Decolonizing Discipline: Children, Corporal Punishment, Christian Theologies, and Reconciliation
April 15, 2021
Review By Alex Gagne
Decolonizing Discipline is a direct response to the sixth call of action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to repeal Section 43 of Canada’s criminal code, which allows corporal punishment “to correct what is evil in the child” (1). This collection of interdisciplinary narratives integrates “academic, theological, and experiential” (236) perspectives into a dialogue to deconstruct the historical and theological underpinnings of corporal punishment — a response to why laws steeped in colonialism, hatred, and violence continue to exist in Canada today. More than this, Decolonizing Discipline is a self-reflective project which calls for “Christian churches to participate in reconciliation by confronting the colonial theologies that continue to enable oppression, and by so doing, contribute to a society in which all children can flourish” (3).
Divided into four distinct parts, Decolonizing Discipline begins by outlining the psychological impact of corporal punishment. For example, Joan E. Durrant’s chapter provides meta-analyses of hundreds of sociological studies on the effects of corporal punishment to illustrate the long-lasting trauma that Canada allowed to be inflicted upon children. The first part of the collection also features chapters that include oral histories which explore the traumatic impact of residential schooling in Australia. The second part retains the ambitious interdisciplinary scope of the project and reconsiders the Church’s stance on corporal punishment. In particular, chapters written by William J. Webb and William S. Morrow offer alternative readings of the Bible and proverbs which reframe the biblical meaning of child rearing. They ask readers to move away from the literal meaning of proverbs and follow the “functional” (84) meaning within biblical texts. In simpler terms, the greater meaning of biblical stories containing corporal punishment was not the method, but the “meaning, namely, some form of discipline that helped the child embrace wisdom instead of folly” (84).
Part three of the collection is composed of chapters that focus on Indigenous child rearing and teaching. In this revealing section, contributors such as Shirley Tagalik illustrate the experiential nature of Indigenous child rearing practices referred to as Inunngnuiniq — a life-long process of relationship building, humility, and working collaboratively within a community. Tagalik states it best by clarifying that Inunngnuiniq is understood as “teaching to the heart rather than cramming the head” (139). The final part of the collection reflects on the process of organizing the “The Road to Reconciliation” (3) lecture, which ultimately led to this edited volume. For example, the chapter written by Clarence Hale and Valerie E. Michaelson recalls the process of compiling this project, speaks to the painful truths that were exposed, and contemplates the painful journey ahead to confront and change the nation.
While the altruistic nature of this project cannot be denied, some elements are lacking in this collection. Specifically, it would have benefitted from a deeper analysis of the history of Canadian residential schools — possibly drawn from the work of historians such as J.R. Miller, who has written extensively on the formation, administration, and childhood experience in these institutions. While there is a brief discussion of Sylvia Van Kirk’s seminal work, Many Tender Ties, there could have been deeper engagement with Canada’s dark history of residential schooling to complement the oral histories that focus on the Australian residential schooling experience. Nonetheless, Decolonizing Discipline transcends disciplinary boundaries and advocates for all Canadians — academics, theologians, and readers alike — to push toward improved standards of compassion and care for our children.
Michaelson, Valerie, and Joan Durrant, eds. Decolonizing Discipline: Children, Corporal Punishment, Christian Theologies, and Reconciliation. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2020. 280 pp. $31.95 paper.