Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice and mercy in tension (2016 Term 1 Week 10)

The great ethical quandaries in life come when two good things are in tension. Children encounter the tensions just like the rest of us. If you are asked about a friend's wrongdoing, do you tell the truth, or do you remain silent for the sake of loyalty. If you nick the ball to the wicket-keeper and are given 'Not out', do you walk or not? Is it better to be generous towards others or to save for the future? However, in my experience, the hardest tension to resolve has to do with the relationship between justice and mercy.

These are both good things. Justice demands that good is rewarded and evil punished; mercy recognizes our frailty and fallibility, allowing us not to be treated as we deserve. 

In Christian thinking, both justice and mercy are central. Christians believe that “the judge of all the earth will do what is right” and that this justice will be seen on the judgment day. Our confidence that justice will be done enables us to persevere in the face of both rampant evil and frustratingly banal misdemeanors. Right and wrong matter and God will ensure that it is so. However, at the same time, we desperately want God to be merciful. If he is not, who can stand? None of us can have a clear conscience in the face of God's justice.

Our speakers at the various mission week events touched on the tensions between justice and mercy. We heard the inside story of Andrew Chan, who fell foul of Indonesian justice as one of the Bali Nine and did not receive mercy, being executed last year. We also heard the testimony of Dan Smith, an Australian representative swimmer who dragged himself into a mess of drugs and crime and was shown mercy by the courts.In both cases, we heard their deeper story of the justice and mercy of God.

How then do we think of mercy and justice in the here and now, particularly at a school? 

The reality is that our stance regarding justice and mercy varies, usually depending on our circumstances. Young people frequently have a highly-charged sense of justice and fairness; anyone who has seen students playing handball knows how important fairness is to them. However, young people are also prone to significant blind-spots when it comes to their own culpability. My observation is that parents can also be very quick to demand justice when their child is wronged, but they can also swing to an expectation of mercy when judgment seems imminent. I think we all find ourselves shifting to one side or the other of the justice-mercy dichotomy, whether this reflects personality or worldview or life experience or other factors.

A big part of the challenge is that we also suffer from the limitations of our own knowledge. I am acutely conscious when making the sort of decisions that fall to me, that I am not all-seeing and all-knowing. We make decisions and take actions that hopefully reflect the knowledge that we have, but we never know everything that may be relevant. In particular, we do not know the consequences of our decisions. To exercise justice in a particular circumstance may prove to be the corrective experience of discipline that is needed or it may crush an already faltering spirit. To choose mercy may provide an individual with a tangible and transformative experience of grace or it may embolden transgression by removing the fear of consequences. This uncertainty of outcomes must drive us to humility as we negotiate the tension between justice and mercy.

All of us at Inaburra work with this tension between justice and mercy on a daily basis. It is seen in the way that classes are conducted, supervision of students takes place, staffroom discussions unfold and the overall way that we relate to the students and each other. It is particularly in tension as we engage in the discipline of the students. As the one who is both responsible for the whole system of discipline in the school and the one who ultimately has to adjudicate in the trickier matters, I really appreciate the prayers of the community for my wisdom, as well as for the students and other staff involved. My particular prayer is that, in and through our efforts, God will work for good in the lives of all concerned.

Over the Easter weekend, as I reflected again on the great tension between justice and mercy, I was thankful for the cross of Christ. In the crucifixion of Jesus we see God's resolute opposition to evil in all its forms and his judgement upon it. We also see the mercy of God demonstrated as he who had no sin became sin for us. If you feel the tension between the demands of justice and the need for mercy, it may be that the Christian faith has something for you.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The impact of Easter (2016 Term 1 Week 9)

This term is an unusually long one for our school; we would normally expect a ten-week term to start the year, which is certainly long enough. The fatigue in the eyes and faces of Year 7 students and Kindergarten students is particularly noticeable. Having stepped up to a new level of intensity in their school experience, many are at the point now where melt-downs at home are not uncommon. Likewise, our Year 12 students are feeling the pressure mount as they reach the half-way point of their HSC year. The Easter break has come at a great time to provide some physical and emotional replenishment.

In our largely secular society, the traditional religious holy days have been co-opted in the causes of rest and celebration. Christmas marks the beginning of the summer break for many of us, providing the catalyst for us to gather family and friends to over-indulge in food and drink. Easter has really become the landmark long weekend, providing not just a three-day break, but a bonus day as well!

