‘ Polite folk don’t discuss politics or religion’

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Polite folk don’t discuss politics or religion’
Clive A. Lawton

The Shap Calendar of Festivals is from time to time the subject of lengthy discussion in the Working Party, often prompted by comments from subscribers, faith groups - and working party members. Discussion is likely to focus on the place of particular festivals and celebrations in the calendar. Clive Lawton's reflections here were prompted by such a debate, but more broadly they pose questions for RE in the present.

It never seemed controversial for the dozen or so years that I compiled and edited the Shap calendar of world religions’ festivals. I automatically included Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, as a Jewish festival. To be frank, I was always ready, even eager, to receive advice on what to include or exclude, but when it came to my own tradition, Judaism, I felt I was on pretty solid ground.

But a few years ago I stood down as editor and others nobly stepped in and, not surprisingly, they have their own perspectives.
Whether it's the increasing vociferousness with which some Muslims regularly vilify Israel, or a growing frustration with the intractability of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, or the regular depressing news of the second intifada for about four years - whatever the cause - what seemed obvious to me has become controversial to some and entirely wrong-headed to others. In an intellectual and emotional climate where the majority of EU citizens identified Israel as ‘the greatest threat to world peace’, and a further survey established that Israel was viewed as somewhere near the bottom of the league table for open government, democracy and the rule of law (China and North Korea, for example, were considered better!) and where Israel was voted most ugly holiday destination in the world, it is no surprise that any mention of Israel makes some people feel twitchy
I can protest that Yom Ha’atzma’ut leads to liturgical changes in my - and most other - synagogues, that prayers and ceremonies are the order of the day, as well as parties, concerts and celebrations. But others come back with the riposte that the day is essentially political and we don't list Pakistani Independence Day or Namibian Independence Day.
To me, such an argument is threadbare and unsustainable. No one attempts to suggest a theological significance to the founding of those countries, while several new Jewish prayer books, Orthodox and Progressive, include lines like ‘May the All-Merciful bless the state of Israel, the beginnings of the flowering of our redemption’, in the grace after meals.
Anyone who knows Jews will know that we're an argumentative lot - especially amongst ourselves - and personally, I think that that last line I quoted stakes a theological claim too far, but my opinion is hardly relevant to this point. Because Jews do squabble over the religious and theological significance of the founding of the state of Israel, we can easily accept that it is an event impacting on the religious life of the Jews. After all, if one were to exclude all the Jewish events with political or military, national or even jingoistic overtones, you’d probably have to drop Purim, Hanukkah and even Pesakh (Passover). And what's the religious significance of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians, then by the Romans?
Surely a simple Shap principle applies. What does the community in question say about itself? The fact that others may not like it is hardly relevant. No doubt some Muslims would rather that Sikhs didn't accentuate so heavily the execution of several of their gurus by Muslim rulers, and yet other Muslims might feel the inclusion of Baha’i festival dates to give Baha’is a status they don't deserve. Certainly, I could add a paragraph or so to the entry on Easter, describing what a catastrophic time it has regularly been for Jews through the ages. Some Theravada Buddhists are pretty contemptuous of Mahayana practices and festivals as a misrepresentation, even a perversion, of the tradition. I know that some Christians are deeply unhappy about the inclusion of some events which they excoriate as pagan.
But the job of the calendar is to reveal communities and traditions, not tidy them up to satisfy the sensibilities of non-adherents. Once you work out why a calendar does what it does - for example, that Muslims don't concede to agricultural seasons or that Christians have a Jewish and a Roman calendar overlaying each other - you understand something deep about the rhythms and instincts of that tradition.
How, though, does all of his impact on the teacher? If even the august ranks of the Shap working party members can’t work out what is right, how are all of those noble foot-soldiers on the RE and history and English and school assemblies frontlines supposed to hold the ring and avoid a war? Here's my suggestion.
Don't try to decide. Just try and speak the tradition as clearly and sympathetically as you can from within. It has always been my view that a successful world religions programme results in a group of people who originally would have said ‘How stupid’ or ‘How weird’ now saying ‘How interesting’. It is neither necessary nor even perhaps desirable that a student would be attracted towards this or that religion as a result of their studies. Indeed, I'm more than happy if they remain vehemently opposed to whatever they opposed before. But I'd want the originally impatient Christian student, when faced with Jehovah's Witnesses to be able to say, ‘Now I know where they get that idea. Now I understand why that matters to them.’ And I’d judge a teacher with many Muslims in the class before them, who fudges and ducks how Jews feel about Israel and why, to have failed both the subject and his or her pupils.
If I'm teaching Jews about Hinduism, I feel it incumbent upon me to address the common Jewish assumption that the Hindu traditions are pagan and idolatrous. It's not my task to persuade them one way or the other but to give them as rich an insight as I can as to how Hindus think and unpack the world and, indeed, why many of our Jewish terms just don't fit or work in that context. I would consider it a huge failing if my students continued to use only Jewish language about Hinduism. That's why the right visitor – articulate, thoughtful, well-informed - is worth a hundred lessons. You get to hear the tradition in its own language, with its own inflections and its own emphases. You don't have to like them and nor do your students, but it is particularly at the rubbing points where education must go on.
So I urge RE teaches to seek out those frames of friction and address them. Some of us are fond of selling the subject of RE not least on the basis that without a knowledge of religions, one can't understand one of the primary motivating features of the world and what is, therefore, not surprisingly, one of its key sources of conflict.
An RE course on Christianity that never helps students understand what's happening in Ireland, in Nigeria, in the United States, in Lebanon, in the Balkans and so on is leaving its students ignorant.
To address religion as it currently lives must also address the controversial places. What enables some Muslims to pervert their teachings to exalt suicide bombers? Why do some Sikhs seem to be at loggerheads with Hindus? Why are Jews so passionate about the State of Israel? How is it that the apparently peaceful and quiescent tradition of Buddhism produces suicide martyrs who have set themselves alight for a cause?
The old English adage that polite folk don't discuss politics or religion has given rise to a generation apathetic to both. Good education should enliven and engage, but not resolve. That is for each of us to do for ourselves once we've been helped to gain as honest a picture as we can get.

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