Time to Stop Talking by Esther Nelson

One of my Facebook friends—someone I’m quite fond of—posted the following remarks given by her pastor, Dr. Jim Somerville, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia, to the congregation on July 15, 2018:

It was Thanksgiving 2016, and my brothers and I were headed toward a family reunion of sorts in Franklin, West Virginia, where my mother now lives. Four of us were carpooling together and one of us asked another one of us, ‘Can you please help me understand why you voted for Donald Trump?’ And we all listened. And my brother who was asked the question explained his position in a very clear way, in a very gentle way, in a very loving way, so that his brother could understand his reasons. And when he was finished he said, ‘Maybe you could tell me why you voted for Hillary Clinton?’ And my brother responded in the same gentle, kind, and loving way…
Here’s the truth: we all grew up in the same family, but we don’t share the same politics or the same theology. And yet we are family, and somehow we have never forgotten that. When we come together, we talk to each other and we listen to each other. And we seek understanding because we know this: you can’t love something you don’t understand.

We can’t love each other if we don’t take time to listen and to understand each other. God has made us family — brothers and sisters — like it or not. And you may not like some of your brothers and sisters. But you have to love them. And to do that you might need to listen long enough to understand, and to say, ‘You know what? I disagree with you 100 percent! But I love you anyway.’

That’s just how it is in the family of God.

On the surface, these are pretty words—shallow and seemingly innocuous—but the very soothing nature of the pastor’s words can easily obfuscate their danger.  Dr. Somerville, in the above text, encourages his congregation to speak with and listen to each other in order to understand one another’s point of view.  Generally speaking, we think of those activities as positive.  Sometimes, though, dialogue is not appropriate.

I replied to my friend’s post:

“I get the thrust of this message and it’s a good one. However, if we are all family on a global level (and I believe we are), we don’t listen to a point of view that espouses cruelty. When there’s abuse within a family situation, for example, it is imperative to take action such as removal of a child from the situation and/or notify those in a position to put an end to the abuse. In a global context, our current president is cruel and abusive (among other things) to our brothers and sisters. There is no way that’s okay with me and I think it’s counter-productive to listen to some siblings supporting a man who indulges in such abhorrent behavior.”

My friend responded:

“As always, your points are good and thought- provoking. All I can say is maybe we can still listen and try to understand why someone would support him [Trump] (especially when we know the person we’re listening to is not cruel or abusive), even while disagreeing with that support and doing what we can to stop the abhorrent behavior?”

I replied further:

“Yes, overall, I agree. However, going back to the analogy of ‘family,’ I think some family members (who are not cruel people, as you noted) enable cruelty. For example, there are mothers who turn a blind eye to their daughters being sexually abused regularly, most often by family members. When the abuse is brought out in the open, they (mothers) support the abuser by listing his ‘good’ qualities. ‘He’s a great provider, he works hard.’ Or, when a child is beaten regularly, the enabler’s excuse for standing by and doing nothing about it is ‘Well, they really do love the child, they just don’t know how to show it.’ I liken our siblings who still support this cruel man we have as a president right now to enablers. It’s how he remains in office.”

Dr. Somerville, in his remarks to his congregation, focuses almost exclusively on “making nice” within the family of God.  He fails to note and address the disenfranchisement of those vulnerable people who are being neglected and abused by a man at the helm of our government.  It’s as if caged children, poor people, women, people without health insurance, LGBTQ folks, Blacks, Muslims (and the list goes on and on) remain invisible.  Does he think it’s more important that his congregation (and the larger community) run smoothly than it is to grapple with the reality of a cruel and unjust president?

Dr. Somerville notes how imperative it is to love one’s siblings in spite of disagreeing with them theologically and politically.  Exploring various ways to understand the world through dialogue with others can be healthy and energizing.  Ordinarily, I think this is sound advice.  But, these are no ordinary times.  One way to demonstrate love to the family of God within our current political context is not to engage with people who enable bullies to flourish.  It siphons off energy that could be used to uplift people targeted by our president’s cruelty.

“You can’t love something you don’t understand,” asserts Dr. Somerville.  What’s not to understand?  Some of our siblings support (and thus enable) a man who is cruel to our immediate and extended global family.  We understand all too well.  So here’s the thing:  It’s not a loving act to listen to a mother extol the virtues of her daughter’s abuser.  Neither is it a loving act to listen to reasons people give for supporting a cruel bully.

It’s time to stop talking.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

35 thoughts on “Time to Stop Talking by Esther Nelson”

  1. I know why my brothers voted for Trump. One believes women, blacks, and gays have taken what is rightly his white male power. The other invokes his religion as authorizing patriarchy. And what would they say about separating parents from their children? That the parents entered the country illegally (not true if they are seeking asylum) and they got what they deserved? Do I really need to hear that? My brothers view me as part of the problem and are unlikely to listen to me. So what is the point?

