Example #15 Respecting Difference

What if religious education helped students to respond respectfully to difference?

Heather taught in a rural, mono-cultural school. She found teaching the Islamic prayer section of the syllabus difficult.

"I found explaining the various prayer positions was pretty easy but felt the lesson fell apart because the students giggled at pictures of Islamic prayer. I got very frustrated with my students’ attitude and even more frustrated with myself because my strategy of lecturing the pupils about their childish reaction wasn’t achieving anything.
 
"I decided to change my strategy. I started with how we humans use body language to communicate. I gave some clear signals through my own body language as part of this! The introduction gave opportunity for fun exercises in communicating ideas non-verbally. I then introduced a picture of Muslims prostrating themselves at prayer and I asked what this prayerful body language was saying. I still got some giggle reactions, but instead of squashing them I asked why it made them giggle; this way of praying obviously felt alien to most of the class so we talked about it. The responses were honest and reflected that they were challenged by the subject. I let the students talk forthrightly but insisted that it remain respectful.
 
"We talked about what it would be like to prostrate in front of someone else and then I introduced the idea of submission. We discussed this and I pointed out that submission wasn’t something that figured much in a Western, secular way of life. To end I gave them a reflective exercise where they had to work on a response to the question, 'What are the good things about submission and when isn’t it a good thing?'"

What’s going on here?

Heather wanted her students to see that difference was not always easy to understand; it can challenge and disturb us but we can learn from it if we are willing to approach it with humility and hospitality.
 
She engaged students in reflective discussion on the difficulties of difference, and she helped students to focus on the topic more constructively through the way she set up the lesson.
 
She considered the atmosphere she wanted to create (freedom to be honest, while insisting on respect), reshaping her practice through deliberate body language, honest questions, and a moment of reflection (final exercise).
 
How do I do this myself? (Primary) How do I do this myself? (Secondary)

What does this have to do with faith, hope and love?

Understanding submission in one faith can stimulate students to think about related ideas in another. Within the Christian faith Christ is recognised as Lord and his followers seek to obey him. The sort of trust involved is an act of faith but is generally based on the experience of a loving God. The biblical principle of speaking truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) was important in Heather's situation as students were honestly sharing their difficulties but Heather wanted to keep the discussion respectful. Students were being asked to show respect to others by approaching differences in an honest but hospitable manner.

What difference does it make?

Many teachers feel that pupils should be taught that differences in beliefs really don’t matter and when it comes to the important things, people basically agree. “After all, the world’s religions basically teach the same things.” This attitude and an emphasis on diversity in our culture means that students often hear the implicit message that encountering difference should not be a challenging experience. Polite acceptance is understood to be how you are expected to respond. In this example the teacher has reframed the way difference is perceived, so that it is seen as a challenge where the expectation is that the process will be disturbing but enlightening, and that one will need to draw upon virtues of love and respect when differences are significant.

Where could we go from here?

An excellent follow up to this work would be to visit a religious community of another faith and to get pupils to take note of things they find strange and things that they felt were familiar. A similar approach could be taken to learning about other cultures rather than religions. If implemented consistently, this reframed approach to diversity will hopefully reduce the giggle effect, because difference will no longer be the embarrassment it was. The practices of the classroom will become those that encourage open discussion of difference rather than those that suppress people’s reactions to it by simply insisting on polite description of other people’s beliefs and practices.

Digging deeper

One aspect of faith is putting our trust in a particular way of thinking or ‘worldview’ which shapes the way we see things. When we encounter people who hold a different worldview, we can find that they see things very differently from us. We may find this strange or even offensive. We might well feel that they are wrong. The fact is that people’s beliefs do clash. The clash of beliefs is part of life and we shouldn’t feel ashamed of facing it. This approach challenges a romantic view which says we should never feel the sharp edge of difference and replaces it with a notion that emphasises the importance of seeking to understand the faith of another even though we may find that faith very hard to comprehend and challenging to our own beliefs.
 
Heather taught this lesson in line with the Bible's emphasis on speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) which calls for people to be honest but gentle. Christians are urged to give reasons for their faith but to do this gently not aggressively (1 Peter 3:15). The biblical call to be hospitable towards strangers (Leviticus 19:33-34; Hebrews 13:2) need not mean that we agree with everyone, but it does mean that we treat them with care and respect.
 
In terms of valuing prayer and submission, Christians may have more in common with Muslims than with those who do not profess faith. However, Christians put their trust in Jesus in a very different way from Muslims who recognise Jesus as a prophet not God. Honouring both truth and love means being honest about both of these factors.

