A friend of mine, who is the executive director of a progressive Christian ministry, told me the story of meeting an activist who identifies as spiritual but not religious. At first, this person wasn’t even interested in talking to my friend.
He saw a Christian as someone hopelessly irrelevant, part of the problem rather than the solution.
Fortunately, my progressive Christian friend was able to communicate one essential detail. “I’m not here to convert you or to argue with you. I’m here to have a conversation, which means I’m here to listen to you.”
So the two did have a conversation, and now they are close friends.
As I reflected on this story, I felt a pang of remorse; for all too often I have been too quick to dismiss those who are different from me — not only the “spiritual but not religious,” but also folks I have labelled as “fundamentalist” or as holding political values unlike my own.
Once we manage to label another person (or they manage to label us), it can be very difficult to engage in an open, vulnerable, creative conversation. Because as soon as we are wearing a label, all sorts of social or political assumptions tag along. We no longer relate to the person in front of us; now we are just relating to all the assumptions and beliefs about their “label” that bounce around inside our own heads. In other words, we begin relating to our projection, not to their reality.
Sometimes this is helpful, I suppose. In the case of this S.B.N.R. person, he was probably justifiably tired of Christians continually haranguing him to stop being so narcissistic, to take a stand for community, to get off the fence and make a real commitment. Yada yada yada.
But then along comes my progressive Christian friend who wants to have an entirely different conversation; thankfully, the S.B.N.R. activist was conscious enough to actually listen and discover that a new way of interacting with Christians was possible, at least with this relationship.
So isn’t that our challenge? We all have prejudices, biases, decisions we’ve made about entire categories of people that may have been true in a limited way but that really can stand in the way of forging positive relationships in the future. So each of us, whether we are Christian, or S.B.N.R., or progressive or conservative, or whatever, needs to remember to relate to people as people — not as categories or labels.
I think contemplation can go a long way toward helping us with this.
Because the key here, of course, is listening but also compassion. In order for me to relate to a person as a person and not just as a label or a category means I have to listen with compassion to that person, standing right in front of me, here and now, without judgment, without stereotyping, without projecting. It’s putting Jesus’s command to “Judge Not” (Matthew 7:1) into direct, practical application.
So how do I do that? How do I keep myself from judging others, on the fly?
With silence and love, we need to cultivate a heart that seeks connection, rather than competition, with others — especially others who might seem on the surface to be different from ourselves. We need to pay attention to silence so that we find the interior space to actually listen to another person without judgment, without prejudice, without assumptions that can get in the way of an actual encounter.
A meditation teacher at Shalem many years ago told our class, “our sitting time is practice for a way of being.” In other words, if you spend 20 or 30 or 40 or 60 minutes a day in prayerful silence, that is not just an end in itself. It is a prayerful way of giving ourselves to an entirely new way of life, that will shape and form us even when we are not sitting in silence. To pray in a contemplative way means to embrace a contemplative way of life, where listening matters more than judgment, compassion matters more than competition, and relationship matters more than the labels we wear (or we project onto others).
Make no mistake. Living a contemplative life does not mean that conflict, or prejudice, or competition will magically vanish from our lives. Not hardly! But it creates some space where we are able to make more creative choices about the relationships we seek. Back to the example of my friend and his friend: if a Christian and an S.B.N.R. person encounter each other with compassionate, contemplative listening, they might still find they have profound disagreements over the importance of Christian wisdom teachings, or of faith community, or of how they understand who God is. That’s okay. Because if they are truly listening to one another, and engaging in creative dialogue, wonderful things still can happen. Perhaps they find that they are allies in a common struggle against human trafficking or environmental despoliation. Perhaps they just figure out that they genuinely like each other and can learn a lot from one another.
Who knows? The point is, by encountering each other from a position of contemplative compassion, rather than prejudice and projection, a real relationship suddenly becomes possible. For Christians, this means we can be faithful to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. And I believe the more loving we can be, even in small ways, the better the world becomes.
What are your thoughts? How can Christians learn to relate positively with people who appear “different”? What difference can contemplation and compassion make in our lives?