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Thought For The Week - 23-01-23

I have been thinking a lot about identity, labels and worldviews recently. I am leading a team of teachers from around the country who are trialling a new way of teaching RE in the classroom as part of a research project called the Worldviews Project.

What we are seeking to achieve is a type of RE that better prepares children and young people for the reality and complexity of ways of believing, living and thinking in our world. We want them to learn about those history-influencing religions, such as Christianity, that have been so important in shaping our way of seeing the world. We also want them to understand that not everyone affiliates with a religious or non-religious worldview, such as Islam or Humanism, but that everyone has a worldview that is influenced by the context they are in. As well as this, we want to help pupils grapple with the idea that one person’s experience of being Jewish or Hindu or Jain may look very different from someone else within the same community.

It seems as though one thing we humans are very good at doing is pigeon-holing people into particular identities. I have been reading press and social media coverage of the ongoing strikes – nurses, train drivers, civil servants, teachers – and have noticed how frequently those striking are described as though they were a homogenous group, often using derogatory language. I know how frustrating it can be when you are treated as though you are simply ‘one of them’ without the recognition that you are an infinitely complex human being who has unique experiences and context. Revd Jarel Robinson-Brown, author of Black Gay British Christian Queer, calls this a “famine of grace”; a failure to recognise that each life matters in its uniqueness and value to God. Professor Pamela Lightsey, writing in the foreword to this book, reminds her readers that for Christians, “[t]he Incarnation, God made flesh among us through the birth of Jesus Christ, is the loving work of God in order to offer an unlimited and undeserved love for humanity.” This, she says, is the true meaning of grace.

As I read this, I am sharply aware – largely due to my current work on the Worldviews Project – that this is an interpretation of Christian scripture and faith that is rooted in a particular context, a particular experience of being Christian. Jarel Robinson-Brown’s identity as a Christian, Pamela Lightsey’s identity as a Christian, may not look identical to someone else’s identity as a Christian, even where they may share common connective tissue, such as a belief in the Incarnation and an infinitely loving God.  

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who delivered the 2016 Reith Lectures for the BBC, talks about this in his book, The Lies that Bind. In his view, identities come with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should apply; secondly, they shape your thoughts about how you should behave; thirdly, labels affect the way other people treat you; finally, all dimensions of identity are contestable and up for dispute. You may have been born in the Chinese year of the Rabbit, but it doesn’t follow that you have to be confident, strong and determined to reach your goals like every other person born in the Chinese year of the Rabbit…!

As we reach the halfway point of the half term, I wonder what burden of responsibility you feel to honour the unique identities of all those in your care? I wonder how you find opportunities to see the world from other views than your own and how you help those working alongside you to do the same? More than anything, I wonder what grace looks like to you. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, he does nothing without the grace of God (2 Corinthians 12.9). Whatever our labels, we can never make things better for those in our care without doing it together. And don’t ever forget that we’re always here to listen, to help and to be alongside you in all that you do.

from Gillian Georgiou, RE & SIAMS Advisor

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