It’s been a little while. I had something I needed to say before embarking on this post . . . more on that here. And then I took some time to simply sit with my thoughts, and those of lots of others. Within Unitarian Universalism, there are many bloggers dealing with the same kinds of questions: How do we engage that which is outrageous? What should we say when confronted with systemic injustice? How should we be as a people committed to standing on the side of love, living in a country where standing on the side of fear is the most expedient way to policy change?
It is an act of spiritual violence to sit idly while oppression reigns. Not talking is not the answer. Shying away from hard questions for fear of making someone uncomfortable is not the answer. Agreeing to disagree is also not the answer.
And so . . . be it resolved:
Let’s not be silent.
Let’s not agree to disagree.
Let’s not refuse to ask each other hard questions.
But what this post is about—my piece of this conversation, a thing I have been feeling the need to say for several months, and which, more than anything else, is the reason this blog exists in the first place—is that I’m also hearing other whispers. Sometimes, they’re more than whispers, and they urge us toward something that looks less like standing on the side of love, and more like leading from our anger and our fear. I hear this when we talk about—or refuse to really talk about—abortion, saying things like, well, if we really acknowledge that a pregnancy might amount to more than a ball of cells, we’re going to be exploited by the other side. I hear this, and loudly, when we assert that merely remaining in relationship with someone identifies as an evangelical Christian is tantamount to allying oneself with a culture of violence.
Until (insert group) is ready to accept (insert deeply-held principle affecting the lives of real people), there’s simply no point in engaging with them, or so the argument goes. It’s too risky. It doesn’t feel good. Listening only enables them.
Here’s the thing: choosing not to listen enables us. It allows us to maintain the stories and images—of ourselves and of the other—that help us feel secure in our choices. It allows our congregations to feel unified where we haven’t done the hard work to find something other than fear to rally around. It lets us avoid the pain of growth and change, because neither is likely to happen where we build echo-chambers instead of houses of public worship.
Perhaps the questions we should ask in deciding whether it’s worth our energy to talk to the “other” should have less to do with what they, and we, believe, and more to do with the meta-level communication processes involved. Instead of “Might she agree with me?,” or “Is his belief system offensive to me or even harmful in some way?” perhaps we should ask, “is he willing to engage in public dialogue? Does she show respect for the goals of civil discourse?” What we might move toward is a conversational covenant, a structure that might allow us to have true dialogue about things that matter—and with people whose views are very different.
Does this seem radical? Impossible, even? A dream so utopian that not even UUs can believe in it?
Friends, I have news. I will refrain from calling it Good News, but I believe, and deeply, that if Unitarian Universalism is to be part of the healing process in the larger society, we must become listeners, first and foremost. We must listen to ourselves, and that’s where a lot of the buzz in the blogosphere is being directed at the moment—are we hearing and honoring that still small voice within each of us, including when it calls us to speak? However, we cannot stop there. We must also listen to one another, and then we must take a risk and listen to “the other”—the voice of difference, of disagreement, of discomfort. And we must do this not simply because it honors the inherent worth and dignity of each person to listen with an open heart—we have to do it because it will form the basis of our most effective social justice work. An intentional, worshipful commitment to dialogue can change not only conversations, but people and ultimately political realities. In fact, in our current era, listening may be the most powerful, most needed, and most under-utilized tool we have.
More soon. In the meantime, a thought:
“Our job as churches is to learn to talk together again and to allow our conversation to spill out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, a stream of hope scented with the rich fragrance of the reconciliation, the shalom that God desires for all creation. May we abide faithfully in this calling!”
Christopher Smith, The Virtue of Dialogue
note: a follow-up to this post can be found here, with “don’t talk to strangers (listen to them instead!)”