There is, according to this newspaper, a place in Jamaican schools for daily, student-organized spiritual reflection, including, in some circumstances, specific religious and/or denominational observances.
However, as the events of the past week at Oberlin High School in St Andrew have shown, there must be a balance, or preferably a clear divide, between these commitments, the crude proselytizing and the suggestive behavior dangerous to mental, emotional and physical well-being. being students. That’s why we support Fayval Williams’ plan to develop protocols to guide devotion in schools.
The intention of the Minister of Education should not, a priori, to be interpreted as an attack on religious freedom. On the contrary, it could be seen as an attempt to fight for an essential principle of democracy – to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
The vast majority of Jamaicans declare themselves to be Christians. Although there is no declared state religion, there is an implicit and explicit acceptance of the country’s foundation in Christian principles and an acknowledgment of a Christian God, in whose name officials swear. Indeed, the island’s national anthem is a call for the blessing and protection of this God.
However, the Jamaican Constitution, in Article 17, explicitly protects religious freedom, including the right in schools to withdraw from instruction or religious observances.
Section 17(4) says: “No one who attends a place of instruction, except with his own consent (or, if he is a minor, the consent of his parents or guardians), is not bound to receive religious instruction, nor to take part or attending a religious ceremony or observance, which relates to a religion or religious body or denomination other than one’s own”.
That’s not what usually happens. Most of the time, students are herded into Christian devotional exercises.
Like Oberlin, which was started by Disciples of Christ Jamaica (now part of the United Church of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands), many Jamaican schools, especially the best ones, were founded by churches, even whether the government now pays teachers’ salaries and provides other financial aid. While Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Baptists were at the forefront of this educational movement and have in recent times attempted to reassert their moral values in institutions, it is not these so-called churches traditions that have a major hold on the conduct of daily devotional exercises in Jamaican schools. This is especially the case in schools that have no formal church or religious affiliation.
It is primarily fundamentalist Christian teachers, who are often the most willing to take on the task, who lead the daily and weekly devotions. The sessions tend to take on the tone of the Sunday services of revivalists or Pentecostal or charismatic movements. Indeed, that seems to have been the case at Oberlin last week, when during the morning devotional many of the students seemed to fall victim to the suggestive influence of a teacher who was supposed to speak in tongues (glossolalia ) and entered their own restless state of babbling. unconsciousness.
Oberlin management’s jaded and fundamentalist response to the incident clearly justified Minister Williams’ call for protocols on how devotions are handled. A teacher, the school said, “informed us that she had a word for the student population.” She had the opportunity to “share” with them.
Added principal’s statement: “In my humble opinion, some students were overwhelmed with the anointing and also began to worship aloud, while a few others had to be taken to the nurse because they couldn’t control themselves, and a few also passed out. We think some of the students seeing what was happening were understandably scared.
The implication of this statement is that some students have received and embraced the gift of “anointing.” Other students, less possessed by the Holy Spirit, did not understand what was going on around them, so they became afraid. The language of the school administration and, presumably, the hysterical “talk” of the teacher has more place and relevance from the pulpit of a Pentecostal church than from the dais of the meeting hall of a school.
In this regard, we disagree with arguments that Ms. Williams’ proposed guidelines will themselves impinge on religious freedom or limit the right of schools to practice devotion. They are more likely to prevent excessive proselytizing by fanatics who challenge minority rights who, unaware of constitutional protections, may fear that objections will lead to backlash.
As Minister Williams said, the school is not the church. Good values, including Christian values for those who are of that faith and want those instructions outside the context of the approved curriculum, can be instilled in students without the harmful hysteria at Oberlin last week. It is a skill that must be learned by teachers.