Teaching children to fear God
Last week, Peter Costello alluded to the fact that parents induce fear in their children for the sake of teaching them the difference between good and evil.
He said: “My parents always told me, ‘If you've done nothing wrong, then you've got nothing to fear by telling the truth.’”
Behind this lies the logic that we do indeed have something to fear if we have done something wrong. Human nature being what it is, all children have done something wrong at some stage or other, and therefore they all have something to fear.
Nobody denies the truth of this, which is of course deeply rooted in Christian theology. After all, Christ died to save us from the consequences of our sins. Why did he die? He died because of God’s love for us.
Applying these fundamentals of Christian teaching to our own lives, especially in teaching and bringing up children, is often a matter of emphasis. According to some, we are wretched creatures who would suffer eternal damnation, were it not for the love of God, and we need to know this. Others stress that we are children of a God who loves us so much that he turns a blind eye to our misdemeanours.
Before Vatican II, the first emphasis was more common, while post Vatican II catechesis favoured the second. Now, there’s a return to a stress on our sinfulness and the conviction that children need to be taught a sense of fear. Plainly, it’s the reactionary and conservative groups in the Church that are promoting this emphasis on sin.
In April, Cardinal Pell wrote that we need to renew our sense of fear before God. He pointed out that a recent survey of young people “showed that many saw God as an undemanding helper in time of need; always on call, like a parent who spoilt his children”.
Of course, Cardinal Pell is on solid ground when he reminds us the Scriptures claim that “those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways are blessed”. But he goes on to point out that “the fear of God has to be learned as it doesn’t come naturally”. He adds that someone “has to teach us or show us and this can be done badly” (our emphasis).
In recent days, the
Post a Prayer page at the Australian Daily Prayer Online website contained a prayer intention that incorporated an instruction on how to beat the love of Jesus in to your child. It advises that “a good spanking should be traumatic and something the child will remember well into adulthood”.
The instruction takes its inspiration from Proverbs 23:13-14 - “thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell”.
”To ensure that the child is aware of their misdeed, and they never forget it, it is often best to smack the child across the bottom with the Bible as you speak out their misdeed,” it advises. “Rebuke the child in the sweet name of Jesus, toss them aside like a used Kleenex and let them roll to the floor to contemplate their sinful nature.”
The instruction, which reflects the culture of violence and retribution in the USA, could have been adapted for use as a torture and abuse manual at Abu Ghraib. While it must be taken at face value, there’s a good chance that it was written tongue in cheek. It certainly stands as a disturbing illustration of the extremes of the bad teaching methods of which Cardinal Pell warns.
The instruction raises the question of how important it is to regulate precisely how the fear of God is to be taught, if in fact it is accepted that the fear of God must be taught. Many would argue that corporal punishment, and indeed any harsh words designed to induce fear, should be off limits, for any form of intimidation and intentional humiliation constitutes child abuse. It is clear that a proportion of cases of clergy sex abuse contain an element of humiliating the children that is put to them as a punishment for their sins.
Cardinal Pell may be measured in his presentation of the Fear of God doctrine. But in common with most others who advocate the teaching of fear to children, he does not point here to the specifics of how this should be done appropriately. Therefore he leaves it up to parents to determine how to teach fear to their children. Surely this is a recipe for child abuse.