MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today, though, we want to have a conversation sparked by the news that the popular minister and evangelist Creflo Dollar was arrested a little more than a week ago. According to the police reports, his teenage daughter called 911 and alleged that her father, Pastor Dollar, choked her, threw her to the ground and punched her.
Dollar was arrested and charge with simple battery and cruelty to children, then released on a $5,000 bond. In his Sunday sermon following the incident, he told his congregation that he didn't choke or punch his daughter, that he should never have been arrested and that, quote, "all is well in the Dollar household," unquote. But he did suggest that there were some disciplinary issues involved.
Now, I should stress again that the facts haven't been aired in court, but we thought this raised questions about, again, you know, what place, if any, physical discipline should play in our lives in this day and age and also whether the biblical instruction - or at least people attribute to the Bible - spare the rod and spoil the child - is still a valid instruction in this day and age, especially among churchgoers, those who look to the church as an important source of guidance in their lives.
Joining us to help unpack this, Elder Harold Bennett is the president and dean of the Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. Pastor Rudy Rasmus is with us. He's senior pastor of St. John's Downtown Church in Houston, Texas. And from Los Angeles, Reverend Nirvana Gayle, senior minister at Guidance Church in Los Angeles, California.
Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
ELDER HAROLD BENNETT: Thank you, Michel.
PASTOR RUDY RASMUS: Thank you for having me.
REVEREND NIRVANA GAYLE: Yeah. Thank you. My pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: So Elder Bennett, let me start with you. I think that I should say that the quote is paraphrased, isn't it, from a number of verses in Proverbs, whoever spares the rod, hates their children and so forth. I just wanted to ask you, how pervasive an instruction do you think this is among the people that you've taught, among the people that you minister to?
BENNETT: Well, Michel, I think that the belief that corporal punishment is acceptable in certain settings, depending on the psychological makeup of the child and the behavioral tendencies of the child, believing that it's OK to use corporal punishment is accepted. And so it would be, I think, inaccurate for me to say that it's not practiced. I do think that there is widespread belief that it's OK.
Now, I don't know the exact figures or numbers, but I think I would be misleading you to say that it's not present, that it's not practiced.
MARTIN: Do you think it's OK?
MARTIN: You do?
BENNETT: I do.
BENNETT: I think that children need to understand - and I say children need to understand, beginning at a certain point in their life, probably when they're younger. I do think that children need to understand boundaries and I think that children need to understand that there should be punishments, there should be discipline that is in direct proportion to the improper behavior that they might demonstrate. The behavior, the attitudes, whatever types of undertakings they have that are deemed inappropriate, they should understand that there is a point which they should not cross and I think it's very helpful to do that while they're very young so you don't end up with a set of other kinds of disciplinary problems and destructive behaviors when they get older. So I do think that there is a place for it.
MARTIN: Pastor Rasmus, what about you?
RASMUS: Well, at the Rasmus household, it was definitely practiced. My daughters are now 24 and 25 years old and one's in medical school and one just finished her master's in psychology and both were spanked as children. My wife did most of the disciplining and I supported the process, but I do believe it had a positive effect on our kids. As a matter of fact, we have discussed it now that they're adults as to what - you know, what was their perspective of that disciplinary practice then and how do they see it in their future? And they say, you know, absolutely, they thought it was beneficial and they will be doing the same.
MARTIN: Have you ever preached on this?
RASMUS: I never preached on it. That's interesting, though. It is probably a topic we need to begin talking about. You know, when we talk about discipline, also, there are many factors, as the doctor mentioned earlier.
One, you know, the mental health position, not only of the child, but of the parent. You know, if there is some compromise in terms of mental stability, then there might should be some restraint practiced as it relates to corporal punishment.
But, you know, along the way, you know, boundaries are important and, even though in this current day and time, I know a lot of parents of young children who never, never spank them. And, you know, we talk about it and give many reasons and one being, you know, we don't want to limit our child's freedom and potential. So I said well, OK, you know, but there's a system out here that will ultimately spank your child.
MARTIN: Well, I would argue with you that limits and hitting are different things. That one can set limits without hitting. I mean those aren't synonyms. But I do take your point.
Rev. Gayle, what about you? What about you? Have you ever preached on this? And what about in your household?
