Tuesday, 20 March 2007

March 2007 - Time to Protect Our Children From The State

March 2007 - Time to Protect Our Children From The State
Time to Protect Our Children From The State
A Time for Action

Dear Friends,

Since I begun public ministry 13 years ago, I have (quite deliberately!) refrained from making comments which obviously support or oppose any political party. The two main reasons for this have been a belief that largely the issues are not nearly as significant as they are made out to be by our media (Jesus rising from the dead is the real news), and also because on almost every issue a certain liberty of opinion amongst Christians appears to me to be warranted.

It is no small thing therefore that I write to express my political opinion and encourage you to at least consider sharing it or be sympathetic with those who share it. I do acknowledge Christians may in good conscience disagree with me; I hope that expressing my opinion does not create an environment where any opposing view is considered ungodly. I also acknowledge that I am not writing to express ‘the opinion of St John’s’, but merely my own opinion.

Nevertheless, I have felt convicted that there is an issue before the New Zealand government of sufficient magnitude and impact upon the lives of Christian people that I must express a political opinion. It relates to the private members Bill which has been introduced by Sue Bradford which has become known as the Anti-Smacking Bill.

Let me explain my reasons for opposing this Bill.

As a Christian person I try to pray at least weekly for the Prime Minister of New Zealand and all those in authority – particularly in government – in our country, that they will govern in such a way that Christian people can ‘live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’. The Bible encourages Christians to do this in 1 Timothy 2:2. What this means is that I pray that the government will make decisions that Christians are able to submit in good conscience without having to defy the government’s authority. That is what is meant by living ‘quiet’ lives: it is not talking about Christians turning their music down low; rather it speaks of Christians not having to defy their authorities in order to obey God.

It is my belief that this change in the law will make it impossible for some Christians to live ‘quiet’ lives in all godliness and holiness any longer. For some Christians, they will in all good conscience have to defy the laws of the country, believing in good conscience the Bible so urges them to discipline their children with a smack if necessary that it would be unloving to do so; and they must obey God and not human authorities at this point. This will put them in breach of the law, and put them in danger of things like having a criminal record for abuse against children, having their children taken off them and/or imprisonment. In short, it enables the state to imprison Christians for doing what they believe is godly.

There is clearly some disagreement over whether smacking to discipline is harmful or beneficial, and certainly some Christian parents do not believe it is beneficial to use force to discipline. The argument usually is ‘hitting is always wrong’; ‘it is teaches children to use violence’, etc. Let me explain briefly therefore why some Christians (me included) believe smacking to discipline their child is actually what God encourages them to do as loving parents.

Christian parents are encouraged to raise their children ‘in the training and instruction of the Lord’ – Ephesians 6:4. This clearly involves teaching the information about the Christian faith, but clearly it involves far more than that too. It involves ‘training’. There is a book in the Old Testament, the Book of Proverbs, which is an entire book from a father to his son giving him wise advice about how to live his life. Several times the writer makes the point that ignoring discipline is foolish, and can lead to poverty and shame, while heeding discipline can lead to honour (13:18). The question then comes about how to teach a child discipline. Here the writer of proverbs says that to spare a child physical force to discipline actually spoils a child, while a parent who loves their child will be careful to discipline him. That is, they won’t randomly ‘use violence’. Rather, they will use physical force to discipline their child in exactly the same way a coach will encourage physical hardship to discipline a sportsperson. The writer of the proverbs acknowledges that it is easier for a parent to avoid doing this but that it won’t harm the child nearly as much as neglecting to do it.

