Thursday, October 26, 2006

I am in a dialogue with friends in the United States and Australia on what the role should be of columnists like myself. Let me include you in it.

I am in a dialogue with friends in the United States and Australia on what the role should be of columnists like myself. Let me include you in it.

The American said to me, quite rightly I believe, that ‘any honest observer would have to admit that neither the left nor the right, neither the religious nor the non-religious, has a monopoly on virtue.';

Many Christians live virtuous lives and so do many men and women of other faiths and, indeed, of no faith. Sadly, some Christians, even high-ranking or prominent Christians, commit acts that bring our faith into disrespect. Likewise many non-Christians, Muslims included, do so too. Columnists are no different. It is the reality of human nature.

He wondered if the task of all people of faith, and particularly the main task of columnists of faith, was ‘to help individuals on either side of a public issue develop and pay attention to their inner compass?'

Christian leaders in many countries are wrestling with this challenge. A recent article in The Age , a prominent Australian daily, was headed ‘Humanity the loser in rigid roles of rule and religion.' The article points out that ‘clearly, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, Liberal or Labor (In Australia for Liberal, read Conservative)': ‘The issue is not whether a political leader or party has a personal faith but whether they have a moral compass'.

My American friend, however, adds a dimension to this view. ‘Politicians of all stripes often do strive to do what is right and have something of a moral compass. It is arrogant to suggest that someone we disagree with has no moral compass.'

My Australian takes this further. We must, indeed, each be true to our own moral compass but, he adds, without demanding that others follow our compass. We also need to listen to ‘the other' and understand where they are coming from and heading. He sees no resolution of the clash between Muslims and Christian worlds short of acknowledging their own sins and the sins of their fathers, putting right what can be put right and developing an appreciation of each other.

He suggests that if a columnist could provoke each side in any dispute or debate to listen honestly to the other's argument that could contribute towards understanding. ‘So often,' he writes, ‘our public debates involve protagonists with loud mouths and muffled ears. Conceding a point does not lose the argument; as winning the argument does not resolve the dispute.'

Another friend who is vitally involved in improving relations between races says he has learned to recognize another important truth, the need to write and speak in a way that doesn't back those who have differing views into their own corner. He calls for ‘an honest conversation that affirms the best and does not confirm the worst, that focuses on working together towards a solution, not on identifying enemies.'

I discovered when I lived in Portland on the walls of the old Oregonian building a version of the Oregon Code of Ethics of Journalism: ‘It is not true that a newspaper should only be as advanced in its ethical atmosphere as it conceives the average of its readers to be. No man (and presumably no woman) who is not in ethical advance of the average of his community should be in the profession of journalism.' It doesn't seem to be there now!

But the bottom line remains our own integrity.

I know an English columnist who is paid to dispense each week wisdom about questions sent in by readers. He gives excellent advice. I mentioned this to his brother. ‘Yes, he said, but he doesn't follow it himself.'

Mahatma Gandhi, who had great admiration for the Christian faith and for some Christians around him and valued Christian hymns might well have become a Christian but for the fact that at one point in his life he was excluded from a church because of his race. One great truth he later expressed, which would be a good yardstick for Christians, and indeed for columnists: ‘My life is my message.'

This article first appeared on the website: in September/October 2006