Explore similar examples:

What if students could learn respect through art?
What if a language class were about hospitality to strangers?
What if history were about different types of riches and poverty?
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1As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own. 2Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. 3Try your best to let God's Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace. 4All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God's people. 5We have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. 6There is one God who is the Father of all people. Not only is God above all others, but he works by using all of us, and he lives in all of us. 7Christ has generously divided out his gifts to us. 8As the Scriptures say, When he went up to the highest place, he led away many prisoners and gave gifts to people. 9When it says, he went up, it means that Christ had been deep in the earth. 10This also means that the one who went deep into the earth is the same one who went into the highest heaven, so that he would fill the whole universe. 11Christ chose some of us to be apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers, 12so that his people would learn to serve and his body would grow strong. 13This will continue until we are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him. 14We must stop acting like children. We must not let deceitful people trick us by their false teachings, which are like winds that toss us around from place to place. 15Love should always make us tell the truth. Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head 16of the body. Christ holds it together and makes all its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love. The old life and the new life 17As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people. 18Their minds are in the dark, and they are stubborn and ignorant and have missed out on the life that comes from God. They no longer have any feelings about what is right, 19and they are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things. 20But that isn't what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learnt about him. 22You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. 23Let the Spirit change your way of thinking 24and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy. Rules for the new life 25We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. 26Don't get so angry that you sin. Don't go to bed angry 27and don't give the devil a chance. 28If you are a thief, stop stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need. 29Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say. 30Don't make God's Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that some day you will be free from your sins. 31Stop being bitter and angry with others. Don't yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. 32Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.
1As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own. 2Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. 3Try your best to let God's Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace. 4All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God's people. 5We have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. 6There is one God who is the Father of all people. Not only is God above all others, but he works by using all of us, and he lives in all of us. 7Christ has generously divided out his gifts to us. 8As the Scriptures say, When he went up to the highest place, he led away many prisoners and gave gifts to people. 9When it says, he went up, it means that Christ had been deep in the earth. 10This also means that the one who went deep into the earth is the same one who went into the highest heaven, so that he would fill the whole universe. 11Christ chose some of us to be apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers, 12so that his people would learn to serve and his body would grow strong. 13This will continue until we are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him. 14We must stop acting like children. We must not let deceitful people trick us by their false teachings, which are like winds that toss us around from place to place. 15Love should always make us tell the truth. Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head 16of the body. Christ holds it together and makes all its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love. The old life and the new life 17As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people. 18Their minds are in the dark, and they are stubborn and ignorant and have missed out on the life that comes from God. They no longer have any feelings about what is right, 19and they are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things. 20But that isn't what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learnt about him. 22You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. 23Let the Spirit change your way of thinking 24and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy. Rules for the new life 25We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. 26Don't get so angry that you sin. Don't go to bed angry 27and don't give the devil a chance. 28If you are a thief, stop stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need. 29Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say. 30Don't make God's Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that some day you will be free from your sins. 31Stop being bitter and angry with others. Don't yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. 32Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.
1If you are a wife, you must put your husband first. Even if he opposes our message, you will win him over by what you do. No one else will have to say anything to him, 2because he will see how you honour God and live a pure life. 3Don't depend on things like fancy hair styles or gold jewellery or expensive clothes to make you look beautiful. 4Be beautiful in your heart by being gentle and quiet. This kind of beauty will last, and God considers it very special. 5Long ago those women who worshipped God and put their hope in him made themselves beautiful by putting their husbands first. 6For example, Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her true children, if you do right and don't let anything frighten you. 7If you are a husband, you should be thoughtful of your wife. Treat her with honour, because she isn't as strong as you are, and she shares with you in the gift of life. Then nothing will stand in the way of your prayers. Suffering for doing right 8Finally, all of you should agree and have concern and love for each other. You should also be kind and humble. 9Don't be hateful and insult people just because they are hateful and insult you. Instead, treat everyone with kindness. You are God's chosen ones, and he will bless you. The Scriptures say, 10Do you really love life? Do you want to be happy? Then stop saying cruel things and stop telling lies. 11Give up your evil ways and do right, as you find and follow the road that leads to peace. 12The Lord watches over everyone who obeys him, and he listens to their prayers. But he opposes everyone who does evil. 13Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds? 14Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you. So stop being afraid and don't worry about what people might do. 15Honour Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 16Give a kind and respectful answer and keep your conscience clear. This way you will make people ashamed for saying bad things about your good conduct as a follower of Christ. 17You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong. 18Christ died once for our sins. An innocent person died for those who are guilty. Christ did this to bring you to God, when his body was put to death and his spirit was made alive. 19Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison. 20They had disobeyed God while Noah was building the boat, but God had been patient with them. Eight people went into that boat and were brought safely through the flood. 21Those flood waters were like baptism that now saves you. But baptism is more than just washing your body. It means turning to God with a clear conscience, because Jesus Christ was raised from death. 22Christ is now in heaven, where he sits at the right side of God. All angels, authorities, and powers are under his control. Being faithful to God
