News Corp. discovers the atonement is child abuse

Did you know the atonement was a form of divine child abuse? Spend some time in the more recherche corners of academic theology and you will come across this theory. The 1989 essay "For God So Loved the World?" by feminist liberation theologians Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker popularized the phrase that has since filtered down to the popular press. An article on the news portal for the News Corp. chain of newspapers in Australia last week took up the anti-cross line in an extraordinarily crude and vapid way. The story entitled "Schools teaching 'violent crucifixion material'" manages to be mean spirited, biased, ill-informed, credulous and silly all at once. It is an example not so much of the secular press not getting religion, but scorning it.

Written in a one sentence paragraph format, the story opens with the breathless news:

PRIMARY school children think they will "burn in hell" and are tormented by gruesome images of Jesus on the Cross after having religious instruction classes, parents say.

Quite a strong claim. Does the article support the lede? Let's see.

Dozens of Queensland families have complained about the public school classes to Macquarie University researcher Dr Catherine Byrne.

One parent said their six-year-old child was shown “graphic and violent crucifixion material”.

“(He) suffered nightmares and anxiety about death for 10 months – he believed everything he was being told – including that he would burn in hell,” they said.

The story continues in this line for a few more one sentence paragraphs with additional claims being made that one parent claimed the courses were anti-Semitic, that creationism was being taught, another said they had been prevented from withdrawing their child from the class, while yet another parent said that the child of a religious instruction teacher:

told their son he would burn in hell before stabbing him with a pencil.

The horror ... the horror. That's it is it? That's the source of the "burn in hell" lede? Houston, we have a problem. The response from the authors of the religion curriculum that it does not "mention contentious topics such as hell, divorce and Creationism" and from the education authority that students are not compelled to attend the classes receives short shrift as the story returns to the righteously indignant researcher, Dr. Byrne, who by the way spoke to 24 Queensland families in gathering her data.

“This is a national problem and a national disgrace,” she said.

Are you surprised to hear the researcher has come to a conclusion before her study has been completed? She continues:

“I would say these parents are just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of parents are frightened (about speaking out) because this is their kid’s school, they don’t want to put their education at risk.

“They’re not sure who to talk to about it (and) many parents would be completely unaware of what’s happening.”

Dr. Byrne also offers her opinion as to the pedagogical purpose of state schooling, but notes the government was not responding to her concerns.

She said she had met with government officials but they were “too frightened” about losing the Christian lobby vote to intervene.

Really? That would be a better story if true -- politicians cowed by the Australian Christian Lobby into mandating Christian indoctrination in state schools.

Where does one begin with this mess? The article is lacking details and hard numbers -- 24 families were interviewed the story says yet we do not know what sort of sample this was. Were there no voices among this survey who spoke in favor of religious education? No independent experts who could speak to the value or purpose of the government's religious education curriculum? No government spokesmen to respond to the charge that they are supine in the face of the Christian lobby?

The comments reported seem out of proportion to the alleged offense. Was Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ screened for six yearolds? The facts offered in support of the argument are gossip.  Who is speaking? How can we judge their credibility? Are they cranks or is this a serious issue? Are we to take seriously the complaint that one child told another that he would "burn in hell" before stabbing him with a pencil? If so, on what planet do these people live? Have they no knowledge of the school yard? There is no way to tell with this mess of a story.

Part of the problem may well be the author of this article writes primarily for News Corp's opinion website, The Punch. This story however is not presented as an op-ed piece nor as a column but a straight news story. Yet if fails even the rudimentary tasks of journalism as it eschews balance in favor of hyperbole and one sided reporting.

However, there has been no attempt to disguise the bias. The sub headlines of this story lay out the direction the story will take.

  • Post-doctoral research project on religion in public education
  • Parents say kids shown 'graphic and violent crucifixion material'
  • Anglican Church says curriculum does not mention hell, divorce, Creationism
  • Should kids be exposed to the gamut of Biblical horrors, asks Tory Shepherd

Which leads me to ask, should News Corp subscribers be exposed to this drivel?

Behind the secularist screed there is a theological issue being expressed -- somewhat imperfectly. The argument proffered in academic circles most notably by Carlson Brown and Parker is that women and children in Western societies are acculturated to accept abuse. The doctrine of the atonement -- especially the penal substitutionary atonement theory espoused by evangelicals -- is responsible for it has conditioned women to remain "silent for years about experiences of sexual abuse, to not report rape, to stay in marriages in which they were battered."  They believe the cross -- the image of Christ crucified -- symbolized God's divine will that his son should suffer. Carlson Brown and Parker used the analogy of "divine child abuse" to protest the belief that suffering could be redemptive.

"Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers without even raising his voice is lauded as the hope of the world," they argued, postulating abuse as the basis of the Christus Victor theory where god offers "Jesus as bait" for Satan. Anselm's argument for an atonement where only God's son could pay the debt humanity owed to God, provided a theological excuse for child abuse.

When parents have an image of God righteously demanding the total obedience of his son -- even obedience to death -- what will prevent the parent from engaging in divinely sanctioned child abuse? The image of God the father carrying out and demanding the suffering and death of his own son has sustained a culture of abuse and sustained the abandonment of victims of abuse and oppression.

Abelard's moral influence theory is given short shrift as well by Carlson Brown and Parker for the belief that an "innocent suffering victim and only an innocent, suffering victim for whose suffering we are in some way responsible has the power to confront us with out guilt and move us to a new decision." A wag might conclude from all this that John's Gospel really meant to say For God so hated the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should perish and have everlasting trauma.

The claim that children were "tormented by gruesome images of Jesus on the Cross" put forward by the author could well have been written by someone from outside a Christian influenced society who comes to the cross a stranger, or it could from within that portion of the Christian tradition persuaded by modern critiques of the classical theory of the atonement. Or, it could be put down simply as snarky anti-Christian bias. What say you GetReligion readers? Did this story push any buttons for you as it did for me?

Please respect our Commenting Policy