GAYLE: I'm going to have the minority position here, primarily because - first of all, I do not, did not raise my children by hitting or beating on them and I was not raised by being hit or beat myself. And I went on to college, have a successful career as a minister after having previously been a manager in the Department of Children and Family Services. My sister has her Masters degree with a CFO of organization, now has her own private consulting. My children are very successful in their lives. So there is a way in which we can raise our children without resulting to the beating on them or spanking them when we understand that they are human beings too and we take the time and the patience to develop other methods and alternatives of teaching and training our children.
I mean, you beat a dog to train a dog. Children are not dogs. They are human beings. They do have a capacity to understand and comprehend. If we develop ways of being able to do that, rather than relying upon the old ways that we were taught by Master Charlie back in slave days when we were beaten in order to get points across.
Also, there is a misperception in terms of the scriptural passage of spare the rod and spoil the child. I really...
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that.
GAYLE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you how you interpret that passage.
GAYLE: Yeah. Really, that's not really so much about - the rod represents spiritual awareness, spiritual knowledge, spiritual insights, spiritual wisdom. So what the statement is really saying is that if you do not raise your children with spiritual insight and spiritual wisdom and spiritual knowledge and an appreciation of the divine and God and the more wonderful, beautiful things in life, then they will be rotten, they will be rotten to the core, they will be spoiled.
Now this is not an understanding that is particularly prevalent in the African-American community, but as I've done extensive studies and research, you know, and the study of the Aramaic language, which was the language that was spoken by people during the time of Jesus and during biblical times, and begin to understand the deeper understanding and meaning of certain passages in the Bible and reading them in the context, all of a sudden that statement began to make more sense. That it really was not necessarily referring to the way in which we raise our children. The rod was not representing some sort of instrument or stick that we use to beat a child.
I'm in the state of California. I worked in children's services and actually to pick up any kind of an instrument to beat your child is considered a crime, whether it's a bat or a switch or a rod or anything of that nature. So it illegal, and then first of all, morally and ethically I disagree with it.
GAYLE: Now it is allowed in the state of California to spank your children in the insensitive areas with an open hand but not with a fist and not with any other kind of an instrument that you may use. That's considered a weapon.
MARTIN: But let me jump in here and just and say that if you're just joining us, we're visiting with three distinguished pastors, and we're talking about corporal punishment more broadly in the wake of the arrest most recently of Creflo Dollar. He's a popular minister in the Atlanta area. He was recently arrested after his daughter called authorities, saying that her father had hit her and choked her as part of a kind of a family disagreement.
I'm speaking with Pastor - oh, sorry, or rather Elder Harold Bennett. He is the president and dean of the Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary in Atlanta. The Rev. Nirvana Gayle is a minister at Guidance Church in Los Angeles, that's who was speaking just now. And Pastor Rudy Rasmus from St. John's Downtown Church in Houston, Texas.
You've given all - you've all given us a lot to work with here. So Pastor Rudy, I'm going to go back to you on this because I think that, you know, what Rev. Gayle was kind of referring to was the sense that there has been, you know, culturally among a lot of people in general, I would say, and also African-Americans in particular, that, you know, one has to beat - we have to beat our children so that the world won't kill them. That if we don't teach them to respect authority and to live sort of within certain boundaries, then the world can be a very harsh place and that this will be, that the consequences will be extreme. And I think what I heard him say is that it's time to let that go, that those instructions are just no longer appropriate in this day and age as well as he believes, you know, ethically and morally in his view unjust. So I wanted to ask you to address that.
RASMUS: You know, well, when we talk about punishment and discipline, I think I must draw a line in terms of the severity of the term. First of all, beating is beating. And spanking I don't see as beating, per se. But and I guess there are practices that we inherit amongst our family tradition. In my family tradition I was disciplined that way, I guess, and along the way it worked for me. And, you know, subsequently, as we have moved through life, my wife and I in raising our daughters, you know, this isn't a practice that was needed on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, my daughters can also count the spankings that they received during their childhood. So, but they were quality, they were memorable and from their own perspective, they were helpful.
MARTIN: Well, can you give an example of what occasioned it, what was the spark - what caused it?
RASMUS: You know, I remember my wife telling my daughters once, they were little girls, and she told them to not put on some makeup. You know, little girls sometimes will play with makeup, and my wife's back was turned and they got into the makeup and not only got into it, got into it, just really deep and without the sense of ever being detected. They thought they would be able to make up in eye makeup before my wife caught them. Well, my wife caught them and that was the source of some discipline at that moment.
And, you know, in our house, you know, boundaries are important. We have, you know, we set the limits and when those limits were crossed there, was a consequence. And it was just our approach to parenting.
