Non-competitive Ethics

I have been reading several books by Rafe Esquith, who is a teacher in Los Angeles. All three books say basically the same things – and reveal that being a good educator in difficult circumstances is not rocket science – but does demand several costly things:

Long-term commitment to the same location.

Perseverance in the face of endlessly changing demands but fairly static challenges.

Self-discipline and (material rather than emotional) self-sacrifice.

A desire to learn from others and an appreciation of their gifts – be those fellow educators or children.

I kind of wish I’d just bought one of the three books – but reading the same thing three times has been helpful revision, and I expect he can use the royalties. I like his common sense, and have picked up much useful advice, however part of what this very dedicated teacher wrote felt consistently incompatible with my teaching role as a priest… this was  not a worry as though there is a large educational and formational aspect to my role it helped me to think about the ways in which my vocation differs from a school teacher.

What Mr Esquith seeks to do is educate well-rounded individuals, with a sense that they can aim higher- he seeks to equip them with tools for life, ranging from time-management and self-reflection to simple but invaluable politeness and presentation… and it sounds like he is very effective at achieving these worthwhile aims.

But I could feel that there were a couple of places where my vocation diverged strongly from what I was reading… now it is quite possible that the context of one of the books means it was rhetorical style rather than an underlying difference in attitude, but whilst reading about a school trip, and Esquith’s analysis of how the behaviour of his students compared to the behaviour of those people around them I realised that what was winding me up was the comparison itself… silly I know since it was important to draw the comparison in order for him to illustrate what he was trying to teach. Again and again it was the very use of comparison that irked me… but then I realised there was no harm in its use in teaching, even in his attempt to build young people -however his classroom rule of cultivating ‘humility’ did not quite make up for the innate self-righteousness he was growing in his students which would be unbearable in a church context (and yet which is so often found there)… I have been there myself, in fact I was brought up to it by a pair of teachers (coming from an academic, atheistic and liberal perspective as well as a religious and class-based one) … the comparative  ‘you don’t want to be like THAT do you?’ as a learning tool… it works okay to channel bright children into clever, well-spoken, appropriately ‘humble’ and subtley competitive and self-disciplined members of society… but it doesn’t build bridges and it offers little room for real turnaround redemption.

It is an attitude that has all the hallmarks of the pharisee rather than the fisherman, ‘I thank God I am not like that publican!’… but all it often means is that unacceptable behaviours and desires are subverted out of sight, in order to maintain a socially effective persona.

I strongly believe Christian ethics is not founded upon interpersonal judgement – but I realise that it is often the system we seem to fall back on.

In fact I believe that Christ taught and revealed behaviour that was radically non-competitive…

Let’s think about some of the earliest ‘sins’ in the Bible:

Cain and Abel – they both worship God with offerings – grain from Cain and a lamb from Abel – but Cain is copying Abel, and when God accept’s Abel’s offering and doesn’t like Cain’s so much – Cain is so riled – he kills his brother from jealousy. It’s not about the lamb or the grain, competitive ‘righteousness’ doesn’t work.

In fact let’s go back a bit Genesis… that fruit which is not to eat… is it humanity’s jealousy that makes Adamah and Chavvah desire it? ‘You will be like God’… not like yourself but like someone else.

Stop looking at each other and comparing your behaviour, your gains and losses, your apparent successess and failures… forget them and look to your Creator – you will only find there your true form – everywhere else, no matter how enviable or worthy, is a misdirection!

Question is – how do we translate that into something teachable… I think we have to look to Christ… Emmanuel, God with us – but even there we have to be careful not to try and emulate him, context and all – or the first step in our code of ethics would be circumcision… so it’s a good job he still lives, we need to look at what he’s doing now in the Holy Spirit not just what he was doing then, in sandles and seamless robe. And you can’t teach people to see. Can you?




About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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