The picture proverbs gives then, is clear. Using physical force to train a child teaches them how to appropriately relate to authorities. It teaches them that to defy authority will ultimately have physical consequences, and will discourage them from foolishly thinking they can do things their way and get away with it without consequences. This has benefit for their relationship to all authorities (which is actually a very good thing for governments!), including God. Proverbs 23:14 says, ‘Punish with the rod and save his soul from death’. These words are not to be taken precisely as a guaranteed formula – here is how to ensure your child goes to heaven. However, implied in the verse is that to train your child that rebelling against authorities brings punishment will be helpful in encouraging them to not rebel against God. In other words, it is part of ‘training and instruction in the Lord’. For some Christians, then, to avoid using physical force to discipline their child is not a negotiable; for them, it would be unloving and to abuse their children by neglect if they were not to be able to use force to discipline their child.

Sue Bradford’s Bill is aimed at ruling out the use of force to discipline a child. Force will be able to be used when a child is in danger, but not for discipline. The current amendment to the Bill of Chester Borrows before the House is trying to make it clear that using force to discipline is acceptable, and tries to define what is acceptable force (only an open hand for a smack). Currently it is believed the Borrows amendment will pass. The law will therefore make it illegal for parents to use force to discipline their children and some Christian parents will therefore be breaking the law to do what before God they believe is loving. The State is therefore given the power to imprison them and take their children off them.

There is discussion as to whether or not the law change which Sue Bradford is suggesting will result in this. However, I believe it is naïve to think otherwise. It may not happen the moment the Bill is passed; but more likely it will happen a generation after the Bill is passed. That changes in legislation work this way can be seen in the changes to laws about corporal punishment in schools. That law was changed 20 years ago. It would have been unthinkable at the time to close schools where all the parents had agreed that their children could receive corporal punishment. Yet today two schools with otherwise excellent reputations face closure because of this law change. When Sue Bradford was asked about what should happen in this situation she simply said, ‘I believe the law should be upheld.’ It is naïve to think that in 20 years time from now when a parent is charged with assault for smacking their child that exactly the same thing won’t be said: ‘The law should be upheld’.

There is also discussion as to whether or not the police will bother to prosecute parents who smack their children to discipline them. Those promoting the Bill are insisting they will not. We ought not assume they are not being deceptive. In the same week they have said the Bill will make smacking illegal but that it is not an anti-smacking Bill. Very significantly, the police have said they will have to investigate any claim that is made. And while they may not have the time to investigate these claims, it is more likely that Child Youth and Family Services will. They are not required to acquire as much burden of proof as the police in order to act on reported child abuse. It is far too important an issue to simply trust the lame reassurances of those who have introduced the Bill that parents will not in time be criminalized. The Bill has been introduced quite deliberately to make the use of physical force to discipline children illegal.

In response to letters I have sent to Members of Parliament, some members have sent me an article titled, ‘It has always been illegal’. The thrust of this article is that smacking a child has always constituted assault and putting children in timeout has always constituted kidnapping. It has only been the common sense of the police that has meant that people have not been charged with assault or kidnapping. This argument to me seems deceitful, however. If smacking is already a crime, then the law does not need to be changed – rather police behaviour needs to be addressed. The fact is that it is not currently illegal. The police know that Section 59 provides a defence for parents who smack children and so they would be wasting their time to bring them to court. Its repeal will mean that parents smacking to discipline their children will have no such protection and so police would have more reason to act on complaints about smacking.

This then raises another very important issue which the Christian understanding of humans gives very important insight. It is that humans in positions of power cannot necessarily be trusted. For me personally, I am more prepared to trust that parents will be eager to treat their own children with respect than I am to trust that government officials respect parents. There may be all sorts of reasons why government officials would not respect the rights of parents (after all, the government is passing the current bill against the majority of parental opinion). On the other hand, parents look after their children for hours on end, year in year out and without pay. This shows a love for their children which state officials cannot match.

These two reasons, then, make me very anxious about the legislation: Christians seeking to live godly lives will be breaking the law and the government officials cannot be trusted to treat them fairly.

But there are further reasons also.

