Listening to Those On the Other Side

Can you learn something from someone on the opposite side of an issue?

Or, to put it another way: What would happen if people in our country chose not to demonize someone they disagree with, but listen to them? Really listen to them? Can a pacifist learn something from a lifelong member of the military? Can a Protestant learn something from a Catholic? Can a New Yorker learn something from a Kentucky farmer? Can a born-and-raised midwesterner learn something from an undocumented immigrant? Can a gun opponent learn something from a gun owner? Can a white evangelical Trump supporter learn something from a black evangelical never-Trumper? At the same time, flip each question around. Can anybody learn anything anymore from anyone on the other side?

Well, we can’t, unless we first listen. And we won’t listen until we first see the other person as a person – and not as an ideology, or a political persuasion, or a religion, or an ethnicity. It starts by seeing each person as God sees them – as someone made in His image – and full of hurts and hopes, dreams and desires, baggage and background. In other words, a person just like you: someone with a story – a narrative that has formed them, in ways seen and unseen, into the person they are, and are becoming. Even the loudest and most adamant among us arrives at their perspective in large part because of the bumps and bruises and blessings of life. They believe what they believe for a reason; they stand (and sometimes shout) because something has led them to that place. That something is their story. What would happen if, instead of yelling back, or ignoring them, or belittling them, or writing them off as evil or clueless, we instead listened? What would happen if, instead of pigeon-holing them because of what we can see, we instead sought to hear more from them about what we can’t see?

To be sure, listening is not the same as embracing what they believe – but it is the first step toward embracing them. It is the first step toward putting yourself in that person’s shoes. It may not lead you to agree with them, but it will lead you to walk with them. And in the walking is the understanding. On the journey, we come to see them as God sees them – a loved and unique creation, made in His image.

One of the things I do in my current job is lead a group for kids who are in a diversion program. These kids have gotten involved in a minor dust-up with the law, and to keep them out of court, they get six months of diversion. Before I meet them, I get an opportunity to hear from the diversion workers, as they share some of the background and experiences of these kids. Let me tell you, it changes things. It changes me; it changes my perspective. Instead of seeing them as a kid who did something stupid, I get a glimpse into their lives – the challenges they’re up against, the hurt they’ve experienced, the uphill climb they face. So, when one of the kids is distant and difficult – or hides behind a hat or the long, flowing hair that covers his eyes – I try to have some understanding.

I guess what I’m saying, is this: Put aside your preconceived notions. Get past the generational differences that keep you from engaging someone younger (or older). Look beyond the MAGA hat or the rainbow flag. See deeper than skin color or religious persuasion. See first the person, not their perspective or position.

What difference could we make in our country if we started with this simple idea? What would happen if we truly just listened to each other? What difference would it make if we all did this with just one person on the other side of an issue? In my next post, I’ll give you an example of two people who did just that.

You think?

I used to enjoy watching those political debate shows on television. You know the kind; the ones where they line up people on the right and the left (literally and politically), and they proceed to yell at, through, and around each other. For some reason, I used to enjoy that kind of stuff.

Not so much, anymore. Perhaps because I’m getting older. Perhaps because I’m less strident than I used to be. Perhaps because I have experienced enough angry people in real life that I’d rather not sit and watch them on TV, too.

But this week, I found another reason why I no longer enjoy people getting whipped up into a righteous lather: because it doesn’t work. Rare is the person who changes a position on something by being tongue-lashed into it.

I was reminded of this truth by a helpful new book: How to Think by Alan Jacobs, a Christian intellectual (and yes, those 2 words can go together, despite what some intellectuals think, and despite what some Christians think). Jacobs challenges us to actually stop and think about thinking; because, in fact, often that’s not what we do. Often, when we hear something we disagree with: we react; we assume; we pigeon-hole; we rely on categories and catchwords. In short, we do anything but think. Therefore, debates, whether they are on television or simply happen in the classroom or the cubicle, are often about anything but thinking; they are about winning.

In this vein, Jacobs describes how debates happen in the Political Union, a debating society at Yale University. There, the goal is to win, yes; but not by “scoring points.” Instead, the goal is to win someone over to your position. But that’s only one of the goals. There’s a second one: to be won over. That’s right: a debate where you win when you win, but where you also win when you lose.

The first win is described as “breaking someone on the floor” – where you change someone’s mind in the middle of the debate, right there in front of everyone. But the second win also involves a change of mind — yours. This is called “being broken on the floor” — where you are the one who changes your mind, out in the open, for everyone to see.

When members of the Yale Political Union are interviewed as potential society leaders, they are expected to have experience with both kinds of “wins” – changing someone’s mind, and changing their own. For, as a member of the YPU points out: Who, exactly, has perfect political and ethical ideas? Who among us, whatever age or education, knows everything about everything? In other words, why, when faced with truth, should we, unthinkingly, continue to hold onto error?

All of this came to mind today after I happened to watch the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” It’s well worth watching, though it deals with some heavy stuff. (In fact, just a heads-up: if you watch this movie, it will wreck you. At least it did me.)

The movie tells the story of two boys in World War 2 who happen to be on opposite sides of the fence. Literally. Bruno’s father is the commandant of a concentration camp. Shmuel is a boy on the other side of the wire; a Jewish prisoner in that camp. As the movie unfolds, Bruno and his family slowly learn what the camp is all about. Told that Jews are the enemy and that the camp is a legitimate part of the war effort, Bruno has to learn to face the truth as it comes at him in real and personal ways.

