May 10, 2022

Hey Christians: When it comes to engaging non-Christians, don’t be like Aaron

This is Aaron. Aaron Patrick. Christians, when it comes to engaging someone who is not a Christian, don’t be like Aaron. In fact, be the opposite of Aaron.

Aaron Patrick is a senior correspondent for the Australian Financial Review – a major national newspaper in Australia (equivalent of the UK’s The Financial Times). He specialises in writing about, not surprisingly, business, but also politics. Aaron was invited to the Freedom For Faith conference that I spoke at in Sydney last week (and where I presumably picked up COVID).

Freedom for Faith is a Christian legal think tank that exists to see religious freedom protected and promoted in Australia. And with my background speaking on cultural matters, and with the heat surrounding the Religious Discrimination Act in Australia in the lead up to the general election in just over a week, it was my ballpark.

Aaron was there for the day, seated right at the back, not engaging with anyone. He was there to listen and, if he so chose, to report on what happened. Or, as we all know to be the case when it comes to the myth of impartiality, to report on what happened through the lens of his own perspective.

Anyway, in my presentation I spoke about the usual stuff I speak about, particularly the idea that the search for ultimate meaning and identity in the modern West has shifted to an inner search. Looking within oneself is the key to the authenticity quest. The goal is to carve out a life – and increasingly that means carving out your body – to align with that inner reality. The search is “down here and within there”.

I juxtaposed this with other views of the world, and highlighted how the “Negro Spiritual” songs of the antebellum Southern slaves looked for meaning and rescue “up there”. Why? because there wasn’t much hope down here. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” anyone?

In due time, Aaron wrote an article that was a blend of issues relating to minor party and niche group involvement in the upcoming election. In other words he bunched the crazies together. Including Freedom For Faith which received a couple of sentences at the end of his article. It was disappointing, though not surprising. His few lines about the conference were used for a “gotcha” moment to finish with a flourish. And that flourish employed me as the fall guy.

Here is what he wrote in relation to the conference, upon being invited to it by – he says – a woman who had shown support for an often reactionary political party in Australia (he was given a press invitation, and given what I am about to say, perhaps he made that bit up about the woman inviting him, but let’s not quibble):

Describing herself as “curious, receptive and sometimes raw”, she suggested I attend, like her, a conference organised by a “Christian legal think tank”, Freedom for Faith, to explore why the Bible isn’t getting much election airtime. At the conference on Tuesday, presenter Stephen McAlpine referred to American soul singers as “Negro spiritualists”. Maybe that helps explains why. “

I don’t read the Australian Financial Review, and it’s behind a paywall, so I was only alerted to this when a couple of people contacted me to say that this had been reported. And sure it’s a final smug line – a nice way to package up and circle back – in an article that few people probably read to the end. But nonetheless, and my pride apart, Aaron pretty much labelled me a racist in the national media. It stung.

Oh and when my wife read it, she was ticked off too. That’s probably because, being a non-white South African who grew up in the apartheid regime and felt the sharp end of racism, she was completely unaware that her husband was a closet racist. Or maybe because Aaron was speaking about what he did not know.

Znyway Aaron’s reporting highlights a number of ways that Christians shouldn’t deal with people with whom we a priori disagree with. And it’s a scorching public square at the moment. And that public attitude leaks. We tend to take the way in which social and other media relates to people into our private conversations. In other words, in the way we deal with those whose position is the opposite of ours, don’t be like Aaron.

Here are five ways not to be like Aaron in how you engage with people:

