The First Duty of Love

listening heartHere in America we are going through a cultural crisis and severe partisan division. Our divisions are characterized by an extreme unwillingness to listen to anyone who doesn’t share our point of view.  We are doing more talking than listening, and our talk is going on in silos, so that all we hear is other people shouting at us from across a great distance.

Now, I have to admit that I don’t want to hear people who I know are lying to me. But I also have to struggle to keep my ears open to those who are just trying honestly to convince me that I am wrong and they are right. It’s necessary and good to exercise judgment in our social life – prudent, humble, clear judgments. But we take it all a step too far when we carve our judgments into stone and declare them sacred.  We are all treading on dangerous ground when we stand our ground so strongly that we close our minds and hearts to everything but our own opinions.

I recall Jesus’ words as I think of all this. He said, “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they neither hear nor understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, when he says, ‘With your hearing you will hear and in no way understand, and in seeing you will see and in no way perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown crass, and they have listened with their ears grudgingly, and they have closed their eyes, so that it may never happen that they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with the heart and turn back, and I shall heal them.”  [Matthew 13:14-15, David Bentley Hart translation]

We are “listening with [our] ears grudgingly” because our “hearts have grown crass.”  A stunning rebuke that I fear we deserve only too well now.

Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  I think Jesus would add, not just to listen, but to hear. Most people deeply want to be heard, understood and accepted. To do that for them is the first command of God to us all: to love others… all others.  Genuinely listening (without haranguing, arguing, or mocking) is an act of love. It affirms that the other person has value in your eyes and is worth your effort to hear and understand them, even If you disagree with them. We need more of such love on both sides of today’s conflicts.

Now, Jesus also said, “Be careful how you hear.” We need to be judicious in deciding whose words to heed (i.e., act on). Why do so many of us listen willingly to lies and prop them up by affirming and often repeating them?  And why do so many of us resist hearing at all, refusing to receive, in Al Gore’s words, an “inconvenient truth?”  Is it just a failure of courage? Is it a stumbling stone of pride and fear, an inability to put ourselves to the side long enough to hear any voice other than our own? Do we fail to understand our own prejudices, the fears that drive us to self-protection, the desires that truth seems to threaten? Or is it a deeper failure?

Today our divisions are so great and the stakes are so high that it has become understandably hard to hear anything but the clamor of our own passions and fears.  In this kind of bedrock-values conflict, our passions and fears grow larger than the desire to know, accept, and love the other.  Whether in our political life or our personal life, our instinct to defend ourselves against “the opposition” shuts down our capacity to relate meaningfully and opens the floodgates of some of our worst coping behaviors: pre-judgment, passive or active aggression, withdrawing, closing our ears and shutting our eyes, to name but a few.

Our perceptions beg to be clarified in order to be free to hear, understand, and love someone else, flaws notwithstanding.  We need to begin to be humble enough to listen, even as we strive to align ourselves with truth and to call out lies. We need to be able to separate reality from fiction and truth from opinions and belief. But we need to practice these abilities with a spirit of commitment to honoring the other as we cultivate a persistent will to connect with them.

I think we need to pray hard that we can persist in loving and listening through the hardest moments of our life. Life is never easy; life in deep conflict is one of the most challenging we face.

Author: Linda Robinson

Writer, Christian contemplative, concerned citizen.