In other words, Bruno has to learn how to think. Not take what he’s heard; not simply swallow what he’s told. Bruno grows up as he learns to face what is — and think about what it all means.

Bruno’s naivete and innocence isn’t surprising; after all, he’s only 8. The same can’t be said for the German Church during the same period. History has documented for us how timid and unthinking the Church was in the face of Hitler’s rise. According to James & Marti Hefley, as Hitler’s Nazi Party rode roughshod over his parliamentary opposition, a group of German Christian leaders proclaimed, “We German Protestant Christians accept the saving of our nation by our leader Adolf Hitler as a gift from God’s hand.” They affirmed “unanimously our unlimited fealty to the Third Reich and its leader.” By 1936, even leaders of the “Confessing Church” (congregations who saw some of the wrongs being done) did not protest the requirement that German citizens take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and nothing was said about the increased discrimination against the Jews.

In other words, not thinking is dangerous. Only watching our favorite network is not thinking. Only listening to those we agree with is not thinking. Accepting the party line of our favorite politician or political party is not thinking. Accepting the spin by our favorite commentator, or even our favorite TV preacher, is not thinking.

In fact, I think that those who believe in truth — Big Picture Truth, what we might call “capital-T Truth” — should be the last ones to swallow the lines we are handed by those who have microphones, and instead should be the first to ask: But is that True?

We should do the hard work of listening and learning — as we seek out the Truth that is real, lasting, and available for all of us who are willing to really think about Truth.

Because here’s the thing: Truth never justs stays in your head. It gets lived out. Truth never just shapes how you think; it also changes how you live.

So, how are you living? It’s probably in direct relationship to how you’re thinking.

 

Faith, Doubt, & the Choice of Easter

Recently, I read a book I really enjoyed. The Skeptical Believer, by Daniel Taylor, wrestles with faith, doubt, and what it means to live what we believe. It’s not a book for everyone, but if you’re the kind of person who likes questions, you’ll like this book. If you’re a person who simply has questions — whether you like them or not — well, then, you need to read this book.

Taylor doesn’t shy away from reasons skeptics have not to believe. In fact, he includes a chapter where he lists all kinds of reasons folks have to be skeptical, agnostic, or just straight-out atheist. There are intellectual objections (like the supposed inconsistency between faith and science). There are emotional objections (like the presence of pain and the absence of God). Some choose not to believe because of how the Church has acted throughout history (and there are plenty of ugly examples), and some can’t commit to belief when they find doctrines that they consider unpalatable. In total, Taylor lists 40 reasons people give for lack of belief in God, or the Bible, or the story of Easter that is at the center of both.

A part of what makes Taylor’s book unique is his willingness to address these concerns. He doesn’t dismiss them, or treat them casually. Instead, he challenges those who don’t believe to be honest in the search. Questions are ok, he says. But face them; don’t let the fact that you have questions keep you from honestly and fully pursuing truth. Taylor writes: Why would anyone stop looking? Why would you decide at 18 or 28 that there is no God, and not at least stay open to the idea that God might exist? If a person is really open to truth, why not stay open to truth?

In fact, why would anyone stop seeking Truth. Even for someone who doubts whether Truth (capital-T) exists, just the fact that you’re thinking about it means that it’s worth pursuing. By the sheer fact that we are able to ask big questions, why would anyone not?

Even so, when it comes to metaphysical matters, Taylor makes it clear: There is no such thing as certainty. When it comes to the Big Questions of God, purpose, and eternity, there can’t be certainty. That’s why we call it faith. And anyone, no matter what their decision is about the Big Questions, is making a faith decision — whether that faith is rooted ultimately in Science, or a Holy Book, or a life experience, or even just What-I-Feel-Inside-of-Me-Is-True. Ultimately, life is all about faith — in whatever form that takes.

Perhaps because of that, Taylor doesn’t point his reader to 3 convincing ideas that will turn a skeptic into a sure-minded believer. What he does point us to is the Story that is given to us in Scripture. It’s a story of hope, of grace, of meaning and purpose. And while we can argue with those who disagree with us, Taylor suggests a better apologetic, when he writes: “Having a plot for your life is better than having a proof.” For, as elaborates: “One can only answer some important questions, not with an argument, but with a life.”

In the end, I believe that the ultimate plot that tells me who I am is found in the Bible. And I believe that the ultimate guide for what Life is meant to be — and will one day fully be — is found in an itinerant preacher who made such an impact that the religious and political powers conspired to kill him. And they succeeded. For a time. Until Easter Sunday, when Jesus walked out of the tomb, alive.

I believe that’s exactly what happened on that first Easter, though I can’t prove it happened. No one can. But if it’s true, then everything changes, and life — my life, ALL of life — has new meaning, purpose, and direction.

So, this Easter Sunday, where I serve, I’ll be talking about the Choice that Easter lays before every person — the choice that Easter is either an End (death, Jesus defeated), or a Beginning (Jesus alive, Death defeated). You decide which is true, because only one can be true. But know this: either choice is ultimately a decision of faith. And, since it’s Easter, let’s just say: I know which basket I’m putting all my eggs in. How about you?