Following the Media Take show last week that got quite a bit of attention, Russell asked me to write something for Public Address that goes into how, as a "believer", I approach those who believe differently from me.
I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m guessing it’s because he’s found something in who I am and how I relate that isn’t exclusionary in the manner Christianity is often seen to be.
To give you some context, I’m a Christian Minister, ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand. Because of circumstances, I grew up experiencing the breadth of flavours and diversity that make up the Christian community in New Zealand. I feel very privileged to have had such an experience though the circumstances that created it were less than ideal. Growing up, I also explored other religions and worldviews, with an extreme fascination for the way humans think, filter and approach the world around us.
I’m someone who, for various reasons that I won’t expand on here, believes in the traditional Christian views encapsulated in the ancient creeds known as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. We could have discussions ad-nauseam about the minute detail in those creeds, but broadly speaking I hold them to be true. I believe in the historical Jesus, that he was both divine and human, that he died and rose again. I believe in the authority of scripture (the Bible), but we could have a long discussion about how we should understand the word authority.
All that to say, I don’t go to church simply because it’s a nice thing to do that gives me warm-fuzzies, but because I truly believe in the story that infuses and unites the diverse Christian community. Hear me when I say that I truly get and understand how this belief sounds ludicrous to some people and I understand why it gets likened to believing in fairies. Those accusations make me giggle and I’m good with that. As much as I’ve tried to let it go from time to time (sometimes I think life would be so much easier if I didn’t believe it), the story of Jesus and what he and his place mean in the world, grips me to the deepest core of my being. I can’t shake it.
I think many people would recognise that in our age of enlightenment and in our culture of pluralism, my core beliefs are often seen as strange, and almost (or very definitely in the eyes of some) antiquated and archaic. Many would also point to the worst of how Christians have engaged the world around us as a reason for rejecting who we are and the place we might have in a diverse culture. It’s understandable. I can’t speak for the whole Christian community, but I can certainly try and go some way towards explaining my own approach.
In my more strident days I thought the way I saw things was the way everybody needed to see things (I’m somewhat of an activist at heart), including other Christians, and I engaged hour upon hour in endless debates about the truth of what I believe with anyone from atheists to other Christians.
In a former blogging life I devoted way too many hours to endless discussions that were never going to sway those who see things differently from me, and in return, their endless attempts at persuasion were never going to work on me (it was a polite form of the worst of the internet ... "someone’s wrong on the internet, I have to fix it!"). They were fun times that went a long way to shaping who I am, but I could have approached things very differently. Let’s just clock it up to youthful arrogance on my part.
Since then I’ve reflected on my own life experiences growing up, and had life experiences both here in New Zealand and in my travels overseas, (such as brief times in the slums of Delhi and Mumbai, and getting caught in the middle of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict), that have caused me to rethink who I am and my place in the world. Plus I’ve been shaped by some of the stories of scripture that I had only given cursory time to previously. I’ll happily admit that it has all knocked me down a peg or two.
Where I once saw myself as on a mission to save the world, I now see myself as a bit player in a wonderful story, just trying to get through life like everybody else and hoping that who I am and what I have to offer may give something good to the lives of others.
If I was to frame my approach, the best way I know how, it would be to point to one of my heroes and how he framed the story of Jesus, along with a few other things. The Apostle Paul (one of the early leaders of those who followed Jesus) wrote a letter to a small, fledgling church in Philippi, a city within the Roman empire at the time. In the letter he urged the Christian community to "have the mind of Christ". To explain that, he gave them a poem, pointing out how Jesus had given up the privileges of divinity, making himself nothing and becoming a servant/slave, an action that ultimately took him to the cross.
That question of what it means to be a servant/slave and the humility that underpins it drives me beyond simply trying to be a nice guy. The same goes for many Christians and churches doing great things in their communities, things that you never hear of because they’re just getting it done with no PR or fanfare, while often the worst of who we are captures the headlines.
I put that sense of service alongside a Greek word that often appears in the New Testament in relation to Jesus – "splanchnizesthai", which is often translated into English as compassion, sympathy, or pity.
Those words sound nice, but the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth insisted that the meaning is much stronger than what those words imply. He would say that Jesus wasn’t simply moved by the suffering of those he encountered, but that their suffering drove deeply into him, that he took their suffering on and made it his own. Certainly, the way he reacts to those around him and to those who cause the suffering of others in the stories of the biblical gospels would attest to that.
Then there is the very model of how Jesus treated those around him. His anger is reserved for those who created barriers to God, heaping unnecessary requirements on people and puffing themselves up with their own self-importance in the process. His response to those who were different and that society kicked to the margins was always gracious, merciful, kind and driven by what seems to be a deep sense of love. He saw them, he heard them, he listened to them, he knew them; a real knowing, not the knowing that gives a cursory glance and then moves on to the next thing. Even in our differences, I’m convinced this approach should be our starting point. I try to live like that ... please forgive me when I fail.
All of this leads to an approach that should be quick to embrace rather than exclude even if that embrace is messy. Another great theologian of our time, Miroslav Volf, pushes for this in his book titled, funnily enough Exclusion and Embrace.
With all that in mind, for me this isn’t actually a discussion about how I, as a believer, can interact and do life with ‘non-believers’ but about how we all treat and do life with anyone who is different from us. It’s not just us Christians who are often bad at it, but many of us from all walks of life.
Doing difference well starts with some simple concepts that I often find hard to live out, humility, empathy, assuming the best of the other and having their best in mind. I’m interested in what others think and why they think it and then letting our conversation flow from that, letting our stories inform one another from a sense of respect.
A good example of this was the recent ruckus caused when Stephen Fry talked about his view of God in an interview. I wrote a piece on it for my blog. The natural and understandable reaction from many Christians was to hear an attack on some ideas they hold to be true. What I heard and saw was an intelligent and compassionate person frustrated at a popular idea of God in the face of the suffering he has encountered in the world. So rather than respond to an attack on something I hold to be true, anything I could come up with in response would be a conversation that engages where he’s coming from, a place I totally get. All I have to offer in return is who I am, and my stories.
I’m not interested in pointless and endless debates anymore, I’m interested in bringing my humanity to the table in the mess, grit, rawness and beauty of life in the hope that maybe, just maybe something of who I am and the stories that shape me, may bring something worthwhile to your life. I want to do life with people. In the process I have no doubt who you are will add something to who I am.
I have a love for the media, so I’ve started a little project called NewsLeads with the ridiculous thought that maybe I can bring this approach and who I am into that space; and in the process inject something worthwhile into the mix. Let’s see where it goes.
Francis Ritchie blogs regularly on his own website.