Ears to Hear: Listening as a Political Act*

LeAnne DeTar Newbert

Question: How are the Necker cubeꭝ and today’s political environment alike?
Answer: The same set of facts can generate both different and legitimate perspectives.

Social scientists tell us that what we perceive first in a situation tends to trigger both rational and emotional responses to defend our initial impression. The obvious application is that when we encounter someone who expresses political beliefs drastically different from our own, our first impulse is to defend our perception forcefully and bristle at theirs. Might there be a more constructive alternative? Might we allow for legitimate opinions other than our own? Could we, as “transformed creatures” be guided to divert this mechanical tendency from the defense of our positions to a disciplined approach that reflects and imitates Christ? What does this look like in the political process we find ourselves in today? How can we learn to make listening a political act in 2020?*

Jesus showed us how to listen. Jesus found himself in a body politic with strong theocratic leaders and the vulnerable whom they led. Jesus connected with each group through questions based on a moral reasoning that considered the need of the person before him.
To those who came to him for help, understanding, or inclusion, he posed questions that connected the person to the heart of the concern they were holding:
• Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
• What do you want me to do for you? (Luke 18:41)
• Why do you call me good? (Luke 18:19)
• Will you give me a drink? (John 4:7)
• Do you love me? (John 21:16)
• Do you believe this? John 11:26)
• What are you looking for? (John 1:38)
For opponents aiming to trap him with a vigorous riposte, he made a kind of Necker cube of their questions to reveal their hearts and his intent to fulfill/perfect the law by his answer. Consider, for instance, how he responded to those offended by his healing on the sabbath (Luke 6:9): “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

Jesus’ kingdom perspective suggests a model for how to have “ears to hear” in the 2020 election cycle, combining our missional lives with our politics. How are we called to advance political dialogue, then, in a beneficial way? Cognitive-behavioral therapy tells us that “thoughts produce feelings and feelings produce behavior.” “Let [him] who has ears to hear….” may mean for us, “They who are willing to deeply listen for the fears and hopes behind the behavior…” “Lamb Party” political conversation can be much like lifestyle evangelism; we must understand the underlying fears and hopes that provoke the opinions. If we “honor others above ourselves” as Paul urges, we will consider others’ opinions a valid outgrowth of experience. We can check ourselves when preparing a snappy rebuke or withering criticism of political expression far different from our own, disciplining ourselves instead to practice “ears to hear” curiosity. Why do they believe what they believe? Does it express an unanswered existential fear? To what needs does the position point?

Our missional ambition as followers of Christ is to draw people closer to God. Wisdom cautions us against behavior that might make us, bearers of the gospel to someone for whom Christ lived and died, repulsive messengers! Effective listening is always good manners; but for followers of Christ, it is emulating our Servant-Lord. If our role with our neighbors is to reflect Christ, why would we not want to explore their hopes and dreams and the basis for their opinions in a kind and loving way, rather than allowing a difference of opinion to trigger our fight or flight response? In the body of Christ, there are to be no winners or losers, only servants.

Some concrete suggestions for constructive political conversation follow:
• We can discipline ourselves to ask four to six non-challenging questions of the person with whom we disagree (Rhetoric such as, “How could you believe such nonsense?” does not qualify as a question). We can ask questions that invite their thoughts, allowing that they might have legitimate reasons for their opinion.
• We can consider any suffering or fear that might underly their perspective.
• We can provide a safe, secure psychological space for the expression of differences by getting rid of judgmental body language, impatience, or presumed superiority and replace those with an invitation to talk, explore, and share. Some people have never thought out their positions because they have never been asked to explain what’s led them to their conclusions.

Our worth does not come from the soundness of our political opinions or our ability to win an argument. It comes from being people of the Lamb, grounded in our standing as precious children of God, and finding missional meaning as a calming force in the current storm of politics.

I vote Lamb.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the ninth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to ghunt@cbts.edu for possible inclusion in the blog series.

*Astra Taylor writes poignantly in this Future of Democracy series: “The Right to Listen.” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, 27 Jan. 2020.
ꭝThe Necker Cube is an ambiguous line drawing of a regular parallelogram that can be interpreted in two different ways by the brain, termed “multi-stable perception.”

Rev. LeAnne DeTar, M.D. is a recently-retired family practice physician and graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. She serves as associate pastor of First Christian Church, Bonner Springs, KS and has devoted decades to medical missions and community service. She and her husband, David, have two adult children (and a grandchild only days away!).

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