A better response to Safe Schools?

OPINION  |  Nathan Campbell and Rob Buckingham

Tuesday 8 March 2016

So what’s a good response to the Safe Schools Coalition controversy? Eternity has been looking for some Christians who respond to the public rather than talking amongst ourselves. Here’s two of the better responses we’ve found.

What I’d say to the public about Safe Schools, by Nathan Campbell

Rule two in public relations is understand your key message — your contribution to the public — and stick to it. Rule three is understand your audience; this requires listening to your ‘public’ before speaking, and specifically the ‘public’ who are listening because they have a vested interest in the conversation; in this case, the LGBTIQA community and their advocates. Rule four is understand how to communicate your message to your ‘public’ — our neighbours — on this basis. 

Christians worship Jesus. This changes how we see the world, including how we see our neighbours. This change only comes through seeing Jesus as God’s word made flesh, and having our hearts and minds transformed by the gift of his Spirit. Our messages to our neighbours, as Christians, must always flow from this position, and our knowledge that we see the world through fresh Spirit-led eyes. The gospel isn’t just our key message, it’s also the power of God to save — to transform lives, and, specifically, to call people from worshipping wrong things. 

When we speak to our neighbours, our public, we aren’t speaking to a neutral audience, but to worshippers of different gods.

As “secular” novelist David Foster Wallace said “there is no such thing as atheism… everybody worships something”. As Christians our understanding of our neighbours who don’t follow the living God who made the universe is that they have replaced worshipping the living God, with things he has created. There is no “secular”, there is just the worship of spiritual “transcendent” things, like God, or “material” created things, like sex. This means even “secular” education involves indoctrination. Education provides instruction for our children in how to worship the gods of the culture in much the same way as Sunday Schools provide a counter-narrative, an indoctrination in how to worship Jesus. When we speak to our neighbours, our public, we aren’t speaking to a neutral audience, but to worshippers of different gods.

The very real reality for the LGBTIQA “public” is that bullying happens, and it causes horrible fruits in that community. It happens when the followers of competing counterfeit gods — sex, or “judeo-Christian morality” go head-to-head. Sometimes it happens when Christians go head-to-head with this community on our own steam, without the gospel informing our response. 

You may be wondering what happened to rule one for public relations. Rule one is “make your position plausible through your own life” — be consistent. Preach what you practice. The most fundamental public relations mistake happens when people speak without credibility. I worry we have little credibility in this area because we are not known for our love for the LGBTIQA community. I worry this means any speech to the “public” will not be well heard because we have not always loved this public well.

So, now that those four rules have been grappled with, here’s my statement.

I worry this means any speech to the “public” will not be well heard because we have not always loved this public well.

As Christians, we worship Jesus. This means we draw our identity, self worth, and approach to love and sexuality from him. His pattern of love is to lay down his life to end oppression, and to restore relationships. He offers that love freely to all by his death and resurrection. As people who want to extend this love to others, we despair at the way children from outside the majority ‘norm’, whatever their community, are bullied in our society, and at the poisonous fruits that come from our failure, and the failure of others, to love these kids. We recognise the fruits of bullying comes in the form of mental health issues, self harm, and suicide rates within marginalised communities, and in this case, especially in the LGBTIQA community.

We know other people in our community do not worship Jesus, and they seek an identity elsewhere. We know competing visions of what’s important for a healthy identity or a person’s well-being sometimes result in conflict and bullying, but believe these competing visions also enrich our community life as we seek to honour Jesus, and love our neighbours, as we love ourselves, despite difference.

There is some concern within the Christian community that the Safe Schools material is an indicator that our society, generally, is a society that worships sex and sexuality. That it looks to sexuality and gender identity as a fundamental basis for identity, self worth, and an understanding of love. While we believe sexuality and gender are great aspects of our humanity, made by God, we are concerned that an identity built on a foundation of this view of humanity alone might lead to harmful, unforeseen, circumstances. Just as there would rightly be concern if Christians were dictating the curriculum when it comes to educating our kids, we are concerned that worshippers of other gods, ideas, or ideologies, should not be exerting undue influence in the public schooling sector, but look forward to working with the LGBTIQA community to make our society a safer place for our young people as they establish their identities.

Nathan Campbell is a Queensland Presbyterian minister and St Eutychus blogger.

Rob Buckingham asks, “What’s all the Fuss about Safe Schools?”

Over the past week the Safe Schools program (SCAA) has featured in the news with some in the Federal Coalition calling for a review. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the independent review last Tuesday and it will be completed by mid-March. Safe Schools is a school education program aimed at promoting acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & Intersex (LGBTI) students. The teaching manual was set up by Labor but launched by the Coalition in 2014.

