Wednesday, April 22, 2015

CHAPTER 70: Presuming to Strike a Brother

     We decree that no one be permitted to excommunicate or to strike any one of his brethren, unless the abbot has given him the authority. But if anyone should break this rule, let him be publicly reprimanded, that the others may learn from his mistake.  
      Let all, however, exercise diligent and watchful care over the discipline of children until they reach the age of fifteen.  Of course, even that should be done with discretion. And if anyone should presume to discipline those of more advanced years without the command of the abbot, or loses his temper when he punishes the children, let him be subject to the discipline of the Rule, because it is written: "If you do not want it to be done to you, do not do it to someone else." (Tb 4:16)[1]. 

      You don’t have to hang out with people who annoy you, but when you consistently refuse to speak or eat with someone, isn’t that a form of excommunication?  When you make a point of avoiding them, when you sneer at their jokes and roll your eyes as they turn away, aren’t these just subtle ways of punishing them?  Chapters 69 and 70 are two sides of the same coin.  It doesn’t matter whether you are defending or attacking someone in the community; either way, you are judging them.  And Saint Benedict knows that behavior of this sort can take any number of different forms—from outright beatings to silent contempt.  In many respects, the silent attacks can be the worst.  Personally, I’d rather get jumped in the hallway than realize after several weeks that someone has been talking behind my back.
     Still, Benedict doesn’t completely disapprove of corporal punishment, and in this respect, he can start to sound kind of medieval.  But you have to take his comments in context.  In his day, folks used to beat kids all the time.  In fact, everyone used to beat everyone—and a thousand years later, they were still doing it. Stephen Greenblatt, in his biography of William Shakespeare, pointed out that in the 1500s, “parents frequently whipped children, teachers whipped students, masters whipped servants, beadles whipped whores, sheriffs whipped vagrants and beggars…” (Will in the World, p. 178).  Up until the 19th century it was legal to beat your wife with a stick, provided it was no wider than your thumb.[2] 
     My point is that in the old days, everyone believed in corporal punishment, and not just for kids either, so we can’t really hold it against Saint Benedict that he accepted it as the norm.  In fact, we can admire his restraint.  His aim here is to prevent his monks from acting out of anger, and anyone who does so receives a public reprimand.  What are we to learn from this?  That judging and condemning are practices best left to God.

[1] This is the third time Saint Benedict quotes this exact passage from the Book of Tobit!  What’s up with that?
[2] A series of lawsuits, most notably North Carolina v. Oliver (in 1874) put an end to this so-called “rule of thumb.”

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