The art of listening and the “maybe”

If you want him to speak, you’ll need to be willing to listen, a colleague said to me when I was in the ordination. My conference (the local United Methodist body) had yet to ordain an openly gay candidate. I had, ostensibly, just come out, and had learned through the grapevine that a conservative member of the interviewing body planned on asking me if I was “practicing homosexuality.”

Concerned that this would prevent me from being ordained, I called upon the colleague who was mentor to me during the process. Her recommended strategy was this: Just keep asking for greater clarity about what he means by “practicing homosexuality”. Eventually, he won’t be able to continue. The strategy hinged on this man’s squeamishness, and she thought it was a safe gamble.

Knowing me, she said, You’ll have to practice, though. (We both chuckled here.) She continued, Because if you want him to speak, you’ll need to be willing to listen.

Years later, her words have stayed with me, not simply because of how they related to my ordination, but because they continue to challenge my assumptions about listening. I, like many others who have been educated in the Western academic setting, have it ingrained in me that listening implies agreement. (ie Teacher speaks, student listens, because teacher has all the right answers.) This understanding is fortified by our legal system, which dictates that in listening, we are willing to compromise. (ie Mediator listens to both sides of an argument, and seeks to find some agreement in the middle. Moderates revere this concept like a guiding star.)

And so, when we vehemently disagree, or when the subject is something about which there can be no compromise (for instance, the existence of the corona virus, etc), we think that there is no value in listening. And we are wrong.

In “Drum Major Instinct”, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. details how, while incarcerated, he listened to his captors. He actually listened to wardens as they talked about how they supported segregation and oppose inter-racial marriage. No one would ever assume that in his listening, he was agreeing with their blatant racism, nor was he intending to compromise on the need for an integrated and equitable society. So, why did he bother to listen? And if he was only pretending to listen, why would he mention it in a sermon?

Theologian Georgia Harkness writes that, “Everywhere, men (sic) are insecure”, and that this insecurity is the root of evil. Since first reading these words, I have seen, somewhat reluctantly, the truth of them everywhere. When another person is either dismissive or hostile to me, I want to see them as cold, calculating, or mean. But in the instances when I have been able to step back and look at them with compassion, I can see how they may be feeling unsafe. Worse, I can sometimes see how they may feel threatened by my actions, or my being. If I can see these things, then it doesn’t take much to see that what seemed like an attack on their part, was actually a form of defense. All of this, though, takes a little time.

Rev. Dr. King said that it was only on the second or third day of his conversations with the wardens that, “we got down one day to the point”, which was “to talk about where (the wardens) lived, and how much they were earning.

“And”, Rev. Dr. King said, “when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us.'” Where you are insecure, King said, we are insecure, too. That is finding common ground without the compromising principle. And that was only possible because Rev. Dr. King was willing to listen when those wardens spoke.

“But!” you may say, “that is well and good for Rev. Dr. King, because it was his struggle. As allies, there are certain viewpoints and words that we cannot tolerate”. This is true. When Rev. Dr. King listens (and speaks) at great risk to himself, rather than at the risk of others. And also, and this is too often forgotten, Rev. Dr. King was an ally, too. He was an ally to the people of Southeast Asia who were being brutalized by the actions of the US military. And he listened to those US citizens who were in favor of proxy warfare in Vietnam. Because he knew this to be true: Most people can only change their minds if they feel they have had the opportunity to speak. This is especially true for extroverts, who might not even know what they are thinking until they say it aloud to other people. (I am intentionally using “say it aloud” here, because social media is usually a terrible and harmful context for these conversations.)

And this is why, in retrospect, I wish that the man who was on the interviewing body had been willing to speak – in great detail – about what he meant by “practicing homosexuality”. Because then, maybe he could have heard how hurtful it is to determine a gay candidate’s fitness for ministry based on a personal, private line of questioning to which their straight/cis-gender peers are not submitted. Then, maybe, he could admit to himself whatever insecurity there was in his own life that had led him to desire to hurt a particular group of people.

It is unlikely that he would have experienced a full conversion in the moment, but maybe the next time, or the time after that… Or maybe, the people in the room would realize that they still had their own hangups and insecurities that they needed to work on. Again, perhaps unlikely, but maybe.

The idea of listening may seem trite, especially in light of the recent insurrection, the renewed overt enthusiasm for white supremacy, and on the eve of God-knows-what this coming week. And also, Rev. Dr. King lived with violence all around him. And he preached that sermon just two months before he was killed. And, he lived entirely in the “maybe”: Because – and you can argue with me on this – Rev. Dr. King was as much a pragmatist as he was an idealist. He listened not for the sake of his own moral clarity, but because he believed that when people like himself listened, other people could change. And moreover, he believed that people need to change in order for our world – starting with his own nation – to be a more just and compassionate place.

Speaking for myself as a white person, in this moment “maybe” is our only path forward, and we walk the path by listening. By really listening. By the kind of listening that starts when we pick up the phone and call the family member we disagree with, or when we stop at a safe distance on the street corner, and speak to the neighbor we’ve been avoiding. If we won’t listen to such people, they will only speak into self-affirming vacuums. And so, we need to listen, and when we do, we need to resist the urge to balk in offense at the first opportunity for our own sense of smug satisfaction. Rather, we need to let them know that we are listening, so that perhaps they will listen when we say, I am afraid sometimes, too. Or ask, Aren’t you really insecure about this other thing, over here? And perhaps, that will be the beginning of finding common ground without a compromise of principle. And perhaps that will be the moment when they will change, and when we will change – and that our world, starting with our own nation, will change, too.

Perhaps, it is all unlikely. But maybe.

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