This is the thought that has haunted me for months now, and has become more and more urgent as the primaries approach and things get more and more polarized: How can we listen to each other? Brilliant writers and theologians have done their best to parse and explain and preach, but I wonder who is really listening? Those who lean towards the left, towards what is called liberal or progressive theology and politics (I’m speaking as a Christian here) write essays and op-ed pieces which are shared by other left-leaning folks, and those who lean towards the right and what is called conservative theology and politics write and share essays and op-ed pieces that say the opposite things, and those are shared by other right-leaning folks. And the left gets left-er and the right gets right-er. But is anyone really listening to each other?
It’s hard, it’s really hard, I know, to stay open to people you disagree with. I want to block them all and unfriend them all, and live in a world where everyone makes what I call sense. It’s so reassuring to scroll through Facebook and Twitter and read posts and essays that support my views. But even if that were an acceptable way to live, it’s becoming destructive now, played out in America in truly dangerous ways.
I do think we have to stand up for what we believe in. I agree with my friend Laura Parrot Perry that we have to speak up loudly against injustice and racism and fear. Yes. And, I think we also need to be asking, Why? and How? Why are people afraid? If we assume that even those we disagree with are acting out of what they think is true and right, then why do they think that? What information or misinformation do they have that is making them think these things? And how can we address their fear and misunderstanding in a way that they may actually hear us? I just don’t think I’m changing anyone’s hearts and minds by posting article after article that supports what I believe. I think they are just blocking me, unfriending me, or tuning me out, as I am tempted to do with them. But how can I speak so that they will really listen? I don’t know, but it may start with listening myself.
Yesterday Jen Hatmaker joined many other Christian leaders in speaking out against Donald Trump and his statements about Muslims. I was grateful and proud that she took that stance, since I think many of her readers are more conservative than those of other writers I follow (like Rachel Held-Evans, Jonathan Merritt, John Pavolitz). And I was grateful, too, for the opportunity to read the comments. I would rather not have. But I settled myself down with a cup of tea and prayed to be able to set aside my own fear and anger and just listen. It was hard. But I learned a lot. I learned that many people think my views are ignorant and dangerous and ill-informed, just as I might think theirs are. I learned that there are rumors going around about Syrians that many believe, that they regularly rape young boys and that US soldiers have been commanded to overlook this out of political correctness. I already knew that people believed that most Muslims endorse violence and want to kill Christians and Americans, but I got to read some of the statistics that were being shared. It was really hard, but I’m glad I listened.
But now, I am frustrated with my own limitations, my big-picture mind that doesn’t hold on to details very well, my lack of energy to do much beyond working to pay the bills. I’m frustrated with my introversion that makes any kind of conversation challenging, much less impassioned debate. I’m frustrated by this bad cold that is fogging up my brain. I am frustrated by my lack of resources, that I don’t have the statistics on hand to counter what I believe to be false claims. I’m frustrated because I see what needs to be done next, but I don’t know how to do it.
I was reading comments several months ago on a Facebook post by Glennon Doyle Melton. I forget what the post was about (sorry, Glennon – it’s my big-picture brain), but I remember one of the comments was from an angry conservative who believed that all Muslims were violent and out to get us. And, somehow, Glennon’s sister Amanda and I managed to respond to that woman with gentleness, affirming her perspective and her value as a member of Glennon’s community, and also sharing what we knew about the peacefulness of most Muslims. I expected that either she wouldn’t reply, or that she would reply angrily. But she responded with gratitude. She had been expecting anger in response to her own anger, and our loving replies surprised her. And she actually heard us. She said she didn’t know that about Muslims, and she appreciated us telling her. She said she just never heard that perspective in her circles. Overwhelmed, I messaged Amanda, “Did you see that? LOVE WINS.” We saw each others’ humanity, and acknowledged that we were all trying to do the right thing, as best we could. And love won. Listening won. Theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”
So I know it’s possible. I’m just not sure how to do it on a larger scale. Of course, in one sense, it’s not possible on a larger scale, because it took that individual attention and love to make the difference. But there has to be a way to magnify it, because it’s only that love that can get us to listen to each other. What W. H. Auden wrote 76 years ago at the start of World War II is just as true now: “We must love one another or die.”
I really don’t think we have any hope in America unless we learn how to bridge the gap, to stop the polarization process, and to really listen to each other.
I think I and my fellow progressive Christians are really good at following Christ’s mandate to “love your enemies” when we see our enemies as foreigners, as people of other religions, as people different from us. But I think we have to take Jesus’ words and apply them to our fellow Americans, too. What if those Jesus is calling us to love are actually the people who hurt and anger us the most? What if the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead is actually a conservative Christian, sporting a “Make America Great Again” cap? What would it look like for us to love that man, to succor him, to bind up his wounds, even though he stands for all that we despise? What would love like that mean?
I really don’t know the answer. I’m posting this in case someone else knows. Maybe I have one piece of the puzzle, and someone else can take it and fill in another piece. Wouldn’t that be just like the kingdom economy of Christ, who said that we need each other, every one of us, just like a body needs not just a head and hands but feet and ears, too? Maybe my big-picture brain needs to be complimented by people with detail-oriented brains.
What do you think? How can we listen to each other? How can we speak the truth and also love each other, be bold and gentle, confident and humble? How can we learn to love each other, before we all perish?