Friday, May 04, 2012

Just What Can My “Jesus” T-Shirt Say?


A (May 2012) case in Nova Scotia has given rise to a number of questions with respect to “how then shall we share our faith?”  Let me explain.

William Swinimer, a grade 12 student from Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, Nova Scotia got suspended for wearing a T-shirt sporting the words, “LIFE IS WASTED WITHOUT JESUS” on the front.  The South Shore Regional School Board says it took the action because it believed the wording on the piece of clothing was problematic.  The problem arose in the fact that the words were directed at the “beliefs of others”.

The board Superintendent went on to suggest that had the wording simply said, “MY LIFE IS ENHANCED WITH JESUS” there would have been no problem because it would have been understood to be a “student’s own opinion about (his) own belief”.  Apparently at least one student had complained about the wording.

William Swinimer’s pastor who went to bat for him indicated the student felt his religious freedom was being restricted at the school.  According to the pastor, William was being bullied, not by students, but by the school.  The Board for its part said they had tried ‘mediation’ with the student, but it failed.

So what can we make of all this?  For starters, we, as Christians tend to want to criticize all too easily what others do or do not, especially with respect to spiritual or faith matters.  Alternatively, we find it much more difficult to highlight the positive difference Christ has made in our lives when sharing our faith.

Second, there is no doubt that in this day and age of diversity and pluralism, we need to be particularly careful to speak positively about our faith rather than negatively about someone else’s.  We should be doing this not only because of what the world thinks, but also I believe Jesus would rather us be positive – telling our story of what Christ has done for us.  I am reminded of the story of the blind man in the Gospel of John, chapter 9 when the Pharisees, after he had been made to see by Jesus, suggested to him that Christ was a sinner.  The man replied in verse 25, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”  He had the right idea.  He was not going to criticize even the One Who healed him, but he was going to be adamant about how his own life was changed.

Some of us may say “Nevertheless, too many people, especially young people are complaining about everything these days, just wanting to pick a fight.”  Not exactly true.  It is true that some youth (encouraged by their adult role models) are indeed making many complaints against anything Christian.  It seems that our current Western society in response to “political correctness” and the strong egging on (or at least passive support) of small “l” liberals and the mainstream media, is very much aware of its opportunities, to make such complaints.  In fact, many see it as their responsibility and in some cases, their life’s purpose.

Several other thoughts should be pointed out here.  As I read the story carefully, I realize the issue is not one of "not being allowed to give a message of one's religion" as much as it is "not being allowed to criticize the religion of others".  There is a difference.  A communication that implies someone else (who does not follow your religion) is a loser or 'wasted' (a term that the ‘Urban Dictionary’ currently defines as, “To be EXTREMELY intoxicated from the use of alcohol or drugs. See stoned, high . . .” is a negative and critical message.  And while it may be stating the truth from our perspective, cannot be allowed from a societal one.  I think Christians need to understand this and act accordingly.

Yes, we are free to hold our own opinions, and opinions are opinions as many argue.  But even there, there are limitations.  For example, some opinions may be eligible for "slander" and as such should not be allowed, or when made, the person who utters it, can be sued.  We understand that and accept it, for the most part.  Slander is the “spoken act of defamation” whereas libel is the written act of defamation.  Defamation in turn is a malicious and false statement or report about someone or an organization or other entity that brings injury to the reputation involved.  For example, I could have the opinion that you are "bank robber" or something worse.  If I publicize that opinion, you could sue me.  To win, I would have to prove it is true. 

Some would argue, “If people don’t like the shirts we Christians wear to promote our faith, they can simply look away.  After all, there is much that we see on the street that offends us.”  True, but that’s not the issue here.  Looking away does not, in the eyes of society take away the pain the scene has caused, especially when it comes to moral or faith issues.  Otherwise, more of us would simply just “look way from all the abortions that occur.”

And it is not only an issue of being offended; there is often a law that needs to be considered.  For example, someone may be offended by seeing a topless woman on the street, but the law in Canada says she is allowed to walk thus if she chooses with some minor location restrictions.   In fact, if one were to say she was a "slut" (a term applied to an individual who is considered to have loose sexual morals or who is sexually promiscuous) you could be up for slander.  Similarly, if one were to say that she is "Godless" and thus "wasting her life" -- you would be criticizing her choice of being an "atheist" or "non-believer" if that were indeed her chosen set of principles – also a ‘no-no’ in the eyes of the politically correct society we live in.

For all the above, I for one, although I did not like the decision of the particular school board in this case, would not have been prepared to fight.  I think, unlike many other school boards in similar cases who don’t make a reasonable argument for their decision, this school board was trying to help us see their point of view and to many of us, it made sense.  It is not an easy decision.  I agree it is a fine line -- but we never expected to be shown any favoritism as Christians these days, did we now?   

The bigger issue for me as a result of this case is whether or not this now means that for a Christian to say, "Without Christ, you are lost forever" or worse still, "You are condemned to hell", would also be illegal or inappropriate.  Obviously, if this had gone to court it would have had some serious ramifications for preachers and those who witness or openly share their faith.  But they may not all have been bad.  One possible outcome may also have been an attempt to try and curtail the hateful intolerant rhetoric expressed by people of a geopolitical religious force against Christians and Jews who seem to exist for the sole purpose of annihilating the latter.

As of the time of writing, the matter had been resolved in favor of the grade 12 student and his choice of T-shirt.  All T-shirt sayings are now welcome by that Board.  William Swinimer is said to have said, “Some people say you're not supposed to have religion in school.  Well, every other religion is in that school and they constantly put Christianity down."  The young man is not only courageous but a person with astute observation.

Meanwhile the school board is wisely using the opportunity to bring in a facilitator to speak with students about “how to express their beliefs in a way that is respectful to all.”  That’s the better approach – not to squelch the expression of one’s beliefs.  Society could take a lesson from that – including those in charge of the political arena.  And furthermore, parents will be invited to discuss the same topic.

Finally, I think it is important for us to know how different political views land on issues like this.  The leader of Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative Party indicated that Swinimer has every right to wear the shirt wherever he wants.  The CBC report quoted Jamie Baillie as saying, "This is the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All Canadians, including Mr. Swinimer, are guaranteed certain rights under that charter … He is exercising his right as a Canadian and I think the school board should stand up for that," Baillie said.”  Compare that with the position taken by the ruling party, the New Democratic Party, when the provincial Education Minister Ramona Jennex said she agrees with the school board decision to suspend Swinimer.  And there you have it.  I hope Nova Scotians and other Canadians, as well as small “c” conservatives south of my country’s borders and beyond take note for the next time they’re marking a ballot.

So, yes check your T-shirt.  But more importantly, don’t let them make you take it off.

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