Listening as revolutionary behavior

Revolutionary behavior

My friend and UCC pastor Lynn Carman Bodden recently asked a great morning-after question on her Facebook feed:

So, rather than waiting for THEM to do it, what will you do to reach across the great political divide to get things moving forward around here?!

If I focus on the first part of Lynn’s challenge — reaching across the great political divide — I do have a thought. I’ve written about it before, but I have been thinking about it again, after listening to President Obama’s acceptance speech. Toward the end, he said:

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.

The connection of responsibilities and rights rang a bell; some months ago, I listened to a podcast in which Krista Tippett interviewed historian and philosopher Jacob Needleman. He asserted:

A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants; it’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you’ll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak.

The connection of rights and responsibilities, freedoms and obligations, seems to me so right on, but I’m not crazy about where President Obama went with it in his speech. I don’t think “love and charity and duty and patriotism” are rights or responsibilities.

In our context in the United States, our primary assertions about rights are codified in our Bill of Rights. If we start there, and take Needleman’s direction, we should be able to think through responsibilities to go with each right.

As Needleman says:

If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?

Think that one through … “I have to let your thought into my mind.” Can you imagine what actual political discourse based on that premise would look like?

I like to think it would be revolutionary.

I know it is hard work. I often feel threatened by conservative voices. I certainly don’t feel listened to, heard or respected by them.

Where do we go with this challenge? Do you have a setting where you can do this kind of listening with people who think differently than you? What will give you the courage to engage those conversations?

If we can begin to have those conversations, perhaps we can think through the other rights we have guaranteed to each other, and consider the responsibilities we need to take for them to enliven our democracy.

Let me know what you think … and if you want more of my own thoughts on Needleman’s challenging notions, take a look at this post, Spirited Democracy.

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2 Responses to Listening as revolutionary behavior

  1. jharader says:

    What you are talking about here is so hard–to let other people’s thoughts in. For me, I think I can only get there when I feel like it is reciprocal–that they are willing to let my thoughts into their heads as well. Of course, this can easily become a situation where nobody is willing to “go first,” and thus, true dialog never happens. Some thoughts, though, are abusive and have no place in my head or yours or anyone else’s. So I guess there is some fear here as well.

    • tam121 says:

      Yes, I’m well acquainted with that fear … and with the need to guard the space of one’s thoughts. I’ll keep your reflection in mind as I go. Thanks, J.

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