Wednesday, June 11, 2014

British Values at Stake

One of the big news stories here in the UK at the mo is the supposed attempt by Muslims to impose Muslim values in Birmingham schools. This is supposedly being achieved by stealth through a so-called Trojan Horse approach – a careful plan to “take over” schools.

The BBC has reported that Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, see http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/about-us) has bought out a report on 21 schools in which it is claimed that in five of these schools there has been an organised campaign to impose a “narrow, faith-based ideology,” i.e. extremist Islam. This has purportedly led to the removal of some programs (e.g. music), faith based changes to culture and ethos, gender discrimination, biased employment practices, and a narrowing of the curriculum. City Councils are criticized for failing to act. This of course has led to fierce rebuttals and debates (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-27762341). Michael Gove, the head of Ofsted has responded by speaking to Parliament stating that ‘he wants all schools to “actively promote British values” such as democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27763113). I have asked a few people at Westminster College what these values are, but they respond “we have no idea.” Here in lies a dilemma.

All this is going on while another piece of big news is going on; the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP (http://www.ukip.org/). They are one of other right wing parties gaining real traction in Europe. This party has risen rapidly and from being written off as a nutty or even Nazi right-wing fringe to being a real player and in some ways, dominating the European and local body elections. This party sees the UK as in a crisis with increasing debt, costs, unemployment, and declining education. For them, the real problem is immigration. They are appealing to an increasing number of people here who are worried about things like the things happening in British schools (above), the increase in immigration from eastern Europe with open European borders, and the seeming decline in “British values.” Their answer is to leave Europe which has open borders and strongly limit immigration, especially keeping out those who would bring values that disrupt the British way.

These situations illustrate a massive issue facing nations Britain, and indeed all western nations. How do people talk about immigration without raising the spectre of Hitler where race is a very sensitive issue? What are these “British Values”? Can they be defined? Why do people hold them? What is the philosophical foundation for them? How do people maintain them with an ongoing flood of immigrants with differing values entering our nations? How can you enforce a value? If so, how does one maintain them without violating the premises of individual liberty and without using force and violating the value of tolerance and appearing fundamentalist? What I see is people seeking to maintain tolerance and openness without resorting to a new left-wing social fundamentalism.

The thing that intrigues me is that these values to a large degree drawn from a religious tradition, Christianity? As such, some will say “the UK is a Christian country.” Others will quickly write that off. Or they will quickly qualify it. Some of these values can be argued to be universal, yes, and some drawn from Greek, Roman, other religions, and other cultures? Yet, most of the British and western values that are have been radically adapted over time by Christianity. For example, democracy, which is found in Greek thinking was a limited form, limited to the elite male Roman or Greek citizens. Now, we speak of a full democracy, based equally on Christian egalitarianism. So, how can we maintain Christian values without appealing to a religious tradition? That would seem to be favouring one which violates religious freedom and contradicts secularism.

And what about so-called tolerance? It is clearly valued greatly here. But almost any intolerance is not tolerated, except the intolerance of the intolerant. But what are the limits of tolerance? What about tolerance where people are intolerant of this or that? Is there space for intolerance in a society with British values? How does one express intolerance for a particular perspective, and how does one enforce it in schools?

I have a sneaking suspicion that all this presents the Christian church with a great opportunity here and elsewhere. I don’t think the answer is getting politically active in a direct sense and talking about Christian parties etc. That will reinforce the negative perceptions against religion. Rather, in local communities, churches can be points where we continue to promulgate with grace the values of the Kingdom. We can seek to model them in our communities. We can build schools full of grace and mercy in which they are encouraged. We can articulate thoughtfully and graciously into our societies the great Christian values of mercy and justice. We can serve in the many civic situations our societies present, school boards, local body politics, etc, and bring the values of our faith to bear – as salt and light. Finally, perhaps as these challenges grow and we struggle increasingly to blend cultures and worldviews, many will begin again seek out the one who lies behind it all, our Triune God. If when they encounter us they find us consistently reflecting Jesus, maybe the west can be transformed by the power of God. May it come to be.

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