  1. Listen To What Your Opponent Is Saying: It would seem the first rule of journalism to listen to what you are being told, if indeed you are going to report it. Aaron did not do that. He clearly wasn’t listening. He mentioned that I used the term “Negro Spiritualists” to describe “black soul singers”. Given I didn’t mention the latter, and given I used a different term than what he attributed to me in the former, Aaron didn’t listen to what I actually said. That’s a “no-no” for us when we are having a discussion with someone who disagrees with our position. Don’t glaze over as they are talking, already filling in your arguments to counter what you perceive they are saying, rather than forming your opinion of what you think they should be saying. We need to be people, especially in the “hot cultural moment” who take the time to listen to what our opponents are actually saying. Let everyone else be shouty, and speaking over the top of their opponents, we should not do the same.
  2. Admit You Don’t Know Everything: A little bit of humility goes a long way. I wrote privately to Aaron (I assume he will bin my reply) to explain that a cursory glance at Wiki or Spotify would have cleared up what I actually said. Aaron is used to the public stage, and as a national newspaper correspondent he can punch down when he makes an error, without having to go public to admit it when its pointed out to him. But here’s a well educated man who has a knowledge gap in an area that I assumed was pretty common-knowledge. Heck, if Spotify has playlists dedicated to it! But there’s something in admitting you don’t know everything. Christians don’t have to be the experts on every issue, even when it comes to sexual ethics! But sometimes we think that we have a definitive perspective on every matter because we’re Christians. Wrong. We have a true – though not yet definitive – perspective on salvation. We would do well to allow ourselves to be taught by our opponent about things that we don’t know – including, yes, including that dreaded term “lived experience”. Admitting to ourselves before we go into a conversation that we are here to learn as well, is going to be helpful.
  3. Assume the Best of Your Opponent: Unless the person you are have a conversation with, or indeed disagreeing with, is a complete narcissist who brooks no rival and is snarling at you, assume that they too want to hear what you are saying and engage with it. Now I don’t think Aaron came to the conference assuming the best. The tenor of his article, and the direction it took, clearly indicated that. And as another national journalist friend of mine, the admirable Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian, has often remarked to me, journalists are a cynical lot. They come to the table assuming the worst – of others of course, not themselves! Once we fall into cynicism when it comes to engaging our opponents, we’ve probably lost the person already. And our job is not to win arguments, even though we like to, it is to win people over to the gospel. The irony is that since we believe that all are sinners, then we all start with a level playing field, for we too are sinners, though saved by grace. Assume that our opponent, made in the image of God, also has a vision of human flourishing that they believe will lead to the good life. Don’t assume bad motive from the outset.
  4. Don’t Approach the Conversation in Bad Faith: Engaging with someone about the gospel means that we don’t look for a “gotcha” moment from the outset either. Doing so assumes that this is the first and final discussion about the matter, and that you intend to walk away from this being the winner. Bad faith is, well, bad! And it’s bad for the faith. We are living in increasingly hostile times, and I have often mentioned that we should not assume a fair hearing (and find that point being constantly proven), but in some senses as God’s people we have to fight this battle with one hand tied behind our backs. Scripture tells us to speak with gentleness (that doesn’t mean not speaking the truth clearly), so let’s approach those who are hostile to our views not assuming they are always hostile to us personally.
  5. Apologise When You Get Something Wrong: We did ask the Australian Financial Review for a retraction and I wrote to Aaron also. We assume that radio silence – or the print journalism equivalent – will ensue. They will move on and that will be that. But here’s Christianity’s secret weapon: forgiveness. If we fully understand what it means to have been forgiven through Christ for our sins by the sinless, perfect God of the universe, then we understand the liberty there is in ‘fessing up and being forgiven in order to move on. And that means this: we don’t always have to be right! In the cut and thrust of the dog-eat-dog world of business and politics that Aaron inhabits (not to mention his own personal life which I know little of), to show any signs of weakness, including the great modern day weakness of admitting you are wrong, is next to impossible. As Douglas Murray points out in his book The Madness of Crowds, the post-Christian world has no safety net of forgiveness. Get something wrong, especially in the public setting, and it’s a long cancelled spiral downwards. There’s something good and true and noble (and gospel!) about admitting we are wrong. It’s disarming. Yet what if in doing so, our position appears to be weakened in the eyes of our opponents? Well folks, that’s where the weakness of the cross proves to be the strength of the cross. Admitting one is wrong, in a world that can’t go there, just hits different. Let that be our flavour. And the world just can’t do that. Which is why, I suspect, I won’t see any email from Aaron hitting my inbox any time soon!

But let me finish on a brighter note. The Sydney Morning Herald had a recent article about the Religious Discrimination Act, and its ongoing travails, in relation to LGBT students in faith-based schools. It centred around the super hot-button topic of whether faith-based schools expel students who identify as lesbian or gay or trans.

The schools don’t do that. Exceptions that hit the headlines prove the rule, and as a board member of a Christian schools system, I wrote to the journalist, a woman called Lisa, who had penned the article, in order to express my views.

How did that go? Great actually. It was a good exchange and we left off thanking each other, and, from what it seems, understanding each other’s viewpoints and reasons for writing. Not agreeing on everything, but certainly humanising and acknowledging the other perspective. It also reminds me, that for reasons I may have no clue about, Aaron came to his a priori decisions based on his own life experiences. There is no such thing as unbiased journalism, there never was and there never will be.

But as best you can, don’t be like Aaron. Be like Lisa. Even better, be like Jesus, who never reviled those who reviled him. Entrust ourselves to the One who judges justly, the One to whom we will be accountable for every last word spoken, or indeed written.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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