Reflection, February 2017

s200_robyn-whitakerBy Robyn Whitaker

In September 2001, when planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade center in NYC, I was on the other side of the world working in a small, Australian country town called Wangaratta. One of my roles was to teach primary-aged school children religious education. The curriculum I had inherited was explicitly Christian, without even the most token recognition that other religions existed. As I heard the rhetoric and ignorance about Islam emerge in news reports and local gossip following 9/11, I knew something had to change. So that week, I threw out the curriculum and taught a simple class highlighting all the things Christianity, Judaism and Islam shared in common (suitable for 10 year olds). There was nothing particularly insightful about it, but it was a minor act of resistance in one place where I could exercise influence. At the end of the class the teacher, a woman with a university degree, thanked me with these words: “I learned a lot today. I didn’t know Islam was a religion.”

Today we find ourselves in a similar global climate in terms of the irresponsible use of inflammatory language about non-Christian religions, the “othering” of certain groups, and shared ignorance in public forums. As a Christian, teaching Christian texts in a Christian seminary (that’s a lots of “Christian”!) I feel an urgent responsibility to educate in a manner that broadens minds, nuances conversation, and creates respectful dialogue between those of different religious faiths. My job does not require it. My role as a scholar and public intellectual does.

This post is for those of you who, like me, find yourselves teaching Christian things in explicit or implicitly Christian settings. What can we model in our classrooms and methods? How can our assignments and readings help foster the kind of thinking and dialogue we’d like to see in wider society?

As I teach “Introduction to Old Testament” this semester, I am going to attempt to subversively inject a bit of interfaith dialogue into my classroom. We’ll have an explicit discussion about titling of the Older Testament/Hebrew Bible as a way of thinking about why language matters. When we get to texts of violence I’ll ask students to reflect upon both ancient and contemporary modes of violence: who are the victims, who are the perpetrators, are these distinct categories, and does our interpretation do violence to others? We’ll have guest lecturers from other faith traditions and nationalities. We’ll discuss how key passages, like the Abraham and Isaac story, have been interpreted in Judaism, Islam, and Christian traditions. I’ll try and find a way to check “othering” language and stereotypes without shutting down discussion.

As Jawad Qureshi pointed out in his blog post in January 2017, Islamophobia is not new, but the “scope and intensity” is. The classroom is one place where we, as educators, can challenge the essentialist enmity towards other religions that has found a rather comfortable lodging place within much of the Christian tradition. Yes, such enmity is embedded in the biblical narrative itself, but that offers opportunity to question, critique, and examine the context and efficacy of such rhetoric. To do so gets to the heart of critical biblical study as distinct from a devotional reading of sacred texts.

Despite being educated in the Divinity School, where I stood in awe of the amazing things my friends studied that I barely understood, I feel ill-equipped to engage in interfaith education. I’m stepping firmly out of my comfort zone. Being comfortable, however, is no longer an option.

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