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If you don’t know the names, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, Lydia Schatz, Michael Pearl, or the book, To Train Up A Child, you should. These are the names of two parents convicted, respectively, of murder and manslaughter in the case of their 7 year-old daughter, and the self-proclaimed minister/author of a book which teaches the biblical foundation and moral virtue of hitting kids. We need to know their names because they are part of real problem – the problem of sacralizing child abuse, of beating children as a religious act.
Hitting kids is bad enough, but when people hide behind scripture to justify it, it is especially grotesque – it scars the children, and it scars the tradition which justifies it. Tragically, this is going on, it must be stopped, and it is precisely those of us for whom the Bible is a sacred and life-centering text that must take the lead in stopping it.
As is always the case, it is those closest to a tradition that should bear the greatest responsibility for it when it is being abused. We cannot simply distance ourselves from “those crazy people”, because “those crazy people” are using the same books we hold dear to commit atrocities, so who better than those who turn to (some of) the same books, to take on the responsibility of addressing the abuses committed in their name?
The notion of hitting children should simply be repugnant to people, and the scientific evidence against the practice is overwhelming. Kids who are hit, fare no better, and often fare far worse than children who are not. Of course for some biblical literalists that argument will not suffice.
The literalists will quote chapter and verse beginning with Proverbs 13:24, One who spares the rod, hates his child. (The commonly heard, “spare the rod, spoil the child”, by the way, does not actually appear anywhere in the Bible – it’s an expression based on this verse.) But, as I often wonder with such approaches to the Bible, why are such literalists not stoning those who they deem to be Sabbath violators as is demanded by Exodus 31:15, for example? The answer, of course, is that they don’t want to kill people for violating the Sabbath, but for whatever reason, actually want to hit kids and delight in finding a biblical “justification” for it.
Prosecutors in the case against the Schatz’s could not make an additional case for legal liability against Michael Pearl, whose book was among those found on the Schatz’s shelves and which appears to have served as an inspiration to them in “understanding” the religious value of corporal punishment. Frustrating as that may be, that is probably as it should be given the importance of freedom of expression and the chilling effect upon it were it possible to hold Pearl legally culpable for the death of Lydia Schatz.
Legal liability and moral responsibility however, are two different matters and there is no doubt that Pearl bears a measure of the latter whether he realizes it or not. Of course, the real challenge is not to Michael Pearl, it is to the rest of us, especially those who own Pearl’s book, believe, or teach, that hitting kids is a religious act. This is no longer a phenomenon about which any of us can plead ignorance, and we all bear a measure of moral responsibility for every slap and punch.
There is no way to bring Lydia Schatz back, or to undo the damage to her still living siblings, or any of the other children who are beaten in the name of God. We can however do everything in our power to put a stop to the practice. For the sake of these kids and for the sake of the traditions we hold dear, that is what we must do.