark says:

    I raised one of my nephews who did not have a father and never once did I ever raise my hand to him and he grew up to be a fine well-adjusted individual. There is no need to ever hit a child…ever

    Hello all…been awhile