Blog sites and mainstream media outlets have been buzzing all week about Atlanta-based megachurch pastor Creflo Dollarbeing arrested after his 15-year-old daughter called the police with allegations that he had physically abused her. Dollar reportedly told police he tried to restrain his daughter, but denied allegations of choking in a sermon. My Washington Post colleague Barbara Reynolds recently came to Dollar’s defense by saying that “if all that happened was what many of us of a certain generation refer to as a smackdown,” then the pastor shouldn’t have been arrested.
I respectfully disagree.
If the allegations are true as described, then Dollar crossed a dangerous line. The alleged behavior reflects an alarming conception of parenting and fatherhood that is likely informed by conservative Southern and Christian sensibilities rooted in domination and patriarchy.
As an Eritrean-born American, I was often warned by family members against adopting this country’s liberalism as a way of life. They didn’t want me to take on a mindset and behavior that went against our culture and traditions. So much of what I have witnessed and encountered in the context of Southern culture seems to align with the rigid, hierarchal beliefs found in African cultures like my own. There’s a fixation with orthodoxy and order in patriarchal cultures like the ones that shaped myself and Creflo Dollar that often breeds dogmatic thinkers.
This is fertile ground for a parenting style that not only embraces corporal punishment as a necessary tool of discipline but views it as beneficial to the child. But there’s a difference between discipline and abuse, and that line can get very blurry when a parent believes that their authority justifies “loving acts of violence” against children in their care.
There’s also a difference between using physical force to prevent harm from coming a child’s way, as Reynolds suggests Dollar did, and allowing oneself to be so consumed by rage that there’s a desire to harm the other. While our conclusions can only be drawn from the statements made by those involved, I don’t think anything that could justify Dollar choking his daughter, if he in fact did so.
Some guardians are simply obsessed with maintaining control and do so through the use of fear. Reynolds doesn’t think this is a bad strategy, stating, “One of the best ways to control our bad kids is to scare them half to death. If your child is convinced you are capable of being a serial killer or your former job was torturing prisoners at Guantanamo, they are more likely to obey.”
I am not a parent, but my own teenage years and experiences doing juvenile justice work have taught me that fear often breeds and heightens the rebellion it seeks to prevent. The more an adult seeks to control a young person via fear, the more that young person is likely to look for ways to defy that adult’s authority (whether overtly or behind their back).
There are those who will want to know whether or not Dollar’s teenager daughter is a “good” or “bad” teen, but I don’t believe that any child deserves to feel “threatened” and live in what can easily become a prison of perpetual fear.
As a spiritual leader, Dollar is most likely familiar with 1 John 4:18, a critical passage in Scripture that suggests that fear and love cannot be housed together, speaking to God’s love for us and the love that we should offer in return. It states, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Fear has the capacity to distort a young person’s conception of love, as they begin to see intimacy through the lens of control and punishment. The immediate gratification of forcing a child or teenager to adhere to one’s rules by any means necessary should be juxtaposed with long-term consequences brought about by a misconception of love. How will the threat of physical violence inform their romantic relationships in the future? It’s a heavy price for that individual to have to pay for the rest of their lives.
Parenting grounded in corporal punishment and inflicting fear also taxes society. Reynolds herself points to studies that show that children who are spanked regularly are more likely to be “destructive, aggressive and mean-spirited.”
This is not an ideological argument that I am making in opposition to spanking. This is instead a warning to parents who weaponize fear in the face of a young person. Be prepared for all the possible outcomes of that strategy. No adult wants to live in that volatile climate. Neither does a child.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.