It will be apparent that the last blog post was written in something of a hurry. I felt it was important to put down what I knew about Iwerne even before the Channel 4 programme was broadcast last Thursday night. Previously I had never heard of the name of John Smyth, so I was careful not to discuss the details of the allegations against him in the Channel 4 programme. Having now watched the report I want to comment on is the way that the testimony of the victims fully accord with certain narrow and questionable interpretations of Scripture. Violence against young people in the form of beatings has been practised for centuries in the name of Christianity. If John Smyth was acting, as he seems to have been doing, as a proxy father to his victims, we can find plenty of material in Scripture which appears to back up this abhorrent behaviour and make it seem somehow acceptable and even godly.
In the Channel 4 programme it was mentioned that one text frequently quoted by John Smyth to his victims was the passage from Hebrews chapter 12.4: ‘In your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding your blood’. This is followed up by a quotation from Proverbs. ‘The Lord disciplines those whom he loves; he lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges’. The passage has of course been much quoted by those who want to use violence against the young as a way of making them more godly and protecting them from hell. When we look at the Old Testament we can find plenty of examples of God being understood to be like a violent father. The first is of course the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Although Isaac was spared, we need to remember that Abraham was willing to kill his son in a response to what he believed was a command from God. Deuteronomy chapter 8.5-6 also represents God ‘disciplining you as a father disciplines his son’. The same theme is picked in 2 Samuel 7.14-15 when Nathan tells David from God that ‘when he does wrong, I will punish him as any father might, and not spare the rod.’ Such quotations exist for a parent who believes that corporal punishment is the right treatment for their children. This is even before they start to read the main source of violence in childrearing, the book of Proverbs. I have known evangelical families who keep a wooden spoon in the house with which to punish their children. They will quote a passage such as: ’the rod and reproof give wisdom: the child left to himself brings his mother to shame.’ Proverbs 29:15. This quote, though less familiar than other classic texts from Proverbs on child rearing, is typical of the guidance given to parents. The basic message is that it is OK to use violence against children as a way of enforcing obedience.
Apart from the Hebrews passage mentioned above, I am not aware of any passages in the New Testament which support the idea of violence against individuals least of all children. Even the fact that Jesus urged gentleness and respect for children does not deter some Christians in freely promoting the rod. The comments that Jesus made about millstones make it obvious that he deplored any violence towards the young. This brings us to the question as to why violence in child-rearing has come to play a prominent part in the thinking of some Christians. The answer to this question may be quite a simple one. As my readers will know, the imaginations of certain strands of conservative Christian thinking are obsessed with a morbid fascination for the idea of eternal damnation. Preaching the gospel in this way of thinking is not about introducing an individual to a fuller way of life under God, but about snatching them from the jaws of hell. If you occupy such a world-view which is obsessed with rescuing people from the eternal flames of torture, then any method, even violence, may be justified. When violence and punishment are in this way at the forefront of the imagination, it is not surprising that in some places, the actions and theology of an individual like John Smyth will happen.
The survivor accounts of these boys formerly at Winchester College appear entirely plausible in the light of the teachings we have outlined above. Violence against children and young people to protect them from eternal damnation has always been part of the weaponry of a particular type of biblical Christianity. As recently as 1972 a Protestant writer, Jack Hyles, was able to write the following: ‘A child who is spanked will be taught that there is a holy God who punishes sin and wrong.… The parent has kept his child from hell by teaching him truths that can be learned only by discipline and the use of the rod.’
The accusations against John Smyth are of course criminal charges and will no doubt be examined from that perspective. But, as this post has tried to show, behind these terrible events of 30+ years ago lies a corrupt, damaging and destructive expression of theology. This ‘biblical’ teaching also needs to be brought to the court of public examination and condemnation. This is but one corruption that emerges out of an uncritical adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Such inerrancy beliefs have here allowed parents and others to use violence against their children over two centuries or more. The idea that somehow Jesus would ever approve of this kind of treatment against young people is a lie which needs to be constantly challenged. John Smyth stands accused of terrible crimes but guilt must also accrue to a system of thinking and biblical interpretation that made his behaviour possible.
Material for this post has been taken from the excellent book Spare the Child, The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse by Philip Greven. 1992