1The Lord told Moses 2to say to the community of Israel: I am the Lord your God. I am holy, and you must be holy too! 3Respect your father and your mother, honour the Sabbath, and don't make idols or images. I am the Lord your God. 5When you offer a sacrifice to ask my blessing, be sure to follow my instructions. 6You may eat the meat either on the day of the sacrifice or on the next day, but you must burn anything left until the third day. 7If you eat any of it on the third day, the sacrifice will be disgusting to me, and I will reject it. 8In fact, you will be punished for not respecting what I say is holy, and you will no longer belong to the community of Israel. 9When you harvest your grain, always leave some of it standing along the edges of your fields and don't pick up what falls on the ground. 10Don't strip your grapevines clean or gather the grapes that fall off the vines. Leave them for the poor and for those foreigners who live among you. I am the Lord your God. 11Do not steal or tell lies or cheat others. 12Do not misuse my name by making promises you don't intend to keep. I am the Lord your God. 13Do not steal anything or cheat anyone, and don't fail to pay your workers at the end of each day. 14I am the Lord your God, and I command you not to make fun of the deaf or to cause a blind person to stumble. 15Be fair, no matter who is on trialdon't favour either the poor or the rich. 16Don't be a gossip, but never hesitate to speak up in court, especially if your testimony can save someone's life. 17Don't hold grudges. On the other hand, it's wrong not to correct someone who needs correcting. 18Stop being angry and don't try to take revenge. I am the Lord , and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself. 19Breed your livestock animals only with animals of the same kind, and don't plant two kinds of seed in the same field or wear clothes made of different kinds of material. 20If a man has sex with a slave woman who is promised in marriage to someone else, he must pay a fine, but they are not to be put to death. After all, she was still a slave at the time. 21The man must bring a ram to the entrance of the sacred tent and give it to a priest, who will then offer it as a sacrifice to me, so the man's sins will be forgiven. 23After you enter the land, you will plant fruit trees, but you are not to eat any of their fruit for the first three years. 24In the fourth year the fruit must be set apart, as an expression of thanks 25to me, the Lord God. Do this, and in the fifth year, those trees will produce an abundant harvest of fruit for you to eat. 26Don't eat the blood of any animal. Don't practise any kind of witchcraft. 27I forbid you to shave any part of your head or beard or to cut and tattoo yourself as a way of worshipping the dead. 29Don't let your daughters serve as temple prostitutesthis would bring disgrace both to them and the land. 30I command you to respect the Sabbath and the place where I am worshipped. 31Don't make yourselves disgusting to me by going to people who claim they can talk to the dead. 32I command you to show respect for older people and to obey me with fear and trembling. 33Don't ill-treat any foreigners who live in your land. 34Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. 35Use honest scales and don't cheat when you weigh or measure anything. I am the Lord your God. I rescued you from Egypt, 37and I command you to obey my laws. Penalties for disobeying God's laws
1Keep being concerned about each other as the Lord's followers should. 2Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it. 3Remember the Lord's people who are in jail and be concerned for them. Don't forget those who are suffering, but imagine that you are there with them. 4Have respect for marriage. Always be faithful to your partner, because God will punish anyone who is immoral or unfaithful in marriage. 5Don't fall in love with money. Be satisfied with what you have. The Lord has promised that he will not leave us or desert us. 6That should make you feel like saying, The Lord helps me! Why should I be afraid of what people can do to me? 7Don't forget about your leaders who taught you God's message. Remember what kind of lives they lived and try to have faith like theirs. 8Jesus Christ never changes! He is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. 9Don't be fooled by any kind of strange teachings. It is better to receive strength from God's undeserved kindness than to depend on certain foods. After all, these foods don't really help the people who eat them. 10But we have an altar where even the priests who serve in the place of worship have no right to eat. 11After the high priest offers the blood of animals as a sin offering, the bodies of those animals are burnt outside the camp. 12Jesus himself suffered outside the city gate, so that his blood would make people holy. 13That's why we should go outside the camp to Jesus and share in his disgrace. 14On this earth we don't have a city that lasts for ever, but we are waiting for such a city. 15Our sacrifice is to keep offering praise to God in the name of Jesus. 16But don't forget to help others and to share your possessions with them. This too is like offering a sacrifice that pleases God. 17Obey your leaders and do what they say. They are watching over you, and they must answer to God. So don't make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. Otherwise, they won't be able to help you at all. 18Pray for us. Our consciences are clear, and we always try to live right. 19I especially want you to pray that I can visit you again soon. 20God gives peace, and he raised our Lord Jesus Christ from death. Now Jesus is like a Great Shepherd whose blood was used to make God's eternal agreement with his flock. 21I pray that God will make you ready to obey him and that you will always be eager to do right. May Jesus help you do what pleases God. To Jesus Christ be glory for ever and ever! Amen. 22My friends, I have written only a short letter to encourage you, and I beg you to pay close attention to what I have said. 23By now you must know that our friend Timothy is out of jail. If he gets here in time, I will bring him with me when I come to visit you. 24Please give my greetings to your leaders and to the rest of the Lord's people. His followers from Italy send you their greetings. 25I pray that God will be kind to all of you!