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.

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.

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