    Goddess (as I know Her) would like my brothers to care about parents and children more than they care about preserving white male power, but they are not going to budge because I listen carefully to their views, and how can I do that when they both begin from the premise of the divine right of white males to have all the power?

    Write on!

    And let’s spend our energy making sure that those who care about those parents and children who are separated by our government are registered to vote and will go out to vote in November. Families can be good thing, but patriarchal families are not always a good thing! I guess your minister friend forgot to think about that. Note, the conversation he describes is between 3 brothers who share white male privilege. What if one of the 3 were a sister?

    And as your blog implies, would they believe her if she told them that she was abused in the family?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your comment, Carol. And I so agree that it’s pointless to listen to people who entrench themselves within patriarchy and spout off reasons (divine right of males to have power) to keep that system going and therefore support Trump. I think that most of the time, rational argument has little (if any) effect on changing people’s minds anyway.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Write On Esther! I come from a large family – rampant violent abuse, rampant incest Of the 8 living siblings there are only 2 of us that have explored our legacy of white males privileged to abuse & steal beauty. 3 of my 4 brothers are avid Trump supporters – 2 have permitted their Conditional_Christian friends to trash me. 2 of my 3 sisters support Trump – although they cannot support other females. I have given up any kind of dialogue with them Why? I spent so many years in Communication Studies I finally must agree with Patricia Evans & her body of work of on our daily SOP of abusive communication. So I ask Dr. Somerville who are we making things “nice” for? I find his sermons fodder, enabling the vast array of domestic violence / intimate partner violence / judicial violence AND the Conditional_Christian violence that happens 24/7 in this country.


    2. Goodness, Carol, I think we have the same brothers! You describe them perfectly so I know exactly what you mean. I no longer expend any energy on them at all and keep my distance. There are far more productive things to be doing then talking into the wind.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. thank you for sharing Esther .. this is why I have no time with main religious institution – they are very good at dumping down our feelings and thought , making us all be “nice” and shaming us……….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Write on! It may be nice to speak gently, but does that pastor have sisters? A mother? Female friends? Do those women know about righteous anger? The male authority of the standard-brand churches and their god have brought us to where we are today–male oligarchy in many nations, a narcissistic president that I’m beginning to think is insane, and continuing injury to our mother planet. Thanks for writing this post. Yes, indeed, it’s time to stop merely talking.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Barbara, for weighing in. I have found most men don’t feel the need to ask how their wives, mothers, sisters, etc. might feel about something. So often they assume they feel exactly as they do.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. As a novelist, a Libra, a middle child, a cradle Christian (PK’s daughter) who was for many years a Quaker (there is that of God in everyone) I have a perhaps innate and definitely cultivated ability to see from other points of view. I had a dearly held belief that this quality could resolve any conflict, always lead to a win/win. I could almost always see the other person’s point of view and surely if I explained it logically, reasonably one more time (and one more time and one more time) she, he, they would see mine.

    Then I met a life circumstance that confounded my belief that fairness, reason, and openness would resolve everything. I don’t want to go into the circumstances, but I started reading up on sociopaths and gaslighting. One piece of advice hit home. You’re not going to win this one, leave. And we ended up literally moving.

    I very much appreciate your extending the analogy of the family to what happens when someone in the family abuses and others enable and collude in abuse of someone who is rendered powerless in that situation whose voice is never heard and whose point of view is not even considered. That is the person, the people, the part of ourselves we need to hear.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, Elizabeth, I can so relate to your experience. I used to believe anything could be settled and/or worked through by using dialogue. Sometimes that is possible, but not always. I think language is a great and wonderful gift. But, words fail at times, as you have noted. I’m reminded of Jesus’ exhortation not to throw pearls before swine. I like to think the author of that narrative understood that words are not always efficacious. Thank you for your wise comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this powerful truth. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Evil happens when good men do nothing.” It is time we all take a stand against the evil being perpetrated on so many at this time in our history.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you Esther for this excellent article that exposes what being “nice” can really mean.

    Your words are my own: “…we don’t listen to a point of view that espouses cruelty. When there’s abuse within a family situation, for example, it is imperative to take action…” – Obviously. When we have an abusive person at the helm of this country we say NO again and again.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. My first thought is that Trump and his kind thrive when people stop listening and speaking respectfully to each other. He wants enmity, separation, division that births violence. I don’t see the goal as “winning” another person to my point of view but in engaging another on a personal level. Ask the questions. Leave them to germinate.

