James 1:19 My dear sisters and brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
Our political system is full of problems. Presidential and Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low. Gridlock is rampant. Destructive and hollow rhetoric is ubiquitous. Just in the last few weeks our local and national politicians have wrangled over France, Keystone XL, tax reform, defense surveillance, immigration (insert your own personalized divisive political topics here). When we look for solutions we often focus on communication, specifically improving our political discourse. I have regularly said as much. But I think we might be missing the mark. Or at least we have been ignoring an obvious alternative. The solution may not be better talking. It may be that what our system needs is better listening.
Listening may not seem like the most practical of political tools. It can appear far removed from critical policy-making. But let me make the case as to why listening may be the most practical thing we could focus on right now.
Good Listening is a Sign of Character
When I propose that we become better listeners I am referring to the simple acts of being able to give people space to share their views, asking thoughtful questions to gain a deeper understanding, and actively repeating back what we’ve heard in a fair manner. These are skills that every single person involved in the public sphere can improve on, whether it is the president, a local politician, a journalist, or a voter talking across the dinner table. Therein lies its power. If we can find ways to build this virtue into our systems we can drastically affect them. Tuning out of the 24 news cycle, for instance, might be a great first step.
Being a good listener is tightly connected with being an active citizen. It goes well beyond our halls of power into church Bible studies, college discussions, and neighbors arguing public policy on porches. But a lot of it does have to do with holding our politicians and media outlets to a higher standard. People, groups, and policies are so consistently misrepresented that we are numb to it. This misrepresentation is a symptom of bad listening and deficient character.
For a Christian in the public square, the impetus is even greater. We are called to strive forward in faith and to grow in character. Listening and loving our neighbor by giving their views – whether we agree with them or not – space to be heard is an act of deep maturity. In other words, a Christian should pursue the virtue of listening regardless of whether it is politically expedient or not. It is the good, loving, and faithful thing to do.
Listening Is Missional
For a Christian in the public square this is also an opportunity to demonstrate a key part of faith. Listening, especially to our so-called enemies, communicates to the Other that they are respected and valued. Why miss a moment to display the Christian virtues of gentleness, patience, and self-control? Listening is a winsome way to live and to act in the public realm. It would improve our public witness tremendously. I believe that beautiful things could happen if Christians were known for how well we listen and treat our opponents. And when I say “opponent” I’m not just talking about some secular atheist straw man. We have plenty of disagreements within the Church itself and the world sees how frequently we are unfair in our pronouncements and judgments. Good listening for many of us will not begin across the aisle in the Capitol, but in the sanctuary.
Harmless as Doves…and Shrewd as Snakes
Listening is often assumed to be a passive activity (harmless). But it actually can be a civil method for furthering our own ends (shrewd). Our effectiveness in negotiation, debate, and diplomacy all increase exponentially as we become good at listening. Of course, it may not be that we are bad at listening, but rather that we are unwilling to listen to our political opponents. If so, reread the first point about character. Do you really expect to be heard until you’ve granted someone else the right to be heard? And do you really expect to articulate your own position persuasively unless you have actually understood the opposing point of view? How else will you know the real core of the issue? How else will you understand your adversary’s perspective?
We spend so much of our time and energy attacking each other when there would be greater value in listening and understanding. Giving someone the chance to express themselves and ingratiating ourselves to them may actually be the most effective means to advance our own views. I do not mean to imply that our goal is simply to win. But in truly understanding our opponent’s view we will be able to better articulate or adapt our own views to address the issue at hand, and yes, even debate and disagree more effectively. Listening requires that you be a mature citizen. But it does not require you to be a pushover.
Listening is Productive
Listening helps get things done. It has the tangible benefit of slowing things down and increasing mutual trust. Thus it makes us more likely to compromise (many don’t ever want to compromise, to which I suggest you reread the first point on Character…again). When we take time to hear stories and perspectives a shocking thing happens. We make better decisions. And we are more likely to make those decisions together. It also serves to promote a culture of civility and respect that is helpful for creating and honing legislative action. To me, this means that good listening is essential to all of our efforts in doing justice. And in the pursuit of a just society we also have to ask ourselves: To whom are we listening? Are we ignoring marginalized voices while giving money and microphones to talking heads? Who we listen to makes just as powerful a statement as our words do.
Obviously, telling some individuals to become better listeners isn’t going to transform our political process. Obviously, creating conferences or policies or procedures that encourage and require better listening would not guarantee us quality immigration reform or monetary policy. But it’s a great place to start. And maybe it’s not so obvious. After all, we’re not doing a very good job of it right now. The beginning of a solution may be more obvious than we ever imagined. The question is,
Are we listening?
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org