A new way forward for Christianity in schools
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