It really is remarkable that, in the Easter holiday, we mark the anniversary of the crucifixion of an obscure figure from the backwaters of the Roman empire nearly 2000 years ago. Actually, the reason it is such a big deal is that we don't just remember the crucifixion on the Friday, but also the resurrection on the Sunday. Rather than writing at length on this subject, I would like to point you to this piece for your thoughtful consideration.

I am a big fan of the Easter break and the rest and refreshment that it can bring, but I also fear that we are selling ourselves short if we settle just for a brief holiday. Our needs are not just physical and emotional, but spiritual as well. Why not make the time on the break to join with billions across the world and throughout time to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Monday, 14 March 2016

#HeForShe in our school (2016 Term 1 Week 8)

An enduring fancy for many school principals is that our assembly speeches are moments of exhilarating transformative power that will shape the hearts and minds of generations; this fancy tends to be a triumph of self-delusion over experience. I don't know that there are any people anywhere in the world who count a school assembly as being among the great turning points of their life. Most of the time my addresses tend to have all the impact of a pebble tossed into the ocean; it is rare for feedback of any kind to come my way. However, following my address at the Senior School assembly last week there has been substantially more traction amongst students and staff than would normally be the case. 

I spoke with the students about the HeForShe campaign for gender equality and applied it, with the use of some online videos, to our context at Inaburra. Given the importance of the topic, and the resonance that it appears to have had with many members of our Senior School, I think that it is worthwhile bringing to the wider school community who were not in that assembly. 

The rest of this post outlines the general shape of my address, including the videos that I used. For those who have the time and interest (which, given that it runs for some 20 minutes, I don't expect to be many), this first link is to a basic video of the assembly speech in its entirety

Today I want to speak to you about a movement started by UN Women called HeForShe. HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity for the benefit of all. Gender equality is something that matters deeply. The responsibility for ensuring justice and respect for all people rests with all people. Men ought to stand alongside women in calling for, acting for and ensuring gender equality.

For me, this conviction stands on and grows out of the first chapter of the Bible, where we read that God created men and women alike in his image. As a Christian man I have no grounds for viewing women as anything other than inherently worthy of dignity and respect. I am happy to identify myself as a feminist, if we understand a feminist as a person who agitates for and stands up for equality between men and women. I think that this position is entirely compatible with the Bible.

There are three things I want to speak with you about today wherein I have concerns, not just for us here at Inaburra School, but for the wider society in which we live and the wider world that you will create in the years to come.

The first has to do with domestic violence. My point, along with calling our young men to stand up, speak out and act to prevent domestic violence, is that violent behaviour grows out of contempt in speech and thought. It is our individual and shared responsibility to call out unacceptable behaviour against women in our school and beyond.

The second has to do with the limitations that are placed on girls, their abilities and their futures. (I only used up until the 1:29 mark for this video.) My reflections focus on the fact that these school years are largely determinative for future paths and that we must not allow our young women to be deterred from possibilities because of gender stereotyping, particularly around Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

The third has to do with the unpaid work involved in making a household work. There is a fundamental injustice represented in the fact that women still do the vast majority of unpaid work in our community. I encouraged our young women to evaluate the young men around them in light of how willing and able they are to shoulder the burden of housework and I called the young men to step up as a matter of principle.

Obviously, the above is only a skeletal outline of my address, and my address was only one small step towards gender equality in our context. Nonetheless, a journey consists of lots of little steps and I was surprised and encouraged by how meaningful this speech seemed to be to many in our Senior School.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Cultural blind spots and #HeforShe (2016 Term 1 Week 7)

One of my great concerns in leading a community or organisation like our school is the risk of cultural blind spots. Cultural blind spots are those things within our own behaviour and practices—our culture, mind, action, or motivation—that we take for granted and typically overlook. By definition, we do not see them and we may not even know that they exist. As a school leader, my question is 'What am I missing about life in our school?'

As I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege of spending time at Randwick Barracks recently, which included a teleconference with Lieutenant General Angus Campbell DSC AM, the Chief of Army in the Australian Defence Force. General Campbell spoke about the recent experience of leaders in the Army becoming aware of a cultural blind spot around the treatment of female soldiers. His predecessor as Chief of Army, and the current Australian of the Year, David Morrison AO, became aware of this blind spot and famously called it out in the video below.

In reflecting on the cultural change that the Army are experiencing, with reference to the treatment of women, General Campbell spoke of three ways to become aware of one's blind spots. 

