Love your cultural enemies? Start with listening and validating their story


Cultural enemies are those who oppose our views about important aspects of life (faith, religion, identity, family, values, community, government, politics, etc.). Worse, many cultural enemies do more than oppose our way of life, they accuse us of the worst sort of behavior, that of hating and hurting others with our culture via systematic bigotry.

When we hear Jesus call to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5) what images of love come to mind with this kind of enemy? Not returning evil for evil? Not seeking revenge? While turning the other cheek is surely part of what it means to love the enemy, we know that love requires action as well–not just the absence of bad responses. 

What if our first action was to really listen to and validate the story of our cultural enemy? Might sound easy but it is not!

Consider Mark Galli’s recent short essay in the April 2016 issue of Christianity Today [link here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/what-reconciliation-sounds-like.html%5D as he addresses the challenge when two opposing groups feel their story/narrative is not being heard by the other side. 

We experience daily clashing narratives from Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, main liners, evangelicals, pro-choices, pro-lifers, gays, straights, men, women, elites, the poor–to name a few. 

Mark points out why listening is so hard. First he notes, 

…narratives define the conflict, name the antagonists, and spell out the resolution. Narratives are, of course, biased. They rarely lie about the facts, but they are selective in their use of them. 

Then, he says one of the more difficult things for us to embrace.

The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, as we are wont to say, but on both ends. [For example,] The American experiment is a remarkable achievement of democratic governance, human rights, and free speech–and is riddled with hypocrisy and racism. 

Yet it is difficult to take seriously the narrative of the other. We fear that if we do, we’ll sabotage the value of our own narrative. 

And that is the reason why listening is difficult. To listen to the other means to give credibility to the other’s story. And if their story (which paints me or those like me as the enemy) has any merit, then maybe my story will not get any airtime. In fact, we probably already have evidence that our story has been marginalized or charicatured and so we rarely enter a conversation without a chip on our shoulder. 

 To listen to you, my cultural enemy, I have to relinquish my anxiety that I will not get the same opportunity. (This, by the way, is the most frequent challenge in conflictual marriages. If I listen to your hurts, it will diminish my right to be heard.)

Half-listening is not real listening. 

Faux forms of listening need to be named as they give the appearance of listening but actually leave all parties further apart. Galli points out mitigation as one tactic needing. Mitigation is in play when we say, “Yes, true, but you…” In this method we barely acknowledge some sin on our side but excuse it on the basis of a larger sin on their side. We point out their biases, straw-men, mis-characterizations, and sins that cause us to possibly do something wrong. In short, we listen so as to defend, excuse, blameshift, or explain. 

But true love for other requires a different response, one that moves beyond hearing to validating the story. 

True love requires that we listen and validate the narrative, even with its biases. We even go one step further to acknowledge where our own cultural narratives have been wrong, even if we think the wrong is small compared to the wrong on the other side. Can I listen and acknowledge (validate) their wounds, their experiences of injustice. 

Validation does not mean agreement on all aspects of the narrative. 

I once watched an academic presentation/debate between a biblical counselor and a psychologist from a different persuasion. They psychologist went first and detailed a long list of sins and failures of biblical counselors (in practice and in foundational beliefs). The biblical counselor then stood up and took the time to agree with the  psychologist. Without caveat, he agreed with the sins and mis-application of the bible. There was no defense. Instead, he even asked the psychologist if he had any personal negative history with biblical counseling. The psychologist told a rather personal history of harm to his own family many decades before. It provided an opportunity for the biblical counselor to apologize for that experience. Later, the counselor was able to talk about what he hoped biblical counseling would be known for and painted a picture that I think most in the room could value. But, none of that would have happened if the counselor didn’t set aside the temptation to defend or deflect criticisms that might have been little more then charicatures. 

Try it with your next conversation with a cultural enemy. Hear their story. Validate whatever portion holds some portion of the truth. Do it without a “but”. Be willing to consider the flaws in your own side even if the other will not do the same. Trust that God will make all things right (including our flawed culture) in due time. And trust that He will give you the time and space to speak truth (in love) to your cultural enemy. 

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Filed under conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, group dynamics, Justice

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