by Robert O. Wyatt
For years I’ve been making what I considered a self-deprecating joke about finishing my graduate degrees at a young age. I say I surely am glad that I finished my master’s and doctorate when I was young and naive and thought the punishment of constant studying, competition, and academic politics all built character. Of course, there are little white lies in this quip: Far from regarding my graduate career as punishment, I loved almost every moment of it.
And, I do not believe that punishment builds character.
Or, more precisely, I do not believe that punishment always builds character. As often as not, punishment destroys us. And so, what to do with Paul’s famous dictum that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5)? What of that?
For centuries, St. Paul’s words have been used by the powerful as justification for punishing the weak, the other, minorities, slaves, servants, children, women in general, and female partners and wives in particular. Stories abound of abused spouses who are counseled by their pastors to bear their suffering quietly, to submit to their husbands in all things as the church is supposed to submit to Christ. These women are encouraged to bear their suffering willingly and to counsel their children likewise. And if they complain that their pain is destroying their lives and making them bitter and leading them to despair and prompting them to suicide, they have been told by some clergy—not by me—that suffering builds character, or, worse, that their suffering here on earth will lead to greater rewards in heaven. They are urged to be Christ-like and bear their cross willingly. And if they can’t, they may be told that they lack faith.
This is bunk and an abuse of the gospel and a horror that should not be perpetuated on anyone. Wives or partners should report the abusive spouse to the authorities and flee to safe space to protect themselves and others. And that abusive spouse—often but not always a male—should be arrested and charged.
The Rev. Robert O. Wyatt is associate priest for outreach and adult formation at Grace Episcopal Church, Hinsdale, Ill.
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