The first is to actively look for them. Unless we are looking, we won't see. Leaders ought to seek ways to find out about and understand their organisations from as many perspectives as possible. The view from the top doesn't reveal everything that needs to be seen. Feedback from the various stakeholders, external scrutiny, academic study and mindfulness by which we really notice what is going on around us are all great ways to look for our blind spots.

The second is to listen to and respect the stories of other people, especially when they don't align with your own story. If a story is told that doesn't gel with your own experience, the temptation is to assume the validity of your experience and downplay or ignore the experience of the other person. 

The third is to recognise that our blind spots are often the flip-side of our strengths. In the context of the Army, he spoke about the traditions of mateship, loyalty and toughness, which are legitimate and powerful strengths. However, the flip side is that these strengths create a shadow in which women can be marginalised, whistle-blowing discouraged and registering a complaint is a sign of weakness.

I have found General Campbell's suggestions very challenging, causing me to wonder about blind spots in our context. One that is very much on my mind has to do with gender equality. Do our students experience gender equality at school? Does their experience here sow the seeds for future perpetuation of inequality, either through the things the girls learn or the things the boys learn? While I am able to look at our formal structures and processes with a clear conscience, is there something that I am not seeing? 

In recent weeks I have been actively looking for evidence in this area and initiating conversations with staff and students, listening to their stories in order to understand, not in order to refute. I am not yet sure how much of an issue this is for us, but I am continuing to explore and reflect.

Since last year I have publicly identified myself with the #HeForShe campaign by UN Women. While there are aspects of this public agenda that sit uneasily with me, the logic of a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all seems irrefutable. It seems particularly compelling to me as a follower of Jesus, whose powerfully counter-cultural inclusion and affirmation of women in a patriarchal culture was revolutionary in its day.

Given that today is International Women's Day, I want to express to the school community my whole-hearted affirmation of the importance of gender equality. And I  call on the male members of the community to join me in that commitment, whether students, teachers or family members. As General Morrison so powerfully put it in the video above, 'The standard that we walk past is the standard that we accept.'

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Valuable life lessons from sport? (2016 Term 1 Week 6)

Sport is a wonderful way to learn life's most valuable lessons in a (relatively) low-stakes environment. Recognising that there is much more water that could be drawn from this particular well, here are four life lessons that I think our students should learn through sport:

First, life is full of disappointments. There are so many ways that sport brings disappointment to us. There is the disappointment that comes from being beaten. There is the disappointment that comes from not being selected. There is the disappointment that comes from the unfairness of life, whether it is an umpiring error, the bounce of a ball or the unreliability of a team mate. There is no way to play sport and not encounter disappointment. And that is very good for us!

4 место / Интересные изображения и фотографии / inpic

Dealing with disappointment in small things, such as school sport, trains us to deal with the disappointments that will come our way in the bigger things of wider life. Resilience and grit grow in the soil of adversity.

Second, there is a connection between hard work and mastery. Some people are born with sporting aptitude ahead of their peers, whether it has to do with their physiology, body shape, hand-eye coordination or any of the other attributes that contribute to sporting ability. It is folly to pretend that everyone has the same capacity to achieve the elite standard in any sport they wish; sadly, I have let my NBA dreams die ... Nonetheless, everyone can improve. Through coaching and practice, improvement will come. Young people who learn that hard work leads to mastery in sport are well-prepared to transfer that lesson elsewhere in life.  

Third, there are great benefits to being in a team. This is not to disparage individual sports and the lessons learned through the solo slog and performance, but it is interesting to note the heightened excitement for individual athletes and swimmers when they compete in relays. We are relational creatures who thrive in our connections with others. In the context of sport, teams spur one another on and lift one another up. At their best, members of teams learn selflessness through committing themselves to the team and its goals. Again, this lesson transfers well from the sporting field to life more generally.

Fourth, challenging yourself is a good thing. There are many reasons why people play sport and those reasons change over time. While the simple sensations of movement are enjoyable for our youngest students, over time it appears that enjoyment of sport shifts more towards the experience of encouragement, excitement and challenge. Experiencing challenge in this small low-stakes way can build a young person's confidence to take on other challenges.

There is much more that could be said and it is certainly not the case that sport is always a benign influence. Like all things, sport is a good servant but a poor master. There is great potential for sport to be a distorted and distorting influence for an individual and for a community, usually because perspective is lost. School sport is just school sport. Nothing more and nothing less than another opportunity to learn.