A new way for­ward for Chris­tian­ity in schools

CityPress - - Voices - Martin Prozesky voices@city­press.co.za

The re­cent Johannesburg High Court rul­ing against com­pul­sory re­li­gious prac­tices in pub­lic schools means that all such prac­tices must now stop. Many Chris­tians will be dis­tressed by the rul­ing, but it opens the way to a deeper, richer, more Christian way for­ward. It pro­vides a way for peo­ple to obey the laws of God and the laws of hu­mans, and of­fers ideas about what to do at events such as school assem­blies.

The core of Chris­tian­ity is com­mit­ment to the God of per­fect good­ness and love, as re­vealed, ac­cord­ing to Chris­tian­ity, by Christ and in scrip­ture. This means that to be a true fol­lower of Christ and a true wor­ship­per of God, Chris­tians must strive for what is ethically best in all their ac­tiv­i­ties, be­cause ethics is all about do­ing what is good and true. They must there­fore also re­lin­quish any­thing that falls short of the high­est eth­i­cal stan­dards.

Say­ing Christian prayers, read­ing the Bible and singing hymns at com­pul­sory school events in the hall or the class­room fall short of that eth­i­cal stan­dard. Th­ese ac­tions fall short be­cause it is not as just, car­ing and truly bi­b­li­cal as it should be for any true Christian. It is un­just be­cause it treats pupils from other faiths or be­lief sys­tems, in­clud­ing those who fol­low no re­li­gion, as second class cit­i­zens. It is un­car­ing, and thus unlov­ing, be­cause it is con­tent to treat them that way, deny­ing them what it gives it­self.

There­fore, it also de­parts from the golden rule recorded in the Gospels in Luke 6:31: “Do to oth­ers as you would have them do to you.”

Two ar­gu­ments are of­ten used in sup­port of such re­li­gious prac­tices at school. Both are not only il­le­gal, but un­eth­i­cal and unchris­tian. The first is that, since Chris­tians of­ten form the ma­jor­ity in most pub­lic schools, they are en­ti­tled to prac­tise their faith at school even to the ex­clu­sion of other pupils. This is wrong be­cause it de­nies the moral and Christian duty to act justly to­wards all. It is also un­fair be­cause it un­justly marks out those who are a mi­nor­ity and re­in­forces them as such.

Worse still, this ar­gu­ment about sup­posed ma­jor­ity rights fails to see that mi­nori­ties are vul­ner­a­ble pre­cisely be­cause they are small in num­ber.

Any­body who is re­ally filled with the love of Christ and who re­ally thinks about this will want to be es­pe­cially car­ing about the vul­ner­a­ble – chil­dren most of all.

The second ar­gu­ment ap­peals to freedom of re­li­gion as en­shrined in our Con­sti­tu­tion. This fails both ethically and on Christian grounds be­cause freedom is not an ab­so­lute good – it is only good when it harms no­body. As the say­ing goes, no­body is free to shout “fire!” in a crowded hall.

Christian freedom is freedom to serve God in the most eth­i­cal, lov­ing and truth­ful way. Dis­crim­i­nat­ing un­fairly against pupils of other faiths can never be a way of do­ing that.

There is a truly Christian and richly eth­i­cal way for­ward here for schools that must now stop do­ing un­in­tended harm to their pupils of other be­liefs and also to their own faith. It is founded on what ev­ery Christian knows is ba­sic: the per­fect good­ness and love of God, and the duty to live ac­cord­ingly. So you start school assem­blies or classes with an act of eth­i­cal ded­i­ca­tion that echoes the val­ues of all our cul­tures – not a prayer, hymn or Bible read­ing from just one faith – fol­lowed, per­haps, by a mo­ment of si­lence in which ev­ery­body can silently think about what­ever is in their hearts re­gard­ing what they believe in.

Most schools have a code of ethics that can be cre­atively worked into a dec­la­ra­tion of com­mit­ment to do­ing what is right and good. If they don’t, here is an ex­am­ple that can be mod­i­fied as needed, es­pe­cially for younger pupils. It is based on the moral val­ues shared by all our faiths, philoso­phies and cul­tures. Cer­tainly, it is faith­ful to the great African prin­ci­ple of ubuntu and to the mes­sage of in­clu­sive love that per­me­ates the Bible:

“To­gether, we the pupils and staff of [name of school], pledge that we will be ac­tively con­cerned for the well-be­ing of all whom we en­counter; re­sist the pull of self­ish­ness; care es­pe­cially for the weak, the poor, the vul­ner­a­ble and the in­no­cent. We pledge also to live hon­estly, re­spect­fully, justly and with in­tegrity; to seek al­ways to un­der­stand, and to use freedom kindly and harm­lessly; to pro­tect the earth and all liv­ing things; to add beauty to the world and live as friends.”

The rul­ing by the high court is not a set­back for Chris­tians – it is an op­por­tu­nity to grow in grace, draw­ing ever closer to the ever­last­ing good­ness and love of the one they wor­ship and serve.

Prozesky is a for­mer pro­fes­sor of ethics and re­li­gion, now ac­tive as an ethics trainer and writer with a spe­cial in­ter­est in the fu­ture of Chris­tian­ity. His next book, a novel called

War­ring Souls, is due for re­lease later this year

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