Symbolism

[UPDATE: Andrew Jones has posted on this, resulting in the usual mixed-but-informative comment stream…]

According to this story on the BBC News site, a 16-year old Christian girl is taking her school to the high court for discriminating against her religion. Apparently, the school objected to her wearing a “purity ring”, which she said was an expression of her faith.

Now, I don’t want to do one of those ‘the world is out to persecute us posts’. I’m not sure what I think about outward expressions of Christian faith; some people think they are very important to them as individuals, but neither the bible nor church tradition mandates us to wear certain items, as other faiths do. I do find this story very interesting though, and I think it gives a good example of how the world around us often doesn’t ‘get’ those with genuine Christian faith.

silver ringThe ring in question was one of these. They are part of a programme called The Silver Ring Thing, which is really popular in the States, although less well known here. SRT is an abstinence programme; working mainly with Christian young people, it tries to persuade them to put off sex until marriage, and uses the ring as a both a physical reminder of a vow (to the individual wearing it) and an open advertisement of ‘unavailability’. To those who have bought into the SRT programme, it is undoubtedly important to them as an expression of their faith; they have made a vow, and this ring helps them keep it (in this sense, not unlike 24-7 Prayer’s Mustard Seed Vow).

The school objected on the grounds that the ring was against the uniform code. The girl said the ring was an expression of her faith, and she should be allowed in the same way Sikh or Muslim girls were allowed to wear bangles and headscarves. The school said: “…the ring is not an essential part of the Christian faith.”

And this is the nub of the issue. A ring from The Silver Ring Thing or The Order of the Mustard Seed would be unacceptable, because they are not essential to the faith; but something like this would be ok.

crucifixIt is this strange dichotomy that made the story stand out to me. Ring bad, crucifix good.

I’m not sure when a crucifix became an essential part of the Christian faith, but it does show something about how our society fails to understand evangelical Christians. A crucifix is a common expression (although by no means a mandatory one) of Catholic faith, which has not changed much in centuries. It fits the national psyche, it is understandable. A ring that represents a vow? Now that’s just weird…

I really don’t think this is an issue of persecution. I think it is simply one of misunderstanding. We can complain that many Sikhs don’t wear bangles (although that is at least mandatory), and that headscarves aren’t actually required in the Koran; we can even point out that a crucifix isn’t actually required of us. One might even (rather mischievously) suggest that the girl in question would be allowed an engagement ring or wedding ring (she is 16)… The problem is not that (as suggested in the BBC article) “(the) real reason for the extreme hostility to the wearing of the SRT purity ring is the dislike of the message of sexual restraint which is counter cultural and contrary to societal and governmental policy,” I think it is simply that the idea of a moral vow such as this (or the mustard seed one) is totally alien. It is simply not understood.

Of course in our society many people believe strange things; and they are freely allowed to do so. School uniform codes try to tread the narrow line between hampering unnecessary freedom of expression, and respecting deep religious beliefs. My bet is that the school in question simply can’t get their head around the idea that, to the girl in question, this is not simply an issue of freedom of expression.

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