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December 16, 2010

Bibles-in-schools controversy reveals both division and hope

Eleanor Grant

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Gideon Bibles were part of our lives when I was a child in school 50 years ago. Even in high school, the days started with the national anthem, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Principal reading us a passage from the New Testament over the PA system. School, church, and Sunday school were a seamless web. There were hymns at school assemblies, and there were flags and prayers for the Queen in church sanctuaries.

We all had those pocket New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs, and I honestly don’t remember whether we got them at school or church.  It was all one.

It wasn’t a world free of hate, though.  The people we were taught to hate weren’t Muslims or Jews – we certainly didn’t know any Muslims and scarcely any Jews.  No, the people we were taught to look at with suspicion and give a wide berth to, were Catholics.  Catholics were “those people”, and bigotry was proclaimed with loud laughter around my family’s Christmas table. 

An atheist site I visited while preparing this article points out that, officially, there is no “separation of church and state” [an American phrase] in Canada, and this country is “still technically an Anglican theocracy”.

But it’s a Canada that has long since ceased to exist.  Some may lament the passing of the simplicity that came with such a tight social uniformity – and it did have its merits.  Our society’s sudden slide into chaotic secularism in the late sixties was not handled well.  We were still reeling from that culture shock, when we started to receive waves of Asian and non-Christian immigrants during the Trudeau years.

With the proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, Canadians started trying to figure out how to create secular and tolerant public space.  Gradually the schools were de-Christianized, and interfaith initiatives started to spring up.  We’ve worked to make the best of the place where we now find ourselves, without ever having truly healed our old wounds.

This may explain some of the rancour that has accompanied the recent controversy over the distribution of Gideon New Testaments through the public school system in Waterloo Region and other Ontario cities. 

Thoughtlessly, Waterloo’s school board approved in October the 64-year-old practice of allowing the Gideon society to send letters home with Grade 5 students offering free Bibles to those that requested them.  But this time, they met with public opposition.

First Idrisa Pandit, a Muslim mother with a son in Grade 5 asked, “What place does anybody have distributing any kind of religious material in a secular school?  This [is] not an issue about Christianity, since I have studied the Bible, received 12 years of Christian education, and one of my children attends a private Mennonite school. That is a personal choice. What I object to is that a public school system cannot become a vehicle for distribution of religious material of any kind, especially when the aim is clearly to proselytize.”

But she reported feeling “personally attacked” by the way the local paper portrayed her.  “Some even went as far as to say that I wanted them all to become Muslim. The fact that an issue was raised by a Muslim automatically made people spew venom and resort to prejudicial and stereotypical attacks against me and my faith.”

  1. Fauzia Mazhar told trustees she was “appalled” by the decision to allow the Bible distribution.

She said the Gideons openly state on their website that their mission is “to win the lost for Christ, and our unique method is the distribution of Scripture in selected streams of life.”  Mazhar asked, “What made the Board decide that the material provided by the Gideons is only for ‘informational’ purposes?”

An elderly man, also speaking at the meeting, retorted, “We’re being told . . . the Bible has no place in our educational system.”  He went on, “She has the right to exercise her freedom of speech, which is upheld in Canada. Such a privilege would not be allowed in many Muslim countries.”

To which Mazhar quite rightly replied that she is not trying to represent those countries:

“I’m here as a citizen of this country, and a member of this community.”

The Bible distribution will go ahead this year, by a vote of six to four at the Waterloo Region District School Board. 

But one trustee plans to make motion in the new year that the Board seek a legal opinion about the practice. 

Sending a letter home with a child implies official sanction for the Bibles, and some parents coming from other cultures might think it’s something they have to agree to. 

The Bibles also contain pages urging the child to pray to God to reveal Jesus Christ to them – which decidedly goes beyond mere information into evangelism.  The little book doesn’t even look like a Bible, the way our old ones did.  It’s been packaged as the “little red answer book” and covered with faces of smiling teenagers.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has warned the Waterloo Board that it is considering legal action if the policy continues. 

Meanwhile the Niagara District School Board is facing arbitration at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.  School boards in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as London and Ottawa, have already discontinued the use of their schools for putting Bibles in children’s hands. 

It is heartening to me to see that two local Muslim women felt sufficiently rooted in Canadian society that they were able to step forward and object to a practice that’s alienating to them and their children in school.  Thanks to their courage, the distribution of Gideon New Testaments is probably on its way out in Waterloo’s school district.

But Idrisa and Fawzia didn’t do it alone. 

They were supported in their efforts by some compassionate members of the local Christian clergy.  Lutheran minister Rick Pryce said at a school board meeting, “The distribution of these Bibles is causing division in our community and making many of our teachers uncomfortable.  This is an issue of justice and it is wrong to divide people along religious lines.”

And Brice Balmer said, “I don’t think the public school system is where you proselytize for Christianity.  This is just not the way to work at diversity.”

Balmer, who is a Mennonite pastor, a professor at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the founder of Interfaith Grand River, said that teachers do need to find a way to educate children about the holy books of different faiths. Interfaith Grand River, which brings together leaders from numerous faiths and emphasizes dialogue between religious groups, is willing to help do that, he said.

Interfaith Grand River has issued a statement saying, in part:

“Waterloo Region was a much more homogeneous community 30 years ago than it is today, religiously and otherwise. While younger people appear to have adjusted well to the new environment, many people who grew up in an earlier time have experienced a painful transition. In our view, some of the more extreme and hurtful opinions that have come out in response to the Gideon Bible controversy, on radio talk shows and in letters to the editor, are expressions of that pain.

“But while we can acknowledge and understand the circumstances that lead people to express such views, we cannot simply stop there. Both the school board and the media occupy positions of community leadership, and we see it as their responsibility to help this community adjust to its new reality so that diversity becomes a source of enrichment rather than conflict.”

Thanks to enlightened outreach and ministry from Christian leaders such as this, and the empowerment of articulate newcomers to Canada, confident in their faith, we Canadians are slowly learning how to “work at diversity” and heal our own wounds.  As we learn to become true neighbours to one another, may we all grow in wholeness and strength.

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