ATLANTA — It was mere coincidence that days after Pastor Creflo Dollar was accused of child cruelty, another Atlanta-area pastor was preparing to address the topic from the pulpit.
Clinton McFarland, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and Atlanta, was preparing a series of sermons on family issues. When news broke that Fayette County, Ga., police had arrested Dollar for allegedly assaulting his 15-year-old daughter, McFarland wrote a sympathetic tweet: "God bless you Creflo Dollar. I know what you are going through." Then the floodgates opened, on McFarland's Twitter account and across the Web, as the public weighed in on the incident.
Dollar said he was disciplining his daughter — restraining her after she became disrespectful because he wouldn't allow her to attend a party. She claimed in the police report that Dollar choked her, grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her down. Reaction to the incident on social media ranged from the general — Is corporal punishment an acceptable form of discipline and when does it become child abuse? — to the specific — Is it befitting of a Christian to physically discipline a child?
The answers vary, depending on who is asked, but in a state where corporal punishment remains legal in schools, many responses referred to Scripture that McFarland posted later that day: "Prov 22:15 says, 'Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.'"
On Sunday, while Dollar was disputing the allegations at his World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., McFarland — father of a 15-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter — was telling his congregation that while he does not condone child abuse, he could have walked in Dollar's shoes.
"It could have happened to me and probably most of the people in our congregation that believe in discipline," said McFarland.
McFarland said his parents used "whippings" with a switch to discipline him and his siblings in rural Mississippi. With his children, he limits discipline to spankings on the bottom. And as his children have gotten older, he has searched for other methods of correcting their behavior.
"I will try everything else," he said. "Taking privileges or punishment, but if a child is willfully disobedient, defiant or disrespectful, I still think corporal punishment is effective."
Some experts and other faith leaders disagree.
"I don't think it is necessary to raise your hands to a child," said Pastor John Wierwille of Berea Mennonite Church in Atlanta. "We don't think violence is acceptable ever by Christians." It is important, he said, to live by example, whether that be encouraging prayer or preventing violence — a lesson he said can be drawn from Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
"What matters for us is asking, was Jesus the sort of person who would push or hit people to get his point across?" Wierwille said. "He taught in metaphors because the truth is plain before our eyes. We know the difference between right and wrong."
When the book of Proverbs can be cited by supporters and detractors of corporal punishment, it's not surprising that right and wrong gets muddied. The Rev. Anthony David, senior minister of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, said it's one example of the Bible's paradoxes.
"So much of Scripture continues to be inspiring. On the other hand, there are places in Scripture where we find things that really are wrong — that really go against our best knowledge of what we know today," he said.
Discipline, he said, is about building character, and any action should be aimed in that direction. "When you violate a kid's physical boundaries like that, you are setting them up to be pushed around as adults or to push others around. It is not the kind of character we want to build," David said.
While everyone agrees that how we discipline youth is a topic worthy of discussion, it is also one of the hardest to address because it touches so many sensitive areas, including parenting style, religion and race.
"You can't tell a parent they are right or wrong as to how they discipline their child," said Keba Richmond-Green, executive director of Dream Girlz Unlimited Inc., an organization that helps empower girls ages 13 to 25. In her parenting workshops, Richmond-Green often hears from parents frustrated with children's disrespect. "We can give them tools and offer assistance to help them do things a little better," she said.
It is necessary, said Stone Mountain, Ga.-based family therapist Torri Love Griffin, to teach children that their actions have consequences, but to do so with respect. "We have to add respect to our relationships even if it is a younger child," said Griffin. "Parenting involves taking care of someone who may not understand that care. The parent is doing what they are doing out of love."
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