What does it mean when a church of love reinforces fear?

by Mariam Williams

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"If you had a little girl right now, how would you discipline her?" a friend asked me recently.

"I don't know," I replied.

He posed more specific hypotheticals to try to get my brain functioning better. "Imagine if she peed on the couch on purpose, or if she was running with scissors. What would you do?"

As I looked at an 8-by-10 photo I keep on my table of my adorable cousin at age 2, I still had no idea how I might discipline her if she were mine -- in any scenario. And I thought about how terrifying it must be to see your child engaged in behavior you know she should stop but not know what to do about it.

I didn't know what I would do to discipline a child, but I could imagine looking for answers in the sources I trust the most: my parents, my friends, and God's word.

I've been thinking about the church's role in disciplinary decisions since reading Brittney Cooper's beautifully reflective essay on differences between the ways black parents and white parents discipline their children in light of Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson's suspension upon allegations of child abuse. Cooper recalls hearing "everyone from preachers to comedians lament the passing of days" when the whole neighborhood could whack a disobedient child's behind. Recently, I was at a gospel jazz concert where in between sets, a musician had the mostly black audience laughing as he imitated the rhythmic way his mother used to beat his butt. It seemed almost everyone in the audience could relate. What they had experienced as painful, they remembered with gratefulness. They felt loved. The Bible says parents chastise the children they love.

But as Cooper notes, when it comes to discipline, chastisement and punishment, black parents are driven at least as much by fear of state violence against their children as they are by their own love for them. In addition to the mourning for communitywide disciplinary action, I've heard black preachers say to mostly black congregations on countless occasions, "Discipline your child so the police/judges/prison guards don't have to." And each time, the congregation responds with head-nodding, applause, and "That's right" or "Amen!"

So I've started to wonder: What does it mean when the church, an organization with a message of unconditional love at its foundations, reinforces fear? On one hand, I think it reflects black churches' affinity for respectability politics. Despite our belief that a man who never did anything wrong in his whole life was falsely accused, wrongly convicted, beaten and sentenced to death, black churches still often teach that if you just do all the right things, no one will do to you what the state did to Jesus.

On the other hand, I think it means, ironically, that church leadership recognizes but cannot always remove the fears and frustrations of its members. In black communities, churches historically have served as places of both sanctuary and organization, sources of supernatural strength to help individuals and communities endure injustice while simultaneously serving as a meeting place for those making formal plans to create a more just society. If church leaders themselves experience harassment from police, they know their members and members' children must go through the same thing, and they will give them whatever tools they can to try to stop it, even when they know that harsh discipline of a black child won't stop state-sponsored violence against him or her, whether in childhood or adulthood. Pastors continue to give their members guidance and strength and to say, "I know, and God knows, but keep doing the right things anyway."

Perhaps this shows that there is no longer enough organizing for justice going on. Maybe it shows more teaching about love and equality needs to take place outside of the black church, because discipline rooted in love is a strong enough lesson without adding to it fear of the violence we can't prevent.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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