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Michael Nazir-Ali: How do we give our young people the values they need?

Michael Nazir-Ali is Director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue, and was formerly the Bishop of Rochester.

Screen shot 2011-08-18 at 19.18.30 Someone said recently, in the aftermath of the rioting, looting and killing" "this is what a godless society looks like". It is certainly true that we have created a situation where people have only material and financial expectations.  Even the 'Body and Soul sections in the newspapers are mainly about the body.  Quite apart from the spiritual dimension, there has been little emphasis on growing as a person, on integrity, on commitment in relationships, on a concern for others and on the importance of contributing to society.  The stress on personal fulfilment has led to selfishness and greed and to a neglect of the sense of mutual obligation which lies at the root of every kind of social organisation.

Codes of moral conduct have all arisen within the context of the great religious traditions; whether it be the Torah of Judaism, the Laws of Manu of Hinduism or the Shari'a of Islam.  In Britain, for centuries, moral conduct has arisen from the Judaeo-Christian vision of the Bible and, specifically, the Ten Commandments. It is true, of course, that non-believers can be moral, even more so than believers, but this is usually within the context of an existing tradition.  What made Britain great was a sense of responsibility, of accountability to one another and, ultimately, of having to answer to God, the very source of our existence.  It is the loss of this framework that has led to the darkness we have all been experiencing.  Instead of finding numerous excuses and denying the real origin of our problems, we should make the recovery of such a framework central to the task of the moral and spiritual regeneration that everybody now thinks is necessary.

It has been well said that the task ahead has to begin with properly functioning families.  Parents have to be not just at home but actively engaged in the all-round development of their children. The State cannot and must not attempt to do this job for them. Some single parents, single for no fault of their own, do a heroic job in bringing up their children. They would usually be the first to say that it takes two to do it. Children are not little grown ups. One of the problems has been that society has often treated them as such. The human young need a long period of maturing and this is why life-long bonding is needed between the parents. All the research is telling us that children relate to fathers and mothers differently and each relationship plays a distinctive role in their growing up.  We desperately need a basis for inter-generational communication that is not just about acquistion and the fulfilment of desire. It must also be about restraint, giving-up for a greater good and sharing.  The Ten Commandments and Jesus' summary of them about loving God and neighbour would be a suitable place to begin.

Although schools cannot do everything, they also need to be places where children acquire not just bits and pieces of useful information but an adequate world-view and the sense of a moral universe. In particular, they need to learn that others have to be respected because they too have been made in God's image and have God-given dignity, equality and freedom. Assemblies need to be a time not simply for moral platitudes but to ground pupils in a moral and spiritual tradition.  Religious Education, similarly, should shift its attention from regaling children with tales from exotic religious practice to the serious work of understanding our freedom, purpose and destiny in the context of the new knowledge they are acquiring in other classes.  History, also, and the other social sciences, have to be about that  "golden thread" which runs though the course of this island's story and in which Christianity is hugely significant. It is this which gives meaning to otherwise isolated events and persons.

Large numbers of children have been in holiday camps run by the churches.  How can this annual activity be turned into more regular engagement which emphasises spiritual growth and moral function?  Fifty years ago, most people learnt the ABC of moral behaviour in the Sunday School.  Today on a Sunday morning, there is only more shopping, or more football. Where is the time that the young need to be told the Christian story and how it helps in daily living?

Whilst churches need community support for their work among the young, whether with youth workers, camps, uniformed organisations etc, they also need to be willing to resource schools for assembly, RE and discussion of important moral issues. There are good reservoirs of expertise in the churches, let us use them.

We should firmly reject any kind of polarisation in the present crisis, whether on the basis of race, faith or class. We are all culpable in creating a society based on consumerism, greed and envy but we are also all able to have a better and higher moral vision of how the greater good of our communities is also good for us as individuals.  A sense of responsibility leads to  being trusted and doing better in our careers and in our families. Commitment in our relationships brings us the peace of mind and stability which we need for personal growth,  Paradoxically, what selfishness and greed have not brought, can come, in its best sense, through responsible conduct, mutual assistance, good neighbourliness and generosity.  In the end, it was not only that the Good Samaritan helped the one in need, he was also himself a better person for it and better to give an account of himself, even at the highest tribunal we shall ever face.


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