“Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for…you want to get ahead? Fools who run their mouths off end up dead.”
- Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton”
These melodious words of advice from Aaron Burr to a young Alexander Hamilton seem like the best advice we could give in our increasingly fractured world. Be silent. Don’t say anything too political. Don’t out yourself as a conservative or a liberal. Don’t read the comments. Don’t engage in the argument with your cousin’s friend on Facebook who said something utterly ridiculous and offensive! The minute you open your mouth – before you’ve even had a chance to say your piece – someone is going to slap back.
There is certainly something to be said for this advice. Our culture has become incredibly divisive. We seem to have lost the ability to have civil discourse on topics about which we disagree. We go into conversation looking to convert others to our way of thinking, rather than listening appreciatively for what common ground we may have.
We don’t listen.
How many conversations have you had – in real life or on social media – in which the participants seem to be taking turns talking, rather than actually engaging in conversation? We are always thinking ahead, formulating our next clever response or quick retort, rather than actually listening to the concerns of our conversation partners.
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
At first glance, this passage from James seems to be agreeing with Burr’s advice, but there’s more to the story. You see, James goes on to admonish the believers to “be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The epistle writer cautions the readers to be quick to listen and slow to speech, slow to anger. This does not mean that anger does not have its place. This does not mean that we should stand silently by as injustice prevails. This does not mean that we should not ask questions or speak truth when we see deceit. Listen first. Speak second. Then listen some more.
Do not jump first to anger or to vilifying the person with whom you disagree. Do not assume that they are out to harm you or to take advantage of you. Find out what their concerns are. You may be surprised to find that they are the same as yours – even if you disagree on the best way to address them. It is not enough to believe. We are called to be love.
The death of Senator John McCain this week brought with it an onslaught of social media posts offering support to his family and expressing dismay at his loss. The thing that struck me was that the posts lauding this Republican senator were evenly divided between my friends and news sources on all sides of the political spectrum. Many seemed afraid that he was the last of his kind – the last of the elected ranks who would consider conversation across the aisle in order to do what is right for the American people. Even those who often disagreed with him on these issues admired his willingness to listen and to compromise. His farewell letter to the American people contained these words:
We (Americans) are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.
Talk less. Smile more.
And when it is time to speak, do so in love rather than in anger. Hold fast to the core of what you believe. Be guided by your principals. But most of all, be guided by the rule of love taught and lived out by Jesus Christ, recognizing the image of God in each person you meet. After all, as Hamilton responded to Burr, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”