by M. Dolon Hickmon author of the book ’13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession’
In addition to supernatural benefits, religions often promise what amounts to a program of self-improvement. Ingredients may include prayer, studying scripture and attending regular meetings. Such paths often also call for personal sacrifice, whether in the form of tithes and offerings or through performing unpaid labor such as proselytizing door-to-door. For their efforts, the faithful are promised an array of tangible and intangible remunerations: health and wealth, relief of depression or anxiety, eternal life and so forth. For many, one particularly alluring promise is that of a fool-proof formula for rearing children. This promise appeals to parents’ better natures, but when clerics are handed the lead role in deciding how and when parents should discipline their own children, the results can often be disastrous.
Examples abound, from nightmare tales of physical child abuse in the Church of Scientology to the story of Baptist Sunday-school teachers whipping an eleven-year-old church member to the point of renal failure using a tree-branch. Such accounts of child maltreatment are hard to stomach, especially when the abuse comes from the hand of a parent. But as difficult as it may be to relate to the parent who injures his or her offspring, it is often harder to imagine the mindset of a non-abusing spouse, who seems to have stood by while a child’s personal tragedy happened. There are surely multiple explanations for this phenomenon, but one that is sadly too-common is the pressure from religious leaders who use literal interpretations of scripture to bolster masculine authority and harsh physical punishment.
It can be hard to imagine how any cleric could possibly provide a reason for failing to protect a child. But as the following excerpt, taken from the novel 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession, shows, it can be all too easy for even a well-intentioned spiritual leader to be made into a child-abuser’s accomplice.
Shouts cut through the closed door of the counseling room, stinging Josh’s ears with their vehemence. Standing alone, in the basement hallway of his father’s church, Josh silently grieved: It’s my fault.
“I can’t listen to it!” his mother said. “Do you understand?”
“Rebecca, please. You’re being irrational—”
“I’ll show you irrational!” Josh heard thumps and slaps.
His father huffed, plaintive: “Stop it!”
“You stop it!” There was a loud smack. A silent moment passed, and then: “You see! It’s no fun when someone is hitting you!”
Josh looked down in embarrassment. He was ten years old, and his parents were fighting about him again.
A third voice interrupted. “Why don’t we trade places, Rebecca? That way, you and Allen will be on opposite sides.”
Josh recognized the voice of Chester Singer, a Baptist minister with gray hair and false teeth that lent an unnatural perfection to his smile. Singer was the pastor of the biggest church in the area, and he had a long association with Josh’s dad; in fact, Josh could recall helping his father bring hot dinners to the man when Singer was grieving after the death of his wife.
Singer stuck his head into the hall. “Joshua?” He forced a big-toothed smile. “Would you like to play outside for a few minutes?”
Josh would have liked to stay and listen, but he understood what was expected. He nodded and marched dutifully toward the stairs. Singer watched until Josh reached the top landing and then retreated, leaving the door slightly ajar.
When the minister was out of sight, Josh crept back.
Holding his breath, he leaned to peek through the cracked door.
Josh’s mother settled in the swivel chair behind the pastor’s desk. This placed her across the desk from her husband, who was seated in one of two upholstered armchairs. A love seat was situated on the wall to her left, and Mr. Singer settled into it with a groan.
“It sounds like he’s killing him,” Rebecca said. “It breaks my heart.”
“You trained him to scream like that, with your interfering!”
Rebecca scoffed. “I know the difference between a child who is screaming in pain and one who is whining for sympathy.”
Allen’s answer was derisive. “He cries before I’ve even begun. The routine starts the moment he lays eyes on the belt.”
Mr. Singer looked at Rebecca. “Is that a fact?”
Before she could answer, Allen blurted, “Call Joshua into the room, and I’ll show you! All I have to do is reach for the buckle.”
Josh inched away from the door, ready to bolt if Singer should seek him out. Instead, the elder minister steepled his fingers. “Rebecca, is there any truth to what Allen is saying?”
She answered firmly, “Josh is terrified. He’s too frightened to think about manipulating anybody.”
Through the cracked doorway, Josh gazed briefly at his mother: Rebecca wore no makeup, and her only decorations were her engagement ring and wedding band; still, she was pretty, with healthy skin, attractive eyes, and dark, straight hair that reached the middle of her back.