The legislation shows dramatic hypocrisy from the state which is quite terrifying. The state reserves the right to use force to exercise its authority, yet it denies parents this right. If the government truly believed that it was wrong to use reasonable force then it would be consistent and first and foremost refrain from using reasonable force itself. It will abolish the police force and replace it with a counseling service! The state is not living by its own rules, which is terrifying (police have been given more powers recently to use Tazar guns). If it truly believed that ‘a strong message needs to be sent that it is not right to hit anyone’, then first and foremost the state ought to rule out using force itself.

Some argue that it is wrong that the state doesn’t protect small children from the assault which it protects adults. It is suggested that hitting a child is always violent and therefore it is always wrong. We see the complete nonsense of this position on the sporting field. To insist that always hitting a person constitutes assault would mean that rugby coaches would not be able to demonstrate how to tackle. Nor would police be able to use force to arrest anybody. Further, the state is again being hypocritical at this point. If it wishes to give children equal rights before the state, then children must be given the vote first. This is clearly not happening which shows further hypocrisy of the state.

A particular inconsistency with the Bradford Bill is the fact that it permits using ‘reasonable force’ when children are in danger and several other situations. This acknowledges (to use the inflammatory language of some) that violence is perfectly acceptable in certain circumstances. The issue then is not that ‘violence’ is unacceptable. Rather the distinction is that it is quite legitimate – even necessary - to prevent harmful behaviour, but it is illegitimate to be used to train in non-harmful behaviour. The ‘splitting hairs’ nature of this distinction is why advocates of this Bill say one minute it will make smacking illegal and the next that it won’t. (If they can’t work out a straight answer to the question of smacking, how will parents know what to do at 3am in the morning?) To make it possible for parents to be made criminals and have their children removed from them on the basis of such a fine distinction is again to give frightening power to the state. After all – who will decide if the child was putting their hand in the toaster or simply banging the toaster? Most likely, a CYFS worker. Even in todays newspaper (18/03/07), strong criticisms are being made about the mishandling of matters by the CYFS; to hand this department the decision of whether or not a child should remain with their parents simply on the basis of whether or not they smack to discipline their child is to give them a responsibility far beyond their ability to cope.

Of course the ultimate hypocrisy in the state insisting it is defending the rights of children by saying it is not right to hit a child is that the state also says it is perfectly acceptable to kill a child, provided they are inside a mothers womb. The only difference is the age of the child. One day a child can be killed on a whim, the next it is not allowed to be smacked for disciplinary purposes. The hypocrisy of the state to condemn parents who smack at this point is breathtaking.

Whether or not a person agrees with children being disciplined by smacking, I believe they ought to share these grave concerns about the powers the state is giving itself. In the end it legalizes a far greater child abuse than smacking: that of taking parents off children who smack their children to discipline. To give themselves the power to do this under the mistaken banner of ‘acting on child abuse’ ought to cause fear in all citizens. A proven way to act on child abuse is to reduce substance abuse; if the state was serious about using legislation to prevent child abuse, it would again the legal age of drinking. Instead it has done the opposite. Other issues such as family breakdown are also far more related to child abuse; again, the government could make marriage legislation tighter if it was serious about legislating to help reduce child abuse. Instead, all it is doing is making criminals of good parents.

Some disagree with this and say section 59 can be used as an escape clause for abusive parents. It needs to be kept in mind that Section 59 has only been used to vindicate parents less than 10 times in total. We would be unwise to simply conclude the force used was ‘unreasonable’ in these few cases. Section 59 has protected untold numbers of children from having their parents unfairly prosecuted or suffer the agony of dangerous allegations.

There are further reasons however why I believe smacking as a means of discipline ought not be outlawed.

The first is the educative purpose of the law. While those in favour of this legislation know that for a time at least parents may not be prosecuted for smacking their children to discipline them, they also know that the law serves an educative purpose as well as a legislative one. That is, it will no longer be legal to teach people to smack their children in order to discipline them; at the same time, all information given to parents about disciplining children will speak against smacking them for disciplinary purposes. This is why legislation that is passed in one generation in controversial circumstances is often quietly agreed to by the next generation. Opposing views become illegal. It will become harder to teach what the Bible says about using physical force to discipline.

