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?
Very good. To add a wrinkle to your hypothetical Trump-supporter-as-victim in the Parable of the Priest, Levite and Samaritan: What happens when the guy in the “Make America Great Again” cap is the one who stops to dress and bind the victim’s wounds?
Also, along these same lines, is this article I found last year. Finding it was a providential accident, because I was searching for The Secret of Father Brown. Paradigm changing: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anything-except-the-outgroup/
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Wow, very good article! I think he’s on to something. But it gets more complicated when you bring Christianity into it, I think, because people in both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe sincerely (I believe) profess to follow Jesus and for that to be the most important thing, more important than what the tribes believe. So that at least creates some cognitive dissonance when we also identify with the Red or Blue tribe. I feel hypocritical saying, “They’re not real Christians,” when I’ve been told often enough that I’m not a real Christian. Even if I believe strongly that their words and actions go against Jesus’, what good does it do to say back and forth to each other, “You’re not a real Christian,” “No, you’re not a real Christian”? I feel like it’s just making the word meaningless.
Thanks for commenting, David. I always appreciate your perspective.
I don’t mind listening to those whose opinions differ from mine. I rather enjoy it. but I have great difficulty listening to folk who speak in absolutes, especially about groups of people, more especially about groups of people of which they are not a part, and most especially when their rhetoric is negative. if we want to be heard we have a responsibility to speak with restraint. when we make statements about “Muslims” (or Christians, Jews, Hindus) as if they are all the same we kinda invite dismissal. we tend to talk about Muslims and terrorists as if they are synonymous. in so doing we disregard peaceful Muslims AND terrorizing Christians, etc. politicians and pundits didn’t offer any sweeping opinions of white, southern, Christian Americans when Dylan Roof committed an act of terror. yet they eagerly do so with Muslims. and when they are called on it they say they “didn’t mean all Muslims”. when we do not mean all Muslims then we have a responsibility to speak in a way that cannot be interpreted as all Muslims: restraint!
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I’m part-way through the book by Eugene Rogan titled “The Arabs: A History.” During World War I, the remnants of the Ottoman Empire allied themselves with Germany, while various Arab nationalist groups who wanted independence from the Ottomans were allied with Britain, France, and Russia, because those nations promised to help the Arab nationalists get out from under Ottoman rule. At one point, the Germans, knowing the power of religion, called on the Ottoman caliph, who was both temporal ruler of the Empire and spiritual head of global Islam, to declare a jihad against Britain, Russia and France, who had colonized much of majority Muslim North Africa by the turn of the 20th century or, in Russia’s case, had designs on parts of the Ottoman Empire that would give them access to the Mediterranean. The Germans figured that all “good Muslims” in the colonized regions would turn against their British and French overlords who, having to fight subjects in their own colonies, would find their resources stretched thin, to Germany’s and the Ottomans’ military advantage. The caliph called for jihad, but very few Muslims in those territories responded as the Germans had hoped. However, the call for jihad caused British and French strategists to seek the support of various Muslim leaders for their own war effort in an attempt to counter the effects of the caliph’s call for jihad.
What became clear as I read this is that of all the sources of “identity” upon which we humans rely, our identity in relation to the divine strikes at the most fundamental part of us and is most likely to motivate us above and beyond almost every other factor. Our identity in that which is beyond us and yet upon which we rely for the ultimate meaning of our lives is so important, that many of us can even be persuaded to put our lives at risk for the sake of that in which we believe (as those Muslims who did respond to the call for jihad did, and as some do in the present day as well). Though it is important to have such devotion to that which is beyond ourselves and yet to which we are intimately related, that very fact makes us vulnerable to those who would manipulate such devotion for their own worldly ends – which, at the risk of oversimplification, I might simply call “political ends.” Those political ends might relate to the community of nations, to the political factions within countries or locally, to economic or social classes, to sectarian religious commitments, and even to inter- and intra-family situations. When we focus on the worldly, politics is almost certainly in play at some point, and to relate our politics to the way we construe our relationship to the divine helps direct and solidify our commitments and actions in relation to temporal events.
One of my seminary professors delighted in pointing out how the Decalogue was stated and restated in various forms throughout the Bible. One of the most succinct of the OT passages relating the Commandments, he noted, is Micah 6.8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Your idea of “listening” fits nicely with that very command. If we “walk humbly with [our] God,” how can we “walk haughtily with our neighbor”? Listening is an act of humility, of kindness, and of justice, and responding out of that same humility, kindness and justice further enacts the obedience that was begun in the listening.
I love your blog and posts, but the falling snowflake background is driving my eyes crazy… 🙂
Hang in there! They’ll be gone in January. 🙂
Thanks so much for this. First of all, I have to chuckle when you talk about your big-picture brain. Yep, I have one of those. 🙂 But I really loved what you said here about the temptation to close out the voices that disagree with us so that we can see a world that makes sense to us. That’s so insightful. Yes, that IS what that is. Like if we close it out we can pretend it all does make sense. I wish I had all the (or any) answers, too. Right now I’m pretty sure it starts small. Top-down is all this world looks like right now. We need some shoulder-to-shoulder love. 🙂 Thanks for your words today.
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“shoulder-to-shoulder love” I like that one. Congress isn’t going to legislate love. And if they do they won’t be able to enforce it. It’s up to the individual to choose to love or not.
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Shoulder-to-shoulder love, yes! Well, we’ve got, let’s see, eight people here — we can make a start!
I don’t really have much to contribute, I just wanted to say thank you for writing. I also wanted to encourage you. While it may not get the big results we desire, the only way this hateful rhetoric will stop is by people like you sharing your perspective, all of us listening to ideas different from our own, and getting to know Muslims or ‘ any other type of stranger as unique individuals and living and loving as Jesus. I am convinced, unfortunately there are no quick fixes.
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Thanks, Juanita. Yes, it has to start with really seeing each other and not just sweeping each other into categories. No quick fixes, but I think you and I can really make a difference, just by being open and looking at others in love.
LOVE THIS. You read my mind!
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