What if Bible classes helped students to respond respectfully to difference?

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

“I found explaining the various prayer positions pretty easy, but felt the lesson fell apart because the students giggled at pictures of Islamic prayer. I got very frustrated with their attitude and even more frustrated with myself, because my strategy of lecturing the students about their juvenile 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 nonverbally. 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 honestly, but insisted that they 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 appeared much in a Western, secular way of life. To end with, I gave them a reflective exercise where they had to work on a response to the question: ‘What good things are there 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).

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 recognized as Lord, and his followers seek to obey him. The sort of trust involved is an act of faith but generally is 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 students should be taught that differences in beliefs really don’t matter, and when it comes to the important things, people basically agree: after all, they claim, 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 the expected response. In this example the teacher has reframed the way difference is perceived, so that it is seen as a challenge. The expectation is that one will find the process 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 so that pupils can take note of the things they find strange and things they feel are familiar. A similar approach could be taken to learning about other cultures rather than religions. If implemented consistently, this reframed approach to diversity hopefully will 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,” that 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, 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 that says we should never feel the sharp edge of difference, and replaces it with a notion that emphasizes 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 recognize Jesus as a prophet, not as God. Honoring truth and love means being honest about both these factors.