    I see the situation for acting in family abuse as very different from acting in gov’t abuse. In a “nuclear family” situation I would have some individual influence and my action would have immediate effect. Changing a government requires uniting the Grassroots. Doing the prophetic actions that give witness to the evil. For that, we need to speak in a way that encourages people to listen and reflect, not argue and defend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Barbara, I was going for analogy with my essay. People who exploit others are bullies. One cannot negotiate with a bully, nor can one negotiate with those who blindly follow the leader bully. It’s one reason our government (at least, in the past) has taken a stand to never negotiate with highjackers. Those situations are irrational. Powerful bullies call the shots because they hold all the cards..There’s no place to go. What I’m suggesting is that the current situation with Trump is very much like a bully leader, threatening to destroy if he doesn’t get his way. Perhaps in the future should the situation change (there’s always drama in politics), conversation might be possible. Not now.. The point of Dr. Sommerville’s address was to listen to those who support “bully” (my word) Trump. Trump has no shame. He’s indecent. I remember a phrase in Spanish from my growing up years. When someone behaved indecently, people would say, “Es un sin verguenza.” (He is without shame.) Sin verguenzas are not compassionate people. The focus is on themselves. Compassion has no place in their worldview..


      1. Esther, I wasn’t thinking of speaking with Trump directly and certainly agree with your comments above. Not only is he inaccessible hiding behind guards, his ego, and such, I don’t think I could be the least bit patient with him.

        We come to language again. “Negotiate” for me means I’m looking for a solution, for change and agreement. That might not ever happen. Yesterday I was talking with a neighbour who insisted on his opinion being correct. I told him I disagreed and (of course!) my opinion was correct. Not in those words but that’s what it came down to. I doubt either of us will change but seeds are planted in the exchange. I’m thinking in situations when the subject comes up with family, neighbours, friends. Of course, we have to be wise and act according to the situation and each person. But I believe it is necessary to name evil and speak out even when it seems hopeless.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Esther, I find your analogy equating the US government system with our family systems right on. A bully is a bully – no matter who is the target of their self absorbed lack of self control. Indeed, I have done the same, using the same analogy as you. Calling George Washington “the father of our country” certainly set the stage for this. When we have alleged “leaders” in the governmental / political positions who lie, cheat, steal, enrich themselves through insider trading, cavort with females other than their wives, consort with dictators then we are setting atrocious & ubiquitous fetid examples of the lack of morality for our children.


  8. I guess I don’t see always being “nice” and engaging in empathetic dialogue as the same thing, nor do I believe that empathetic dialogue need exclude political action (in fact I don’t think it should).

    I am concerned that refusal to engage with the “other side” can create echo chambers, something that I have witnessed a lot of on social media. It becomes an “us” versus “them” situation where both sides think the other is abhorrent and neither can talk to the other. That concerns me because I am not quite understanding what is being proposed here as far as what to do about Trump supporters. It seems to me that refusing to engage with them and understand their perspectives (NOT to agree with them or to validate their views but to listen to why they believe what they believe) won’t change any of their minds, and may only further entrench them.

    If Trump supporters make up roughly half your country (or some other significant percentage), how can that ever be expected to change without some sort of engagement? It’s good to use energy to “uplift people” marginalized under Trump’s administration, but it seems to me that the best way to protect such people is to work to ensure he is not elected again, and I’m not sure how disengaging from the people who elected him supports that goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. Bullies like Trump and his supporters (especially his base) are manipulators. It is impossible (in my opinion) to dialogue with manipulators. One calls out the manipulation and takes a stand against it, doing whatever one can, but there is no “working with” bullies. Of course, we work to unseat our current president. One of the things that bothers me is that so many people support Trump’s indecency. (See my response to Barbara Cooper above as well.)


    1. I am also very bothered by Trump’s behaviour and by the fact that so many people support him, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all his supporters are all manipulators or that there is no compassion in their worldview. I think that dehumanizes them, and again leaves the question of how to unseat Trump without engaging with his supporters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Using my analogy in the essay, interacting with Trump’s supporters is like interacting with a mother who has shielded (and enabled) her daughter’s abuser. She is not the abuser, but she rallies around the abuser, holding on tenaciously. Without her undergoing some kind of transformation, it is not possible to talk with her. I have no formula for transformation either for this mother (as example) or Trump supporters.


  10. I appreciate that analogy although like all analogies it does break down at a certain point (as Barbara Cooper points out above). Personally I believe that both a mother like you describe and a Trump supporter can go through such a transformation, but I think they would probably need someone to speak to them and listen empathetically to understand why they have done what they have done; people do not change in isolation. Of course when we are speaking about interpersonal interactions like this there are many reasons why a particular individual may not want to engage with someone else at any particular point or may not feel it is healthy or productive for them to do so; I understand that. But I disagree that it is not possible to talk to such a person on principle.


