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Promises, promises

"I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God;
To serve the Queen,
To help other people,
And to keep the Brownie Guide Law."
We'd chant this soporific, semi-circular in front of a melamine toadstool and a formidable middle-aged woman known only by the misleadingly congenial title of 'Brown Owl'. And then we'd dance around the toadstool, singing a song about the propitious time of day to the tune of Big Ben. And then we'd ceremoniously dismantle the toadstool and return its various parts and accoutrement to the cupboard. And then we'd break out into our sixes: Elves, Sprites, Pixies, Fairies, Imps and -- by far the least attractive or agreeable of the legendary supernatural namesakes, and therefore necessarily the one to which I was assigned -- Gnomes. And then we'd get to work devising desperately futile money-making schemes, all with the stated aim of finally, one day, restoring to its former glory our dear Brownie hut, burnt entirely out the year before by arsonists. Not a badge, not a craft, not a campfire nor an overnight adventure in the whole duration of my membership. Even though it made me miserable, I served my term with almost superstitious perseverance -- convinced that it would suddenly get good the moment that I dared to leave, exclusively to taunt me.

Indeed, vast numbers all around the world and many of my own acquaintance testify to wonderful, horizon-expanding, confidence-building, socially-liberating, fondly-memorable experiences of Guiding and Scouting. But if there's a crummy knock-off of a good thing going it'll find me out. At least, that's what it felt like growing up -- there was a world of friendship, fun and common understanding going on all round but inaccessible to me...

Anyway, I digress. (Into self-pitying verbosity, so much the worse). The Brownie Guide promise -- they changed it earlier this year, following a consultation in response to concerns that the wording excluded (amongst others) those whose parents or themselves were made uncomfortable by the mention of God:
"I promise that I will do my best:
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs,
To serve the Queen and my community,
To help other people
And to keep the Brownie Guide Law."
It was not met without criticism. "Ditching God and country in a time of national crisis" runs one line of objection; "shallow individualism" runs another; "what about anti-monarchists?" some (quite understandably) enquire...

What I find interesting about the re-word is the complete failure of the new promise to be worldview-neutral. It seems achingly patent to me that access to community goods -- like safe and fun and sociable activities for kids -- should not be pre-conditioned on a person's faith, or political position, or cultural allegiances.[1] And I cannot reconcile myself to empty words -- the repetition or affirmation of something not actually meant or understood, by way (e.g.) of gaining acceptance or access into a resource which should be open to begin with -- to me, that seems abhorrent; a dangerous precedent which we should be on the lookout for and ready to challenge.

So I'm glad to see that kids are no longer prompted to pledge allegiance to God (by adults frequently demonstrably indifferent to/unbelieving of Him themselves) just so that they get to hang out together on a Wednesday evening and sing and play stuck-in-the-mud and learn how to make paperweights.

But I'm no happier with the implicit faith statements expressed in the words which will be chanted in their stead. "To be true to myself and develop my beliefs" proclaims that self is paramount and individualism is to be embraced and that the most important thing about what you believe is not whether or not it is true but whether or not it is personally fulfilling. The supremacy of self is as much tenet of faith as the belief in God or a higher authority, and there is as much reason and necessity to skeptically interrogate it. So I do not like to see it glibly spoon-fed to 7 year olds as though it were a universally-acknowledged fact of human existence.

The troublesome reality is that it's not actually possible to be worldview-neutral: we all have one, they may well clash, and they inevitably shape our lives and influence our interactions. Within my own worldview I hold it crucial that we be intentional about recognising, exploring and challenging our beliefs, with help from one another and a desire to arrive at truth; we should be doing this from an early age and organisations like the Guides may even have a role to play. I also hold that promises are actually a pretty massive deal, and that we should be extremely wary of exacting any sort of solemn statement from a child (or grownup) which they've not arrived at for themselves. After all, "It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay" (Ecclesiastes 5:5). With this in mind I'd personally rather the Guides got rid of the promise entirely -- or at least reduced it in scope to those points which are rather more unambiguously relevant to the smooth running of their operation:
"I promise that I will do my best
To be well-behaved on a Wednesday evening
To help put the toadstool away without complaining
To not upset the other Brownies or Brown Owl
Or do anything else which might get me sent home"
 ...perhaps? Better to get people to say something trite which they mean than to say something profound which they don't (?)

The other interesting thing about the re-word is that it seems (to me) to rather perfectly sum up the diagnosis and the invitation offered by the Christian faith. With tragic irony, the new promise places 'self' precisely in the position previously held by God. Where does my duty lie? We can't both occupy the seat of ultimate authority. "You shall have no other gods before me" says the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), and it has been suggested that putting self in the place of God is at the heart of all sin -- as C.S. Lewis, for example, puts it:
“The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the center—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race…What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
"Jesus is Lord" has been a central credal affirmation of the Christian church since its earliest beginnings: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). As N.T. Wright is always eager to point out, this was in part a challenge to the cult of the Roman Emperor -- "if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn't" (see, e.g., this essay). But its political implications don't make it any less a statement of personal and corporate acknowledgement of Jesus as the one to whom all honour and obedience is owed. And it has, or should have, the same weight and implications for those who venture to proclaim it still. There may not be an Emperor commanding my allegiance, but in saying "Jesus is Lord" it has to follow "I am not". In a culture which so confidently celebrates self-sovereignty, this notion is distasteful to many and does not come easily in practice to the rest of us. But one might be compelled to pause mid-protestation by the realisation that the call to obedience is not the capricious dictum of a distant despot but the loving exhortation of a Servant King to follow in his own radical example of humble surrender...
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)


[1] Maybe that's an oversimplification -- some beliefs produce behaviours which might not be amenable to participation, but that's not the sort of question I am keen or qualified to tackle. (Not that I am qualified to tackle any sort of question, aargh :-/ )

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