MARTIN: Well, I could tell you though, I think that this is that - I don't know that, well, Creflo Dollar says he didn't choke or punch the young lady. She says that he did so this is why the matter is going forward. And so none of us was there, so we don't know. But clearly, he had a lot of support for whatever he did. I just want to play a short clip from his sermon. The Sunday after he was arrested he addressed the issue when he got to the podium. This is what he told his congregation.
PASTOR CREFLO DOLLAR: As everyone knows, raising children in our culture...
CHURCH MEMBERS: Yeah.
DOLLAR: Listen, raising children in our culture of disrespect is a challenge.
DOLLAR: Like all of us who are parents...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
DOLLAR: ...there times when disciplining and training our kids can become pretty intense.
MARTIN: Well, you know, there were a lot of kind of whooping and applause for him there. So one gets the sense that people in the congregation felt that he was within grounds. But there were other people who wrote to say that they want to because they felt that there is no circumstance in which you should be punching or hitting a 15-year-old girl, particularly. So I don't know, Elder Bennett, what do you think?
BENNETT: I think this Michel. I have two children. I have a son who is approximately 16 and I have a daughter who is roughly 11. And I would say that depending on the infraction, depending on the infraction, I think that would determine the response of the parent. And specifically, I am very much so an advocate for African-American males being very clear, being very up-front, being very intentional with respect to disciplining their sons, especially as they grow when they are younger so that when they get 15, 16, 17, you can become more of a coach.
I kind of describe myself and my relationship with my oldest - my older child, who is in fact a young man - I have become more of a coach, more of an adviser. We talk about things now. But when he was younger there was a place for some hands-on experiences.
MARTIN: But why? Why hitting as opposed to taking something away that is important to him, like, you know, like a toy or something else, or privileges or restricting television. Why hitting? Why does that have to be...
BENNETT: Well, I think...
MARTIN: And is your sense of this biblically instructed because you feel that that's what the Bible instructs?
BENNETT: Well, I will say this. I think there are a couple of things to consider first of all. I think theologically African-American men who proclaim to have a relationship with God, I think theologically we have a theological duty and a theological obligation to correct our sons and our daughters. Morally, philosophically, whether the human being subscribes or ascribes to any kind of tradition that acknowledges some kind of sense of the other or the sacred, I think morally and philosophically the person, the African-American male father has a social obligation to correct his or her children. And sometimes, depending on what the child does, depending on what the child does, I think that type of thing could warrant some type of physical kind of addressing.
And then, and let me give an example of what I would say...
MARTIN: I'm sorry. We're almost out of time here...
BENNETT: Oh, my.
MARTIN: So I just wanted to give everybody a last word. It's obviously a very rich topic.
MARTIN: And it is interesting that now once we got our conversation going it's become such a rich topic. I do have to tell you that we called almost 20 ministers for this conversation and by and large, they would not talk about this. And you three were, and we adore you all and we're so grateful that all of you were willing to talk about this. But a very large number of your colleagues were not, and we are a little bit puzzled by that. So thank you for answering up.
Rev. Gayle, I'm going to give you the last word because you are the minority voice in this today.
And perhaps we'll return to this topic.
BENNETT: That's good.
MARTIN: Briefly, if you would.
GAYLE: Let me make this very clear. There is a difference between discipline and beating and spanking. There are all kinds of ways we can discipline our children. And I think the primary thing is - I know a lot of people have always said, well, this is the way I was raised and it worked for me and it was good enough for me. It was also a time in the history of humanity when our primary way of transportation was horse and buggy, but you don't see anyone riding around in a horse and buggy anymore.
In other words, there are ways in which things improve and there are other ways in which we can begin the process of disciplining our children that don't necessarily have anything to do with beating them or spanking them. If we take the time and we have the patience to discover other means by which we can begin to communicate with our children.
GAYLE: Communication is actually the larger issue. It's that...
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, Rev. Gayle, forgive me.
GAYLE: All right.
MARTIN: Time is the one thing they're not making more of.
MARTIN: The Reverend Nirvana Gayle was with us from NPR West. Also joining us, Elder Harold Bennett, with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. And Pastor Rudy Rasmus, with us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas.
Pastors, dads, thank you all so much for joining us. Happy Father's Day to you, belatedly too.
GAYLE: Thank you.
BENNETT: Thank you.
GAYLE: A pleasure being here with you.
RASMUS: All right, thank you, Michel.
BENNETT: All right. Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.