Religious communities often provide children with important teaching about morality, social and communal behaviors, and their own sense of collective meaning and place in their world. One would hope that in such social environments children would learn lessons that help them to participate in healthy relationships, including with those who are vulnerable. In this provocative study, children who reported being involved in churches or other religious groups reported higher levels of violent behaviours and experiences of victimization. Findings from our study suggest that a silence around the issue of violence may in fact be true in the context of some Canadian religious communities. Yet, if these communities make an intentional commitment to protecting children from violence and promoting healthy relationships, and are willing to learn from evidence-based practices that have shown to protect children from participating in and experiencing violent and victim behaviors, perhaps these disturbing trends could be reversed.
Children, violence and Canadian religious communities
Corporal punishment in Canada
A strong body of research evidence demonstrates the risks that physical punishment poses to children. To date, 54 countries have banned the physical punishment of children, and 56 more have declared that they will. Canada has done neither. In Canada, the law still permits parents to use physical punishment to discipline their children. All the evidence we need to stop hitting our children is already available. Clearly, change is going to take something more. For one thing, it will require a critical examination of the cultural and religious norms and values that perpetuate this behaviour even in the face of overwhelming evidence documenting its harms. And it will require reflection on our collective tacit acceptance of violence against children. Until that happens, and until the normalization and even justification of violence against children is called out by Canadians, our children will be at risk.
In January 2017, we received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to hold a forum that would facilitate debate of theologies related to corporal punishment of children. This project grew out of our desire to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action 6, which is to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada (sometimes called "the spanking law"). This forum, which was held at the School of Religion at Queen’s University, took place in October 2017. It included Indigenous leaders, clergy and other church leaders, theologians, academics and community members. The result was the following statement, which you can download below. This statement engages with a critical conversation in the Christian church because Christian theologies have propagated corporal punishment for centuries based on narrow interpretations of scripture. We hope that this statement will not only contribute to deterring practices that put children at risk, but move Canadian churches toward a stronger partnership with Indigenous peoples and capture the meaning of reconciliation.