One of my favorite quips from posters and memes has to do with God’s presence in our nation’s schools. It goes something like this: “As long as there are still tests and quizzes, there will be prayer in school.”
Some people aren’t so sure about that statement, particularly given the news in recent days.
First, Brandon High School in Mississippi decided that its band couldn’t play “How Great Thou Art” in one of its performances. Then, Royster Middle School in Chanute, Kansas, in the Parsons District of the Great Plains Conference, removed a print of Walter Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ.”
Both actions angered Christians and have received nationwide coverage in the media.
I will admit to not knowing a lot about the Mississippi issue, other than a student reportedly filed a lawsuit because of what she said was a high number of Christian-themed assemblies and prayers on the public school’s campus. The Kansas issue arose from a person notifying the Freedom from Religion Foundation and a letter that national group then sent to administrators in the town in southeast Kansas.
After conferring with attorneys, district officials took down the print, which had been on display for an estimated 50 years or more.
Should we, as Christians, be upset with these restrictions on religious displays? I’ll explain why I think not, but first let’s acknowledge that some people argue vehemently, “Yes!” Personally, I think the group in the Kansas case has a name that says it all. It has the word “from” included in its title. As I read the Constitution, I see that it codifies a freedom of religion, not from religion. In my opinion, whether a person is religious or not, he or she should be able to see that “How Great Thou Art,” written by Carl Boberg in Sweden in the 1880s, is a musical classic. And Sallman’s painting is a classical piece of art of one of the great philosophers in the world’s history. Some of us just happen to think He’s the son of God.
That said, I want to circle back around to that funny statement I started with about prayer in schools. As my wife, a United Methodist pastor, has said over the years, man has no power over God. He can be wherever he wants whenever he wants however he wants. It’s a pretty arrogant thought from men and women that forbidding a band to play a song or the removal of a painting is going to remove God from the scene.
Let’s focus on the print of Jesus in Chanute since that argument took place within our conference’s boundaries. A painting has been taken down, but has Jesus’ authority and power been diminished in any way? Of course not.
If anything, the removal of a painting puts even more emphasis than there already was on the concept that we, as followers of Christ, are meant to reflect his image with the world by our example. Kids in Royster Middle School may not see Jesus in a painting any longer as they walk from one class to another. But they can see Jesus in the way the people in the Chanute community care for each other. They can see Jesus in the way the people in the Chanute community lift up the least and the lost. They can even see Jesus in the way the people in the Chanute community respond to this controversy.
The actions of Christians responding to this issue will go much, much further in helping make disciples of Jesus Christ – particularly with impressionable young people – than any painting that the kids likely failed to notice long ago, part of the “white noise” of racing down the hallway from English to math classes.
Do I personally think a band in Mississippi should be able to play “How Great Thou Art”? Yes. Do I think a famous print of Jesus should be allowed in a school? Yes. But I also understand the need to separate church from state. Several legal scholars have responded that at least in the case of the Chanute painting that the image of Jesus would have been fine if other philosophers or religious leaders’ likenesses also had been on display. While the concept of separation of church and state is a well-known part of the American system of government, the president of the African nation of Liberia, herself a United Methodist, opposes plans to make her nation a “Christian state.” Read the story here.
While I have no problem with displays of religion, I think it’s far more important that the kids in these schools see Jesus on a regular basis through the lives and actions of the people around them than through the words of any song or the passing glance of any painting. The same goes for kids in schools across the Great Plains Conference and beyond. I argue the same goes for all Christians everywhere and the ways we interact with others in our churches, our jobs, our schools, our bowling leagues, our softball teams – basically how we live our lives as we go about our everyday business.
I think that vision of Jesus that can be seen through the actions of his followers – more so than any painting – will help kids appreciate what our risen Savior stands for even in the 21st century.
Our witness can be powerful!
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. The opinions expressed in his blog are his own and may not be representative of the conference or the worldwide United Methodist Church.