The main concern appears to be the age-appropriateness of what is being taught to 11 year-olds. Other concerns include some of the links from the program to websites that promote concerning material. For example, The Minus 18 website (Australia’s largest youth-led network for gay, bi, lesbian and trans teens) has an article instructing kids on how to “Cover their tracks” on the Internet.

…there seems to be plenty of unhelpful mudslinging from both “sides” of the debate

Another link leads to an article on how to make your own sex toys, finding women to teach cross-dressing skills, healthier and safer ways to bind your chest, an online sex shop and so on.

Seeing that $8 million of federal money is being used to support this program the government has every right to call a review – and any tax payer has a right to express their opinion on this. While some are calling for all funding to be withdrawn and the program to be axed, the review could lead to some healthy modifications to SCAA so that it is fairer and more age-appropriate.

In the meantime there seems to be plenty of unhelpful mudslinging from both “sides” of the debate. For example, Katherine Hudson on the New Matilda site writes, The prejudiced views of Senator Cory Bernardi and his rightist droogs are shared by many dictators, despots and despicable leaders, including Putin, Kim Jong-un, Mugabe, and ISIS terrorists. Those who’ve come out against the Safe Schools Program aren’t reasonable conservatives, they’re homophobic reactionaries, who want a return to ‘the days of the old school yard’ where LGBTIQ students lived in fear and silence.” This sort of rant is singularly unhelpful. Just because someone asks questions doesn’t make them a homophobic reactionary. I’m asking questions but I’m neither reactionary nor homophobic – in fact I’m just the opposite and have received my fair share of criticism over the years for speaking graciously towards LGBTI people and suggesting the Christian Gospel includes ALL people!

The hateful emails that some politicians have received about the Safe Schools program are also unhelpful – even more so when they are sent by people professing the Christian faith. Surely genuine Christian behaviour should include things like love, kindness, gentleness and self-control. It saddens me greatly when Christians fail to present their Christianity Christianly!

While it’s more than appropriate to educate teenagers about the diversity of human sexuality, it’s also vital that we educate them about diversity in other areas too – such as culture, race, and religion.

So, where to from here? Of course we’ll have to wait for the review. Personally I hope the SCAA program isn’t shut down but I do hope it’s modified. Having a school program that is aimed at increasing our understanding of one another and decreasing bullying is a worthy goal, but I believe the current Safe Schools program is too narrow. While it’s more than appropriate to educate teenagers about the diversity of human sexuality, it’s also vital that we educate them about diversity in other areas too – such as culture, race, and religion. For example, classmates often pick on our youngest daughter because of her Christian faith (and she attends a Christian based school).

Bullying takes place for any number of reasons and it would be helpful for all teenagers to have age-appropriate teaching that seeks to help them deal with it in healthy ways. Over the past few days I’ve had a number of conversations with teenagers and all of them have told me the number one cause of bullying in schools has to do with body image (being too fat, too thin, having red hair etc.). It was the same when I was in high school in the 70s. We had a gay guy in our class and he was really cool. No one ever picked on Graham. But lots of people picked on the overweight Italian guy. In making this statement I do not want to underestimate what LGBTI teens face at school. I’m sure many of them experience bullying and that certainly needs to be addressed through education.

Secondly, on highly personal and potentially divisive topics such as human sexuality it’s vital that parents be involved. With the current model, there’s some material in the Safe Schools program that encourages students to go behind their parents’ backs. It also deals with topics that may go against parents’ beliefs and values. Parents currently have no choice whether their children attend the Safe Schools program if their school is a member school of SSCA. There’s no way to “opt out.” I believe this needs to change as well, much like it has for Christian Religious Instruction.

Thirdly, if you’re a concerned parent then I encourage you to speak to your children’s school and ask good questions. Also speak with your children, ask them what they’re learning at school and allow good discussion to occur. Christie and I have wonderful conversations with our girls on a whole range of subjects. We’ve talked about how important it is to be kind and respectful to all people including LGBTI people. Obviously these discussions are age-appropriate – we speak in much more detail with our 17 year old than we do with our 14 year old. Our seven year old is too young for in-depth discussion on human sexuality. We’re trying to allow her to maintain the innocence that a seven year old should be able to enjoy. Parents should be allowed to choose when, where and how they talk to their children about LGBTI issues.

Teenagers (and all people) need to understand the difference between acceptance and agreement. Just because we accept someone, and choose to be kind and gracious towards him or her, doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything they do, say or believe.

On the issue of sexuality there are people who, because of religious or cultural reasons or just personal opinion, consider any sexual behaviour other than that between a man and woman in the covenant of marriage to be wrong. Others disagree. We all need to learn respect for other people’s opinions even if they are different to our own and, while we’re at it, let’s stop the name calling towards those with which we disagree!

Rob Buckingham is Pastor of Bayside Church in Melbourne. He blogs here.

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