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Elizabeth Oldfield: Listen hard for the sacred story

31 August 2018

WE ARE not very good at disagreeing. I don’t know if we have actually got worse at living with diversity, or our interconnected world just makes it more obvious, but our public debates don’t feel a lot of fun at the moment.

We have the “leader of the free world” spraying insults, Remainers and Brexiteers bickering like children on a long car journey, and a barely hidden undercurrent of racist and sexist abuse. Whether it is about anti-Semitism, transgender issues, or who gets to cook jerk rice, disagreement escalates quickly to all-out conflict. There seems to be a hidden “press for self-righteous rage” button somewhere that has got stuck in the “On” position.

We have started a podcast at Theos to try and make sense of what is going on. I had been on maternity leave, and decided to take an extended break from social media, and even the news. I would recommend this to anyone — but be prepared for the reverse culture shock. Debates that had been fractious months ago seemed suddenly feral; as inhospitable as the Wild West. For an organisation trying to inject a calm, informed, gracious Christian perspective into public debates, this matters.

The Sacred podcast is an attempt to explore what is driving this rush to name-calling and eye-rolling contempt, through interviewing a range of people from different beliefs and political perspectives.

Listening to someone you disagree with sounds laughably straightforward, but I have found it extremely challenging. Research confirms that encounters with people outside our tribe triggers a threat response. In simple terms, we get kicked into fight or flight by a rush of stress hormone. The unthinking response will always be fight: attack, perhaps with a withering insult or clever put-down; or flight: withdraw and don’t bother engaging.

Either of these responses close down the opportunity for real human connection. Staying calm, open, and rational is a skill that takes practice, at least for me. When Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek, he is asking us to override the instinct to either hit back or run away. Remaining connected to, and in conversation with, a human being who has slapped you (physically, or just verbally), does not come naturally.

If we can listen, though, with empathy and attention, I’ve found the same thing as President Obama, who was interviewed recently in The Guardian.

“If you listen hard enough, everybody’s got a sacred story. . . How did they come to believe what they believe? And what are they trying to pass on to their children?. . . An organising story, of who they are and what their place in the world is. And they’re willing to share it with you if they feel as if you actually care about it. And that ends up being the glue around which relationships are formed, and trust is formed, and communities are formed.”

And, perhaps, the glue with which we can mend our broken common life.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the director of Theos. soundcloud.com/thesacredpodcast

Angela Tilby is away.

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