Even leaving the Bible aside, in the case of smacking, it could easily be argued that it is not in the best interests of New Zealand to suppress education about smacking. Where smacking has been banned in Sweden, it has been accompanied by an increase in violence against children. I understand Otago University has conducted a study that shows that smacking may produce better outcomes in children; some suggest it actually prevents adults from resorting to damaging abuse. While no study is perfect, and evidence could be used the other way, the current legislation removes the right of the parent to determine what they believe is best for the child. I would argue a parent has a right to chose how they wish to train their child as they love their child more than the state does. Furthermore, to take this right away from them actually discourages parents from taking responsibility for their children which in fact will ultimately be more harmful for society. A far better approach to reducing child abuse would be to encourage parents to take responsibility for their children by avoiding substance abuse, for example.

Parents who do abuse their power are in exactly the same position before the law as police who abuse citizens; there is legislation to deal with them. There is clearly a difference between a policeman who legitimately uses force to enforce the rule of law and a policeman who abuses citizens in enforcing the law. Exactly the same difference can be observed between parents who smack their children and parents who abuse their children.

This leads to the final factor which has encouraged me to ‘go political’ over this issue, which is the ability of the New Zealand parliamentary system to enforce legislation which is clearly against prevailing opinion. This is clear evidence of the state exerting its authority over citizens. It is an alarming trend to see much legislation being passed which is opposed by more than three quarters of the ‘electorate’. This has led me to do some (fairly basic research) into the political system. As far as I can see, voters in the MMP system do not have a great deal of power; legislation can frequently be passed which most disagree with. The only hope restraining the state and the legislation it is enforcing is to not vote for those who bring in the legislation at the next election. As I write, the Sue Bradford Bill has not been passed but it is assumed that it will. It seems to me that the only recourse that is left to me is to write to all the members of parliament who are intending to pass the Bill that I will not vote for them if they pass it, or their party if it votes for it as a block; and also that I will be discouraging people from voting for them.
That may be the last hope I have to resist the state from taking away my child.

In my nearly twenty years as an eligible voter, there has not been a political issue of anywhere near this magnitude. For the first time that I am aware of, godliness will be made illegal. For this reason, I am therefore prepared to support any person or party who seek to repeal it and I am prepared to oppose any person or party which endorses it.

Therefore, this week I have written to all the Members of Parliament to tell them how I will vote and that I will be encouraging others to do the same.

Those who have supported this Bill are:
The Labour Party
The Greens Party
The Maori Party
2 Members of New Zealand First
Jim Anderton
Peter Dunne

Those who have opposed the Bill have been:
National (a few national members have voted in support of the Bill)
2 United Future members
4 members of New Zealand First.

I have encouraged these members to adopt as policy the repeal of the Sue Bradford Bill at the next election (assuming it will pass).

I would encourage you to do the same, and to carry through on your promise at the next election.

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Peter Collier

Posted by Peter Collier at 9:09 PM 2 comments

Letter to The Press 16/03/07
Dear Sir,

The proposed Bradford legislation has not only revealed attitudes about children in New Zealand. It has also revealed the demeaning and hypocritical attitudes of the powerful elite behind such legislation. ‘It is only through [seemingly invasive] legislation that real social changes have .. become embedded in society’ writes Raf Manji. In other words, don’t worry about having to convince people with persuasive arguments; completely ignore what the citizens are saying. Instead, make it possible to lock people up and forcibly take their children off you them for disagreeing with you. Then self-righteously and patronizingly complete the hypocrisy by telling them to not be lazy parents, to listen better and to not use violence.

I’ll accept the state’s right to tell me to listen instead of using reasonable force when the state gives up its right to use reasonable force, preferring instead to only ever listen more carefully. The Bradford Bill has created a new form of violence in our society: citizen abuse. Victims have only one avenue of support: to never again vote for a person or party that has perpetrated such abuse.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Collier

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