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.