What Happens When Christians Listen?

If you listen to those who listen to you, what credit is that to you? For even internet trolls listen to those who listen to them. But listen to your enemies.

Remember when you were a child and your parents made something new for dinner that just looked gross?

“I don’t like it!” you whined.

“You don’t know that. You’ve never even had it before! You have to try it. Take three full bites or else you aren’t getting any dessert.”

Children aren’t trustworthy food critics.

The more I observe and participate in conversations, the more commonalities I see between children at the dinner table and Christians discussing contentious issues. It’s commonplace to insult anything put before you that doesn’t look sweet to your taste, to cast the opinions of Others aside simply because they look different.

This process of rejecting others has little to do with fighting for Truth and much to do with asserting power over others. It is a manipulative power game that uses the weapons of fear and pride to hold control (or the illusion of it). In other words, it is nothing more than bullying, creating enemies where there are none.

Have you ever read an article or had a discussion with someone that disagrees with your own view, yet that person clearly has not taken the time to understand your beliefs? Have you ever been dismissed by someone who makes assumptions about what you think or why you think it? Have you ever done the same to Others?

For instance, I’ve seen progressive Christians arguing against the traditional view of sexuality by saying, “You’re on the wrong side of history!” Obviously, those with a traditional view of sexuality will need more than meaningless insults to change their minds. But on the other side, traditional Christians cannot shout, “The Bible clearly says!” or, “You are denying the authority of Scripture!” to people who have studied Scripture (sometimes more than you) and simply came to a different conclusion.

This isn’t a modern problem, either. Christians have been treating their ideological opponents with childish contempt from the beginning. You may have heard of the second-century heretic, Marcion, who believed that Jesus could not possibly be the same Old Testament God called YHWH. As you might expect, Marcion was not well-received by “orthodox” Christians. Marcion became the arch-heretic, the father of all heretics. For centuries, “orthodox” Christians used “Marcionite” the way modern Evangelical Christians use the term “Liberal” or the way Mainline Christians use the term “Fundamentalist.” That is, the term doesn’t really mean anything other than “the thing I currently hate.”

If you can connect your enemy to with the label of the “other side,” then you can dismiss everything they say. Liberal. Fundamentalist. Socialist. Bigot. Millennial. Simply categorize people and you don’t have to face challenges to your perspective.

I think most would agree that these arguments have no more power to persuade than a toddler’s review of broccoli.

“Broccoli is yucky. I want candy!”

But the problem is much deeper than name-calling and labeling. It’s a lack of the ability to think with any nuance, to see people’s opinions through their own eyes. When our opinions are confronted our knee-jerk reaction is to treat our challenger as an enemy, to over-simplify their positions as a way to avoid dealing with their questions or criticisms.

Those who make insults rather than arguments or who oversimplify the complex positions of Others are not interested in Truth. They are interested in “winning,” in scoring points for their side. People use insults because they have no real arguments, and they have no arguments because they have ignored James’ call to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.” They have never been told “You have to understand it before you critique it.”

A perfect example of this sort of Us-versus-Them, win-at-all-costs mentality is the recent blog in which author Matt Walsh argued that people shouldn’t mourn the death of a gorilla because millions of babies are aborted. Of course, mourning the death of a gorilla has nothing to do with abortion. And of course, it’s possible to mourn two things at once. This is just a sleazy attempt at self-glorification by creating enemies ex nihilo.

Rather than love our enemies as ourselves, we have a tendency to take every opportunity to create enemies out of the very people we should embrace.

A friend of mine describes ours as a “meme-driven intellectual climate.” In other words, rather than thoughtfully engage in listening and understanding people on the other side, we over-simplify their argument in order to make our opponents look stupid. Just scroll through your Facebook page for a few seconds. In the barrage of political memes you’ll find, not a single one of them accurately represents the views of the opponent. Only a “mocker” or a “fool” (in the words of Proverbs) will insult another person or perspective without taking the time to understand.

The only respectable and Christian way to interact with Others–especially those with whom you disagree–is to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Do to Others what you would want them to do to you. Take the time to understand their arguments. Try to understand why they hold their views. Open yourself to correction. Get to know people who believe different from you–research has consistently shown getting to know an Outsider (LBGT especially) changes people’s opinions/feelings. Unfortunately, fear of the Outsider–and fear of being wrong–prevents us from being Christlike in our interactions with Others.

In Orson Scott Card’s brilliant novel, Ender’s Game, the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is in the middle of a war that threatens the existence of humanity. In the most profound statement of the book Ender says,

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

I think that observation applies as much to conversations as it does to war. Every conversation is an opportunity to understand The Other–what they want, what they believe, who they are–to enter their mind and suddenly to love them enough to believe what they believe along with them.

Rather than creating enemies where there are none, we ought to create friends where there are enemies. And only after taking the time to listen should we let our mouths slowly speak their truths.


What do you think? Why do we have such a problem listening to Others? Do you have a tendency to dismiss Others due to ideological differences?

[I’m indebted to my friend Gerhard Stübben for a lot my my thoughts here.]


4 responses to “What Happens When Christians Listen?

  1. Pingback: What Would Jesus Parody? | Tylor Standley·

  2. I loved the listening quote in the beginning. Ha ha
    There’s something so invigorating about taking a quote or parable and tweaking the context a bit.

    This is proving to be one of the most divisive political climates I’ve witnessed so far. Thanks for the convicting word. I need the reminder daily, it seems.

  3. “Creating enemies ex nihilo” is a great turn of phrase. Outrage is hip these days, so people tend to get angry about nothing (like when people slam the parents of the kid who got lost in the gorilla cage in the incident you mentioned; Matt Jones of KSR said something to the effect of “Let the parent who has never lost their child cast the first stone.”). I’ll be using that one!

    In defense of memes (and political cartoons, satire, etc.), a good meme is a caricature, which is a misrepresentation, but one done intentionally and carefully. By caricaturizing a position or a situation, you can highlight its faults by magnifying them. This is what Charles Dickens does in Oliver Twist with (what at the time was) the British orphan care system (The Praise of Folly does the same thing).

    BUT to skillfully caricaturize a position or situation takes a better understanding of it than what you need to merely describe it. Dickens had to know a lot about the care available to orphans before he could write Oliver Twist, and Erasmus had to know a lot about the Church before he could write The Praise of Folly.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Because a skillful caricature can be impactful and worthwhile, the problem with internet memes isn’t that they don’t represent their opponents with precision, it’s that they satirize recklessly and badly.

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