Listening and believing are not synonyms

People often act as if forgetting and forgiving are synonymous acts. Sometimes, perhaps even often, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the act of forgiveness can be a liberating one for both victim and perpetrator, the act of forgetting can bring with it significant risk, often born unevenly by the victim. The confusion of these two things can be a barrier for those seeking true reconciliation and healing.

In a similar way, the acts of listening and believing are too often conflated to the detriment of all involved. When we act as if these things are synonymous, the act of listening becomes a partisan one rather than a movement of common decency and compassion.

Americans, particularly those who consider themselves people of faith, should reflexively recoil against rushing to judgment as accusations are made in any given situation. We have a long history of being quick to judge and slow to truly listen; the witch trials we learned of as children have any antecedents which often received sacred cover. Religious leaders, who were commonly complicit in the past, have the freedom today to seek a different role as we are no longer looked to to offer judgment in such situations.

While we can and should reserve judgment, we ought also fight fiercely for the rights of individuals to be heard and for their accusations to be fairly investigated. While justice should always be blind, we cannot ignore our tendency to listen more easily to certain groups per our often unconscious biases. This reality demands advocacy on behalf of those who hold less power and privilege in society so that justice is not just blind but also fair.

Pursuing justice and equality for those who have been often been denied it is why it is so important to hold the acts of listening and believing separately. By confusing the two, we risk undermining the progress that has been made. A fair process is necessary to resolve accusations, even if it won’t always yield the justice victims deserve. Advocacy that blurs listening and believing is dangerous in that it could yield false accusations and the erosion of what it seeks, a generous place for victims to speak their piece.

Kavanaugh accusation as case study

Now I’ve been following the U.S. Supreme Court nominee drama with all the partisan zeal one might imagine. I can’t pretend to be objective but I have sincerely held the various possibilities in mind. To this point, like many I’ve weighed the accusations of Dr. Cristine Blassey Ford against Judge Brett Kavanaugh and seen nothing to suggest they weren’t credible (which is distinct from being accurate) and thus worthy of investigation. The subsequent claim by Deborah Ramirez over the weekend, and a statement by his freshman roommate at Yale about regular drunkenness and belligerent behavior, should give reasonable people some additional pause.

800px-Orrin_Hatch_and_Brett_Kavanaugh
Senator Orrin Hatch and Brett Kavanaugh. Photo: Senator Hatch Office Twitter.

It strikes me that this is exactly the sort of situation where an serious investigative process needs to step in as “credible” is an insufficient bar to arrive at anything akin to justice. And this is where I find that the behavior of Ford and Kavanaugh diverges in ways that suggest that Ford’s allegation has potential merit. Dr. Ford and her representatives have been asking for due process, for the introduction of third parties to investigate and testify under oath. She has proactively taken and passed a lie detector test and put her reputation at risk and family through this tumult, with acknowledged reluctance.

In contrast, Judge Kavanaugh and his advocates have actively sought to avoid process. While one can imagine less sinister political motivations, the refusal to allow an investigation, and to call on other potential witnesses to testify under oath, suggests they have something to hide. It forces people to prejudge the situation and casts a cloud over Kavanaugh’s nomination that is damaging to a country that is toxically partisan already. 

People of faith and their religious leaders have an obligation, in part due to their complicity with unjust systems in the past, to advocate for sincere listening, and fair processes in situations like these. Unburdened by past expectations to deliver judgment, we should earnestly support those who have been victims and advocate on behalf of those with less power so that their voices are heard. People of faith should never fear the truth, even when it isn’t politically expedient.

This advocacy work doesn’t require us to render judgment without the full story, and we should use much restraint in doing so, but it does require us to speak out for potential victims and against those who continue to use their power to belittle and bully those with less voice. When you think about it, it sounds like something Jesus might do.

2 thoughts on “Listening and believing are not synonyms

  1. RE: “Is the Methodist Brand Broken?”
    Patrick, you speak well, but reveal some of the same partisanship that taunts, haunts and wounds our entire American culture. There is a place for partisanship, but then, there is LIFE! Life is the constant need for balance. We all have personal points of view, but PUBLIC LEADERSHIP, has an obligation to think on a larger scale.
    While under appointment of the UMC, I especially look for such things in church leadership. Jesus’ “partisanship” was his mission, which He made abundantly clear, even in the context of injustice in the Lectionary reading of March 24th. In saying this, I have to determine for myself, “the straight way” to Christ. I try to make the same discernment in my leadership.
    There will always, literally-be, at least THREE sides to a coin. If you are “stuck on one side” and still make use of the coin, I would urge you caution to be aware of the importance of balance for the other sides: especially if you are dealing with people.
    The Sunday morning after the announcements of the Global Methodist’s Conference, two families came to church that had not been absent of participation for years. They evidently had spoken to each other before they entered the sanctuary. They met my own surprise with: “It looks as thought the Methodists are being true to John Wesley.”
    Is the Methodist Brand “broken?” Kinda depends on what kind of GRACE is actually practiced, both in speech and action! (Just don’t read popular media as a basis for your own thoughts! It is ANYTHING-BUT: gracious! ) But I suggest that violence: of any kind is not a healthy vocational practice in either leadership or practice. The “brand” is only broken to the degree of lacking “grace-in-practice.”
    Many Methodist Churches in America, are “on the edge” of failure for many reasons. (Another side of the coin.) I would implore Methodist Leadership, (particularly in the PNW and the New England Conferences) to practice Gracious Ministry: not in the Church’s name but in Christ’s name. It makes the ‘road worth walking’ less difficult.
    F. David Wells

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    1. Hi David, thanks for the reply. I agree with some of what I think you are saying.
      I believe it is in our nature as Christians to be somewhat partisan, the alternative is wishy-washy blowing wherever the wind might take us. I think most of my conservative friends would agree with me on that. But I don’t think partisan needs to be nasty or mean, even if it is clear. Perhaps that is what you mean by violence?
      The “brand promise” of the denomination that I was referring to in the article is one that evokes more generosity than many people see in the Traditional Plan, which has struggled to find constitutionality because of the ways it seeks to force uniformity on people used to a different approach. “Open Minds, Open Hearts. Open Doors.” suggested a denomination that was open to change and new ways of thinking that are out of alignment with this push toward a more rigid orthodoxy.
      I do understand that some find it more faithful to their understanding of John Wesley, but absolute fidelity to John Wesley hasn’t been the brand promise of The United Methodist Church. Perhaps it will be the brand promise of whatever emerges, but that will be a new thing.
      Those who are/were proponents of the One Church Plan, perhaps foolishly, sought to hold together our theological diversity gently. The General Conference has responded to that option by saying no, we only will recognize this one way of seeing things. I suspect we are seeing in the numerous media reports the results of trying to force one vision upon the many in a structure that wasn’t really designed to do that.

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