Is there a place for Jesus in the school yard?

You might have seen the story in The Australian this morning about a state government crackdown on religion in state schools.

The Queensland Government has been reviewing the material that Religious Instruction teachers — including people from Creek Road — teach in our schools. The review (http://education.qld.gov.au/schools/school-operations/docs/report-access-ministries-materials.pdf) found that the material was appropriate for purpose, with the exception of activities that would lead to evangelism in the school yard; which seems to be an issue well beyond the scope of a review of the material taught in the space specifically made available for Christian teaching:

“The review did not find significant inconsistencies with the Department’s RI policy statement. A few activities relating to creation of artifacts and student-to-student evangelising were identified that may breach Queensland RI requirements. Instructors should take appropriate precautions if including these activities in RI lessons in Queensland state schools.”

And the review contains a section on evangelism that says:

“While not explicitly prohibited by the EGPA or EGPR, nor referenced in the RI policy statement, the Department would expect schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI were evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI class, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.”

The story in the Australian suggests the definition of evangelism described in the review extends to Christian kids handing out Christmas cards featuring Jesus. If this is true — and at this point the Education Department has not clarified this reasonably ambiguous statement — then this would be problematic for Christian parents and children.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is king of every bit of our lives…

We believe that there is no secular/sacred divide to what we believe; but that we participate in the world as his image bearers; his ambassadors; and there’s nothing to suggest that children who are Christians don’t do this too. This doesn’t mean coercing or manipulating their friends to follow Jesus, or adopting shady tactics that might cause harm. What it means is that we hope our kids will ‘always be prepared to give an account for the hope that they have’, and, when their education is working best, that our children will be able to make connections between what they’re learning in the classroom and truths about God.

That’s my hope, as a parent of three young kids, with our oldest starting prep in a state school this year. It’s my hope too as an RI teacher, that what I talk about in RI won’t be a totally separate reality to everything else kids learn at school, but integrated. Interestingly, the government’s own review of the material reports:

“The ACCESS ministries’ RI materials are biblically based. They are written to enable students to make connections between Christian teachings and life.”

How children are expected to not then integrate these lessons with life beyond the RI room is problematic; what appears to be happening is that where Christians don’t believe in a secular/sacred divide, our secular educators might. And what is really going on under the hood here is a contest about what the word secular really means; whether it is about not favouring an ‘official’ religion, or about operating in a particular sphere — the public — with ‘no religion’. It’s this second definition that seems to be defining appropriate activities in the play ground. The play ground should be a ‘secular’ space, it should be a ‘safe space’ — nobody disputes that, but precisely what that means for religious kids might need some work.

Here’s the letter I’m going to send to Education Minister Kate Jones (education@ministerial.qld.gov.au) today

You might like to send one expressing similar concerns (but in your own words).

To the Hon Kate Jones, Minister for Education, and Minister for Tourism, Major Events and the Commonwealth Games,

I read with concern the reports in The Australian this morning about Christian children talking about Jesus in the school yard. So I then read the Report on the Review of the ACCESS ministries’ Religious Instruction Materials. I’m an RI teacher in an inner-city primary school, and a parent of a child in prep.

As a parent, and RI teacher (teaching the approved materials), I teach that the good news about Jesus shapes everything we do as followers of Jesus; that this needs to be the case in order for us to have integrity as people — where our religious beliefs and our behaviour line up. As Christians we don’t believe there is any area of our life where Jesus is not king, God is not God, and the Gospel is not true. Any sense that a Christian kid should not acknowledge this in the playground is asking them to not live with integrity, and I believe that is harmful. Part of following Jesus as king is living by the words of the Bible, we’re we are told to ‘go and make disciples’; I’m the first to admit that there are ‘evangelistic’ strategies that can be damaging and manipulative, and even unsafe.

I am concerned about a particular paragraph in the review that encourages schools to ‘take appropriate action’ if students are evangelising. The word ‘evangelising’ comes from the Greek word we get ‘Gospel’ from; the Gospel is the belief that Jesus is king. Evangelising is speaking as though that is true. It’s an inevitable outcome of being a Christian. So I’m concerned about what ‘appropriate action’ is? I’m concerned that behind that paragraph is a particular view of what ‘secular’ means; that it is not making our shared spaces places where there is no official religion at the exclusion of others, which would be unsafe, but that it is excluding religious content from shared spaces. I hope that in a secular, pluralistic, democracy I’m both raising my children and encouraging kids in RI, to listen to other voices, to respect other people and their right to be free to participate in religion and religious communities as they choose. I do not think excluding religion from shared space — like the playground — will have the effect of making that place safe; it will make it dangerous for religious children who will have to unravel the teaching of their parents and communities to walk a line that at the moment appears arbitrary. I don’t think it will have good educational or social outcomes either; it will enforce a damaging definition of secularism that will produce sectarianism as religious children and adults find ‘safe spaces’ in their own communities, and it will prevent our children coming to common understandings of each other across community divides.

Could your department urgently clarify this situation to provide clarity for Christian parents and children in our school communities?

Regards,

Nathan Campbell

Update

Since publishing this article, The Department has issued a statement clarifying their stance on Religious Instruction in schools. You can read the statement on the QLD Government Statements page

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