Singer turned to Allen. “Is there any reason why your son would be afraid of you?”
Allen made a startled puff and then shook his head, as if at a loss. “I honestly wish I could think of something—”
Rebecca began a sarcastic retort, but Singer silenced her with a gentle patting gesture. When husband and wife had both settled, Mr. Singer aimed a series of blunt interrogatories at Allen. “Have you ever chastised your son when you were angry?”
“Absolutely not!”“Have you felt like you were at risk of losing control?”
“What?” Allen exclaimed. “No!”
“What about injuries? Has the boy ever been harmed during punishment?”
“Not to my knowledge—”
“You’re a liar!” Rebecca snapped. Mr. Singer turned, surprised by the force of her retort. Meeting the counselor’s gaze, she insisted: “Josh is bruised all the time.”
Singer frowned and looked at Allen. “Is that the truth?”
“I get a bruise from bumping my shin on the coffee table. I don’t rush to the hospital! It’s a bruise,” Allen emphasized, “not an injury.”
With frost in her voice, Rebecca subtly modified her prior statement: “Josh is bruised all the time.”
Allen responded in a pleading whine: “Rebecca! The child bruises easily! He’s got bruises all over his knees and elbows from falling down! They don’t hurt him. He doesn’t even notice them, until you point them out!” Allen turned and spoke earnestly to Mr. Singer: “I promise you, Chet: my son is a happy little boy. He is not suffering in any way.”
Rebecca raised her voice. “How would you know? You barely look at him unless you’re unloading the strap.”
Allen winced. “He isn’t like you! He takes after my mother’s side of the family. All of them have blond hair and delicate skin—”
Sensing Rebecca’s anger, Singer interrupted again. “Allen!” He waited for the man to trail off. “From now on, I would like you to test the rod on your own skin before applying it to your son.”
Allen breathed in to protest, thought better of it, and humbly nodded his head.
“Try it every time before you begin—and not on the callused palm of your hand! Children are more sensitive than that. Practice making your point on the inside of your bare arm. Use this to calibrate the minimum sting needed to get a message across.” Singer’s face became firm. “You don’t have to hammer your lessons home. What’s important is that correction be timely, consistent, and clear.”
Allen nodded, and Singer visibly relaxed.
“Now, I want you to look at your wife and make this commitment before God: I want you to promise that you would never knowingly harm your son.”
Allen faced his bride. “I love you, and I love Josh! I would never hurt him.”
Tears welled up in Rebecca’s eyes. The stiffness melted from her shoulders, and she gave in with a weary nod. Mr. Singer stooped his shoulders, bringing his face to her eye level. “Rebecca, do you love your husband?”
Rebecca stared in shock then winced as if ashamed. Finally, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set in fury. “Of course I love my husband!”
Singer soothed her in an inoffensive voice, “Rebecca, God has charged Allen with the duty and responsibility of disciplining his children. To neglect that is no different from denying your son food or water. On the other hand, God has given to you the responsibility of nurturing the boy. Those are the duties that come naturally to a mother.”
Rebecca wiped her nose and returned a guilty nod.
“Allen swears that he has your son’s best interests at heart—and based on what I know of your husband, I have to believe him.”
Singer waited for Rebecca to contradict this, but she seemed disinclined to speak. Relieved, Mr. Singer continued. “Your role, as a helpmeet, is to yield to Allen’s authority. You must trust that your son is safe, as you allow Allen to administer godly correction.” Sensing reluctance, Mr. Singer pressed the young mother for a pledge: “Can you promise your husband that you will do this?”
Rebecca glanced uncomfortably away. Before she could put words to her objection, Mr. Singer rephrased his appeal. “Can you trust God on this matter?”
It was a test of her faith, but after long seconds of deliberation, Rebecca offered a determined nod. Singer acknowledged her commitment and then, with a tilt of his head, directed her eyes to her husband. Taking the cue, Rebecca looked into the pale blue eyes of the man she’d fallen in love with and made a solemn promise: “I will trust God to protect Josh.”
Singer clapped his hands and boomed enthusiastically, “How wonderful! Allen, would you like to close our meeting with a prayer?”
Outside, Josh tiptoed silently away.
Writer and activist M Dolon Hickmon examines the roots of religiously motivated child abuse in articles published all around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel “13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession”.
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