Dear PLC Sydney Community
As we come to the close of another year I would like to firstly thank you for your support in 2018. At Speech Day we will celebrate the accomplishments of our students and the spirit in our school. This would not be possible without a strong partnership between families, staff and students. It has been a joy to be here this year.
With Christmas approaching I would also like to consider some answers to a question I am asked sometimes at enrolment interviews: How does the religious aspect of the school affect its operation? Some who ask are Christians. Or hold another faith. Others are worried about faith as a category. I could note in reply the importance of faith for considering who we are as human beings, or how we relate to God, or who Jesus was and is, or about how knowledge is even conceived. I wish to touch on these but primarily focus in this article on a few things that are important for the tone of the College.
I love Christmas.
On Christmas morning in our family we sit in a circle and exchange gifts.
Whatever else Christmas is, it is a recognition of the capacity of human beings to give gifts. Not just exchange things. But to give. A parent gives themselves to their children. And children often give in a similar way to their parents later in life. Christmas helps us to define what we mean when we call ourselves human beings and think that we are passing a gift to someone.
To explain what I mean, I need to start elsewhere – with the ancient world and its notions of sacrifice and its practice of violence.
The French philosopher Rene Girard says that all cultures began with the fact that we can and do copy each other. We all mimic one another – in dress, in manners, in ethics. Our mimicry is of the person that we respect, or of our contemporaries, or of powerful people. In today’s global society that mimicry can be a fashionista in Monaco or a writer in Asuncion. As we mimic each other Girard says we become rivals for the same goods and resources, for status or influence or even respect. Perhaps we are rivals for the attention of a parent or a potential partner.
Girard says ancient societies had three things in common: a belief in God or gods, ritual sacrifice and language. Ancient religions created sacred forms of violence in order to rescue warring societies from further violence. He evidences how in ancient societies rivalry was solved by laying the blame on a scapegoat. The placement of blame on an individual brought peace to warring parties.
We understand this because, on a small scale, there are little moments when we bond with another person by blaming a third party. And we remember the large and awful scapegoats of our recent history: the Jewish people in the Holocaust, the farmers who were starved by Mao Zedong, the Tutsi people at the hands of the Hutu in Rwanda…
The Sydney Morning Herald no doubt has stories today in its pages: so many of the domestic violence stories or bullying stories are examples of scapegoating.
Girard traces the counter-narrative of the Bible. Both Judaism and Christianity stand quintessentially against scapegoating. In the biblical text the murdered person is not seen as the one God lays the blame on to bring peace (as in Romulus and Remus in Rome, or in the Oedipus myth) but is actually a victim. Thus, in the Bible Abel is declared to be not the person who should die, but the victim of Cain; as is Joseph of his brothers, and Uzziah of someone who is otherwise known as God’s king, that is, David. In The Bible even the great and the good can act against the central tenets of their own beliefs.
Solomon’s wisdom is that he works out a way for the baby not to be scapegoated by a woman who was not his mother, and crucially, Abraham is told not to scapegoat his own son Isaac by God himself. And in Jesus we have the innocent person, even God’s son, scapegoated. A constant theme of the Bible is that we must resist the urge to scapegoat. The Sermon on the Mount is about turning the other cheek and Paul says to not ‘repay evil for evil’ to anyone.
It is shocking, and also telling, that in the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels that Herod looks to scapegoat the babies of his region in order to not allow a rival to grow up – the slaughter of the innocents.
The background to Christmas is that ‘in this world you shall have pain’. It is, to quote Tennyson, a world ‘red in tooth and beak and claw’. A world where the strong can and do have power over others.
To avoid violence humans make bargains. Thus we have the idea of reciprocity that is at the heart of trade: I will pay something to you if you can do something for me. Culture has a transactional element. And many of our institutions are built on this – including our school. We have enrolment contracts based on agreed arrangements. This builds transparency and fairness.
Yet in the Gospels the call is to get beyond the transactional and the egoistic. It is to learn what it is to give. Even to those who think ill of us, or are against us. Words like generosity, magnanimity and altruism are not built on a materialist evolutionary understanding of the Universe. They indicate that these explanations are not adequate.
There are of course counter-arguments about whether it is even possible to give, to escape egoism.
Yet I think many, many parents at PLC Sydney are trying to teach their children to learn to not scapegoat, to not seek revenge, but to learn to love. Many are trying to teach their children the joy that is to give without counting the cost. This might be one reason why we celebrate Christmas still, given the power of secular ideas in our society.
And many are attracted to PLC Sydney by the deep infusion of these ideas within the life and culture of the school. Even if they don’t know what they think about God.
At one point in his final book Girard quotes Heidegger – a man with whom he usually profoundly disagrees. Heidegger said once: ‘The idea about the loss of Being, the forgetting of Being, and the forgetting of the forgetting is essential to the modern age.’
In other words, we who live in this era are very used to thinking of our Universe as having no raison d’etre. Some have even forgotten how we once thought this way.
At PLC Sydney we don’t want our students to forget. We want them to remember Christmas. You won’t have a narrow education at PLC Sydney We value the riches of theology. We value acts of faith.
I do believe that when we sit around giving gifts at Christmas we are remembering again that human beings are capable of giving gifts, flawed though we be. Perhaps both the Enlightenment idea that our knowledge will make the world better, and its counterpart that we have lost our values are both flawed narratives. Perhaps the longer the world goes, the more to respect and honour and the more to feel wearied and saddened by there is in it. In my understanding of the Universe seeking to give really matters, and it is a response to God who has first given to us. And Christmas and Easter are the centre of this.
Thank you for your support this year. I have loved being with your daughters and having the honour of getting to know you and your family. There is so much that is good still to do. And education is so important for girls and young women.
Have a lovely Christmas.
Dr Paul Burgis