Guest Blog: Kindness, Love and Tolerance

From the Headmaster's Desk, June 23, 2017

From Deputy Head Dr Kevin Magill’s spiritual assembly on Thursday, 22nd June

In the reading that we’ve just heard from James, the advice given to Christians is to be a doer and not merely a hearer of religious teaching – actions speak louder than words!

In the hymn, too, what is good is defined by being present. The hymn asks not what we think or feel about someone’s needs, but rather where we were. No reference is made to religious rituals, rules or regulations. Instead, beingreligious is defined by doing what is right in the service of others, even when it may force us out of our comfortable routines.

Educating others to understand religion in this way has, in my opinion, never been more important. I don’t say this simply because I’m a Religious Studies teacher. The lessons to learn from religion aren’t learnt in the classroom exclusively. They are learnt in the lives we live, the people we meet, and the people who really need our help – despite our feelings on the matter.

In a strange turn of events, the evolutionary biologist and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins warned that it is virtually impossible for British children to understand their history and culture without Religious Education. Indeed, he went on to say that Religious Education is now crucial for all children in the United Kingdom.

This is quite a staggering turnaround for a man who four years ago described religion as “a betrayal of the intellect, a betrayal of all that’s best about what makes us human”. When Dawkins was asked why religious education is so important, he said, “I think that it is an important part of our culture to know about the Bible, after all, so much of English literature and Shakespeare in particular has allusions to the Bible”.

With that in mind, I thought we’d have a little quiz. We’re going to play Bard or Bible – hands up:

Bard or Bible Quiz?

“wild-goose chase” – Bard

“by the skin of your teeth” – Bible (Book of Job)

“wear your heart on your sleeve” – Bard

“in the twinkling of an eye” – Bible (1 Corinthians 15:52)

There are, however, several problems with Dawkins’ position. Besides the fact that he seems to think that British culture is exclusively Christian or at least biblical, he misses the point that religion isn’t just a tool for gathering interesting bits of information. Religion is grittier that that! It needs to face up to far more urgent, living concerns than the type of knowledge that might come in handy in a pub quiz.

For example, Mohammed Mahmoud saved the driver of the van that had ploughed into worshippers outside the Finsbury Park mosque just after midnight on Monday. Amid the confusion, distress and anger, a crowd gathered after the incident. Fists and feet struck out and suddenly a voice shouted: “No one touch him. No one!” The voice was that of Mohammed Mahmoud, the mosque’s imam. He urged the crowd to be calm and restrained until the police arrived. Speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, Mahmoud said he had not been the only one urging restraint. He said, “It wasn’t me alone. We were calm and collected and managed to calm people down and to extinguish any flames of anger or mob rule that would have taken charge, had this group of mature brothers not stepped in.”

There are strong overtones here of Jesus’ actions when defending a woman accused of adultery. In this biblical example of impending violence, Jesus says “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” In other words, if you’re morally perfect, then throw the stone. It’s a very effective way of pointing out the hypocrisy of the accusers – they are not people without faults and their anger (one of their faults) is not best served with violence. In one of my favourite religious quotes, the Buddha said that anger or hatred is “like taking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Anger, hatred and intolerance are self-destructive first and what’s required to cure the poison, as in the case of Mohammed Mahmoud, are examples of great moral courage – doers who act and not hearers who forget.

In one of my favourite religious quotes, the Buddha said that anger or hatred is “like taking poison and expecting the other person to die”

Indeed, whether from religious motivation or not, this week there have been numerous examples of a range of people – of all classes, races, religions – offering to help those affected by the Grenfell Towers fire: QCs offering free legal advice, Lily Allen opening the doors to her home, taxi drivers offering free lifts and the list goes on and on. These are all very welcome acts of kindness at a time of great distress and grief. However, the challenge of religious thinking is to sustain this effort in the day-to-day busy-ness of our lives. Often it’s the little things that really matter and yet pass us by. The army has a phrase which is: ‘the standards that you walk past are the standards that you accept’. So, if we walk past litter on the floor or casually ignore a comment that upsets someone, on some level we’re saying that it’s acceptable. The strange thing is that, deep down, we know that it’s not acceptable, but sometimes it is difficult to act in a way that is consistent with what we truly believe. And often we find ourselves wishing we’d acted sooner or done things differently.

Kindness, love and tolerance are not soft options – they are huge challenges that require courage and humility. I think that these are the challenges, now more than ever, that will define us as individuals and the communities that we live in. We all have an important part to play – the crucial question is whether you are ready to play it.

Let us pray: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen

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