It’s Valentine’s Day 2016, and I’m scarfing down a bacon and egg roll al fresco at a cafe in the Hills District, Sydney’s Bible belt. Around me, loved-up couples chat away. I am not at a cafe for romance, sadly, but out of obligation — the cafe is the chosen location for the first of many Sunday morning Bible studies.
Whilst at the cafe, I converse with the other members of my group: Brian, a university lecturer, and Allan, a final-year medical student. Each of us shares similar backgrounds: we’re all of Asian descent and we all went to the same high school.
Their ostensibly milquetoast personalities are reflected in their orders. Brian purchases two pieces of sticky jam toast wrapped in white paper. Allan goes for a flat white. We innocuously exchange pleasantries about our weeks until Allan lets slip that he is struggling to buy a house.
And with that comment, Brian is let loose.
“Have you seen the housing market? So many people with big mortgages… all being screwed over by the banks and Whore Street!”
His anger was not exclusive to Valentine’s Day. Throughout the year, either with prompting or of his own volition, Brian would frequently express his disapproval of a wide range of institutions, from the mainstream media, to government-produced statistics, to US House Speaker Paul Ryan. My muted desires for “nuances” were overpowered by Allan’s resistance of Brian’s “crazy” rants, believing them to be a distraction from Bible reading.
Brian and Allan’s antagonism was stoked further once the federal election approached. By mid-May, Brian was participating in an Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) letterboxing effort. The group distributed leaflets that read “same sex marriage: there’s more to it than you think”.
At one pre-election Bible study, Allan questioned Brian about the effectiveness of defending traditional marriage by working with a “tarnished” and “divisive” organisation. Brian praised the ACL, recommending that Christians “need to be more politically active”. Allan was not thrilled by Brian’s response, believing that the ACL needed to focus on “Jesus-centred” activism (read: #LetThemStay and variants) rather than the thorny debate on same-sex marriage.
Brian’s ensuing cries demanded we be “willing to actually do something” to oppose same-sex marriage. His request fell on deaf ears.
Our group weren’t the only set of ‘deaf ears’ at church. According to Brian, our reverend was “torn” when Brian pushed him to politicise his teachings with doomsday-conservative principles.
Our schism worsened post-election.
Whilst snaking through a dusty alleyway on the path to church, Brian denigrated Vietnamese migrants, whom he termed “welfare bludgers”. According to Brian, this precedent justified prohibiting refugees on Manus Island and Nauru from entering Australia.
I interrupted Brian, citing Vietnamese family friends at my old church at Cabramatta – an attempt to put a face to the people he was attacking.
The adjacent traffic lights changed colour to green and Brian duly hit back.
“You haven’t let me finish. And I always let you finish when you speak … All I want is legal immigration.”
Allan was the calming voice, asking Brian to be more sensitive about “divisive issues”. As we neared the church complex, our fellow Chinese-language congregants’ hubbub was a suitable backdrop for quiet reflection on my part in the conversation.
Who came out best when we had these sorts of arguments? Who was winning our weekly ‘battle of ideas’?
With his inflammatory rhetoric, Brian certainly didn’t convince me of his beliefs’ righteousness. In my anger, I didn’t win either.
Valentine’s Day for 2017 was a few weeks ago, but love is still in the air; Brian and Allan have each found partners in the past year. Their marriage plans have taken precedence but the political conversations have not been extinguished.
Just before we open our Bibles to Matthew 11, Brian remarks that our group discussions have “made us stronger” through moderating our anger and learning to listen to each other.
I am inclined to agree.
Matthew 11:15 reads: “Whoever has ears, let him hear”. In that passage, Jesus asks His audience to listen to the evidence for Him being their Messiah. Jesus’ desire for people to listen to all evidence and respond accordingly is still applicable today.