Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Silver Ring Thing

The battle over school uniform must be as old as school itself. The constant low level guerrilla warfare of teenagers seeing what they can get away with before a vigilant deputy head confiscates the three ear piercings, demands that the skirt be longer or orders the hair to be tied up. It’s not often that this attritional battle puts its head above the parapet as it did last week when a sixteen year old ended up in the high court over a ring. Lydia Playfoot claimed that her silver ring which symbolised her pledge of abstinence was a religious symbol and it was therefore discriminatory not to allow her to wear it - an ingenious tactic in the teenager-teacher contest.

It is also a disingenuous one. Lydia says that the silver ring is an expression of her bible believing Christianity which teaches abstinence before marriage. However, wearing a silver ring is not an integral part to the Christian faith – it is different to the command that Jews or Muslims should not eat Kosher or Halal foods. You can express or maintain sexual abstinence without wearing a silver ring.

One of the defining factors about the new Christianity in the early centuries was that there weren’t any fixed ways that you had to outwardly conform. Paul clearly says that non-Jews didn’t have to be circumcised to become Christians as some were claiming. Instead Christians were meant to ‘circumcise their heart’ meaning that as people’s hearts were changed on the inside by the love and forgiveness of Jesus that there would be visible outward changes in their actions. However, these outward actions wouldn’t be subject to any law or dos or donts, but that the love of God would freely shine out of them. In this context, teenagers may find it helpful and prudent to them to wear the silver ring to remind themselves and others of the pledge they have made, but it is not integral to the Christian faith.

Indeed, in an environment where the school has a responsibility to promote emotional literacy, good relationships and good sexual health it may be beneficial for the school to allow the wearing of the silver ring to encourage young people to think about the implications of having sex too early. The ABC approach to sex education encourages Abstinence outside of marriage first, if not abstinence then Being in stable relationships, if not in long term relationships then use Contraception. In this framework the silver ring thing could have a positive impact both on Linda and the wider peer group if the school chose to engage with it.

However, ultimately the school must decide their policy and if there is a fairly implemented, consistent uniform policy that forbids rings then Lydia Playfoot should abide by it.

To assert a right to wear a ‘religious’ symbol runs the risk of Christians ‘defending God’ because they feel that they are being discriminated against and are feeling squeezed out and under threat. Lydia’s father said that he saw the ban as symptomatic of the onward march of ‘secular fundamentalism’. This may or may not be the case. Aggressive secularism that seeks to expunge any mention of religion in the public sphere is one element in our society; but the way to address this trend is not to defend Christians’ own rights (did Jesus defend his ‘rights’ as the son of God when he was being taken to the cross?) but to preach through actions and words the good news that through Jesus, as a society we can ‘live life in all its fullness’.

The Silver Ring Thing is a useful and innovative idea which can help young people to build healthy sexual relationships. To try and defend its position in a school by equating it with other religious symbols may have short term gains, but skews the focus of how Christians need to be engaging in our society.

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