    1. Not “on principle,” but at this time. Now. I’m copying and pasting Elizabeth Cunnigham’s paragraph: “Then I met a life circumstance that confounded my belief that fairness, reason, and openness would resolve everything. I don’t want to go into the circumstances, but I started reading up on sociopaths and gaslighting. One piece of advice hit home. You’re not going to win this one, leave. And we ended up literally moving.” And as you’ve noted, Jacqueline, “…there are many reasons why a particular individual may not want to engage with someone….” I would go further. Sometimes, it’s necessary. Sometimes change happens when one refuses to do the same ole’ dance.


      1. All of my experience hearing from people who have left destructive and hateful movements (alt-right neo-Nazis, fundamentalist homophobes, etc.) suggests to me that empathetic dialogue is the most effective way to get someone to abandon those kinds of views. I do not think that Trump’s supporters are likely to change their views without any engagement from the left, and I think that if they do not change their views then Trump will be elected again. I do not see any viable way of preventing his re-election that does not involve some sort of empathetic engagement with his supporters. That’s just my two cents.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Excellent reflection, Professor Nelson. My thoughts were about the pastor. I wonder where he would find the prophetic role of the pastor, which is rooted strongly in biblical tradition and most often has to do with challenging the corruption of power, in this national moment. I have read (and heard) more than a few sermons(especially by some very fine female pastors) since the Trump administration began which offer such critiques, again, from biblical perspectives. A few from my sample:
    •Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King UMC in Florissant,Mo, who was present in the streets in the days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer.
    • Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver
    • Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, Co-Chair of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, former president of the NAACP in NC and pastor of Greenleaf Baptist Church in Goldsboro, NC
    • Rev.Dr. Amy Butler, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in NYC.
    •Many of these women, and others will be present at the Nevertheless She Preached Conference,Sept 23-25 in Waco,TX.


    1. Thanks lyndaww for your compliment as well as your thoughtful comment. To answer your specific question, I don’t know where this particular pastor would place himself in the context of the prophetic role of the pastor. My guess (from the remarks he made to his congregation earlier this month) is that he has a huge interest in not having his boat rocked. After all, those O.T. prophets (many of them) who spoke out against corruption (and all of its ugly tentacles) were persecuted. Some even had to run for their lives. In other words, they rocked the boat. Thanks also for the heads up on the “Nevertheless She Preached Conference.” Would love to hear a report! ;-)


    2. My friend, Dale Smith, after reading my essay sent me the following comment. With his approval, am posting it here because it addresses your question regarding the “prophetic role of the pastor.”

      “I was thinking about the church’s lack of prophetic voice when I read your FAR essay. Thanks for sharing that. I feel that pastor had a good start, but only a start. Yes, Christians are called to love each other. That’s the divine command in John, and a difficult one to achieve. But the church is also called to speak out for the less-than, and speak up for justice. He never mentioned this. Jesus turned over tables. Mary sings a song of revolution in Luke. God’s Kingdom should subvert power structures and topple them. There is no political party that aligns with God’s Kingdom.

      As a pastor, I would wonder where I was failing if people in my congregation found anything in Trump’s message that resonated with them. Not because his message is Republican rather than Democrat, but because it is a message that tramples the poor and dehumanizes people. If a pastor isn’t courageous enough to point the finger at Trump, a pastor should at least be courageous enough to speak up for those who are poor and dehumanized by power structures. This pastor’s comments seemed to accept that some in his congregation will find good news in Trump’s message. That is a problem. More than that, it is heresy–a turning away from the kingdom that Jesus describes.”


  12. I have so much sympathy for your point of view. Sympathy and respect. But I see things differently.

    I think it’s all about one’s goal. If people genuinely want to stop the abuse, we know what works and what does not work. Cutting off communication, shaming, and finger wagging don’t convert a single trump voter. Communicating, with conviction and truth and authenticity and respect for the human being (if not h/er opinion) is what works.

    If our goal is to feel good about ourselves, then shunning Trump voters works great.

    I saw this same phenomenon among Progressives about Clinton. She has done so many upsetting, anti-progressive things, that many progressives feel/felt deeply betrayed and wounded by anyone who voted for her in the Dem primary. I had sympathy and respect for their perspective, too, which mirrors yours.

    I saw things differently, though. My goal is always to bring people along with me, in order to prevent another Trump term, and so my strategies align with that goal, pragmatically.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Trelawney, Appreciate your comment. But, please don’t put words in my mouth. “…shaming, and finger wagging don’t convert a single trump voter….” I have not suggested such. And my aim is not to “convert” anybody. I do know (from my own experience) that to engage bullies whose specialties are gaslighting and cruelty is an ineffective strategy to bring about positive change. Sometimes, one has to dis-engage. That disengagement (for a period of time) carries with it the possibility of change.


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