Listening across difference

About 10-11 years ago my sweet little baby girl turned into a monster of a 2 year old… “it’s like trying to break a wild horse” my husband and I would say to each other as she screamed “me do it” about pretty much everything.

One day I read a parenting piece by Nigel Latta, I thought maybe he was going to give me 5 steps how to turn my wild horse into an obedient cherub. But instead he explained how for some children who are characteristically stubborn, the way their brains are set up is to assume that they are right. And so when information to the contrary comes from the outside, it’s almost that it does not compute. And he also said that stubborness has a strong genetic component. It’s what I like to think of as “parental karma”. My husband and I tend to disgagree publically about who the stubborn one was between us, it’s both–his mother tells tales–but really, I know it’s mostly me.

Reading this article I was horrified, but I also felt understood and deeply seen, in a not really affirming way, but there was a sense of merciful acceptance . Because I think I probably came out of the womb thinking that I had good ideas about pretty much everything. Certainly as soon I was able I was asserting my opinion on other people… I’m sure I was super fun as a kid. Fortunately I had some strong parents, and some good friends—particularly in my teenage years who would call me out and lovingly say “Maja don’t be a dork” (90s insults). And then you start learning more. The more you learn that more you realise how little you know. 

A lot of y’all are not that different. Maybe you wouldn’t own it in those terms, or so comprehensively, but as humans that’s our tendency to exert our power in the world. Maybe its a necessary thing for self-protection as we develop psychologically in a world full of threats, and it’s good to grow confident in our ideas, to pursue what we know to be good and true.

But, as with all things, the sinful nature, the lies of the enemy, and the broken constructs of our world take those natural good impulses and distort and disorder them into an overblown desire for control and power.

How does this relate to this great call to us to lift up our voice in the pursuit of justice? I am all for that. But not only that.

As with pretty much everything in life, there’s another side that needs to be held in tension and balance, and I want to talk about that in these few moments we have together. Because if all we are doing is lifting up our voices in the pursuit of justice as we see it, all we will get is a cacophony, where no one is listening to each other.

Isaiah encourages us raise our voice, to not be timid, to offer our prophetic critique. But later on in chapter 58 he’s calling out quarrelling, malicious talk and the pointing finger

We’ve been pointing fingers since way back in the garden. Adam and Eve are all “she!” “he!” but never “me”. It’s a deep brokeness in our human heritage.

I am inviting you today to a kind of humility… an intellectual humility… that does not come easily to us broken, fleshy people.

The way that our world needs that humility to be expressed is not a whole bunch of people who make themselves small, or a whole bunch of people who quiet their voices – that’s not humility – what we need is a whole bunch of people who, as they are lifting up their voices, are also leaning in to LISTEN to the voices of the other.

I don’t know who the other might be for… maybe it’s across cultural, ethnic, theological, or political lines. But my challenge to you is to consider: Do I want to solve this problem we have, do I want to understand this person? or do I just want to go to war?

While Prophetic critique requires a bit of othering – to point something out—too often we find ourselves in the mode of debate rather than dialogue. And it’s dialogue that moves us forward.

A key practice to move into dialogue is to stay curious a little longer. When it comes to staying curious, questions are king.

Questions like…

  • Why do I disagree?
  • Do I have all the information?
  • Am I making any assumptions?
  • How did I come to hold this view?
  • Where did I get this information?

Then ask the same questions about the other person… how did they come to hold their view? Sometimes when we attentively listen to the other we discover whole areas where our values actually overlap, we’re just contextualising them in different ways, or ordering them according to different priorities.

Attentively listening to the other—particularly someone we don’t agree with—is a profound challenge to the flesh, to our broken desires for control, power, and status.

In any conversation, listening is an expression of dying to our selves which is never easy, but it’s particularly provoking when we’re listening to someone who is “othered” in some way. We need to confront that—in ourselves first of all—if we want to be partners in dialogue, and especially if we want to be peacemakers or participants in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.

There was a time when it didn’t matter how much I disagreed with a person, I could still connect with them. Maybe we were at opposite ends of a political spectrum, but we could easily sit next to each other at a rugby game and feel united over that, or we could bond over our shared love of crochet (whatever floats your boat)—they’re heuristics that help us to connect across cultural or even ideological divides. But now we operate in a society that is ideologically maximalist—that’s a Mark Sayers term—where this one ideology I have isn’t confined to just one part of my life, it’s spread through everything. And that is good, it sounds like integration and integrity. 

But it can mean that if I disagree with you on one ideology, I cannot recognise you as a whole person beyond that one issue, I have depersonalised you, and I can’t relate to you as a beloved child of God…. It can become an ideological or intellectual stubborness that places our limited perspective above the work of Christ for all humanity. 

I was moved when a friend of mine said recently “I will never sit in the room with someone I deeply disagree with and negate the work of Christ in them”

We must practice incarnational solidarity not only with the oppressed and the marginalised, but also with people we disagree with.

This posture plays out in attentive listening, in questioning. When in those moments of debate and dialogue where we are hearing the voice of justice and the voice of truth, but we are not hearing the voices of peace and mercy, and so we call out to peace and mercy to join the conversation also. 

Some of these ideas really landed for me recently when I had some interactions with a person and a group who fundamentally disagree with me on some key ideas – ideas that go deep for me, they’re about gender and calling and what God can and cannot do with your life. I was listening to something from them, because I wanted to understand their position, and I’ll be honest it made me nauseous, and it was touching on some deep wounds… I was thinking “how do I move forward with you, when you think, when your theology says, I should not be doing what I clearly sense God calling me to”. Clear as a bell I heard the Spirit say, “you need to be generous with those you disagree with”. 

You can fundamentally disagree with them and their position might hurt you deeply, but you cannot negate the work of Christ in them and the work of the Spirit through them.

Be generous with those you disagree with. 

That’s the kind of posture that we need if we are to love each other with genuine affection as Paul calls us to in Rom 12:10.

Now this is not the big message that everyone needs to hear –not everyone came out of the womb thinking that they’re right and ready for a fight – but many of us, in the brokenness of our humanity, tend in that direction. Be attentive to what the spirit is saying to you. 

We are all called to humility, to meekness even. We are called to disagree in love.

We need to practice not just intellectual humility, but also the kind of interpersonal humility that allows us to build relationships across difference, and where that isn’t possible to maintain a generous posture to the ones we disagree with.But it often doesn’t come naturally to us, and it sure ain’t easy. Praise God for sending us his Spirit.

*I shared these thoughts at the Justice Conference hosted by Tear Fund in Auckland in September 2022. What a rich day that was!


One thought on “Listening across difference

  1. Kayla says:

    A lovely piece, Maja! Great tools to take in everyday life when we are surrounded by so many different kinds of people. Disagree in love. Wonderful.


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