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News & Views

Talking about the difficult stuff by Christopher Proctor

Many subjects are so emotive that we avoid talking about them. We digress or we change the subject. You may find that to be increasingly true now, with a General Election in the offing: there is a sharper tone when people speak of their preference for Labour or Tory or Green. And this is hugely more the case when the issue involves people dying, as they are today in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in Somalia and in Yemen. We are often faced with hostility and even anger if we try to say what we believe.

The easy way out is to say nothing. But Unitarians do not seek the easy way. We accept that we have not only a right, but a duty to speak our truths in an open, rational and fruitful way. But how do we do this? How do we express our views on such important and emotive subjects as Gaza and Ukraine? How do we say, fearlessly, what we think - and at the same time, as John Wesley advises, ‘Condemn no man for not thinking as you think.’

There is an adage that, ‘It’s best not to talk about politics or religion.’ It causes trouble. People nod, sagely, as they repeat it. To succumb to this formula means to decide that it’s best not to speak about the two most important forces that determine how we live, and how we live together.

Usually talking is considered a positive exercise. A good thing.

There’s constant calls for talks.

Wars: ‘We need peace talks.’

Industrial disputes: we want to see both sides getting round the table for talks.

Opposing communities are urged to ‘hold talks’.

But actually, talking itself isn’t always a positive thing. You can’t learn anything from just talking. This is because you can only say what you already know. If we want to learn, to widen our understanding, we need to stop talks - and insist on ‘Listens’. When other people talk, and we listen, as opposed to just hear, we can expand what we know.

But I warn you that listening can be dangerous. It can encourage you to change your mind: which is seen as a desperately bad thing in our society. Changing your mind is seen as a sign of weakness.

Actually, listening and changing your mind is entirely healthy. No one can be chained to opinions they held years ago; or even yesterday. This is not weakness. It is

reason. We can’t tell someone that because they were once an anarchist, a glue-sniffer or a Take That fan that they need to stay like that forever.

In extreme youth I was tutored by my grandmother that bad luck would haunt me if I were to put a shoe on a table, passed the salt to someone’s hand or put an umbrella up in the house. Later I listened to others, and my fears - largely! - subsided. And then there’s the questions of how to listen. And who to listen to. To really listen is an effort. We need to empty our prejudices and preconceptions. And especially, we need to listen to our enemies.

It isn’t enough to say, ‘Putin’s a devil,’ or ‘Trump’s mad.’ You see, Putin isn’t ‘mad’: in terms of what he believes, he is utterly rational. Hamas are not ‘mad’ in their own terms: they are acting entirely in line within their core beliefs. Tump isn’t mad: he acts logically within his own values.

To really understand others, and to understand how to help them, the superficial is not enough. We need to dig below the surface. That is where the roots of enmity thrive. We need to ask about our foe’s beliefs and motivations.

To understand why men like Putin and Trump are afraid. Because that is what drives people to war: fear. The war lords are not strong macho warriors: it is frightened children who resort to violence.

Putin’s afraid of having missiles on his borders. The country of Isreal is afraid of attack. Hamas are afraid of extinction. We need to listen to their fears. We need to understand. Only then can we seek solutions.

Before we speak, we need to have listened to other views, and not simply so that we can thwart them. But also to seek human bonds, common instincts and universal concerns: to seek links stronger than our enmities. As James said in our reading this morning : ‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.’

I once worked on a magazine - Tribune - that had as its masthead, front top, something Nye Bevan said: ‘This is my truth. Tell me yours.’ I’ve always relished that phrase. Truth than can listen.

What was it John Wesley said? ‘Condemn no man for not thinking as you think.’

But listening, understanding and seeking truths within ourselves is only the start of the process. The next step it to speak those truths we have found. Having crystallised our convictions, we must share them.

Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians tells us, ‘Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.’ In the Book of Proverbs we are urged, ‘Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.’

It doesn’t say ‘Do this when it won’t offend’. It doesn’t say, ‘Speak out when your listeners agree or when your view is popular.’ To know the truth and say nothing is wasteful. Martin Luther King put this succinctly: ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’

We know there are issues which have such emotion attached to them - like Gaza, Iran or Syria - that it seems impossible to discuss them. Slogans take the place of reason and rationality. We see our opponents - and even our friends - retreat behind barriers and exchange insults.

Unitarians, to fulfil our open and tolerant core principles, cannot fall into this trap. We will speak without rancour or hatred.

This is John Wesley again:

‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.’ This principle has found its way to us via a translation from our Transylvanian Unitarian cousins as this aphorism: ‘We need not think alike to love alike.’

That is our starting point as Unitarians. ‘We need not think alike to love alike.’ We can differ about all things and yet our comradeship, our mutual respect and our communal love can remain.

So how can we speak about the subjects we avoid because we expect hostility and confrontation - like Gaza or Ukraine? How do we do it?

Firstly, let us not fall into the trap of speaking in slogans. Do not tell others what is right or what they must believe: rather, tell them what we have learned from listening and reading and thinking and asking within ourselves: and be prepared to explain our thinking and our logic. To refer back to the Epistle of James: ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’

But telling others what to think is belligerent and combative. It isn’t only the antithesis, the complete opposite, of Unitarian values: it is a barren exercise. Tell me what I have to think and my immediate reaction is to withdraw: my mind is not to be dictated to.

And most of all avoid insults. They are the enemies of enlightenment. The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, ‘Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.’ No one can be bullied into a belief.

A Hindu teacher once pointed this truth to me in a very convincing way. We were speaking about the mechanics of politics. He asked me to speak like a politician, and without thinking I said, ‘I tell you, today …’ and I found I had pointed my finger. Watch and I will show you. I point at you, and I say: ‘You are wrong.’

Look at my hand. One finger is telling you that you are wrong. Three are pointing at me. It is a warning that I can be thrice wrong.

The fact is, we convince no-one if we are aggressive. We can bully others into temporary submission, but that is all. It’s temporary, as all is in life - except ideas, which live on. One of the biggest follies of our time is the belief that force - brutality, violence - can destroy ideas. It can destroy cities and lives, but ideas cannot go away. Ideas remain.

But how do we, in our community, disagree? The answer seems to be that while it it useful, necessary, to be assertive, it is folly to be aggressive. The idea that ‘Israel is in the right’ or ‘Hamas is in the right’ is a challenge, and will be responded to as such: it is an invitation to conflict, not to peace or understanding.

Better to say something that lacks this aggression: to say what we feel, be that ‘It appalls me to see any families driven from their land’ or ‘It saddens me to see Israel, once a beacon of hope, acting in the way it is doing’ or even ‘It hurts me to see Israel surrounded by enemies.’ In explaining and expounding my feelings, I am seeking a resolution to my suffering: not looking for a fight.

This approach invites a response, a helping hand, advice. And it is not simply a formula. It is a fact. All we have is our own opinions and convictions; and if they are considered, we have a duty to express them, openly, bravely and forcefully. But the other side of expressing our views is to invite and to listen to and to welcome the opinions of others. To mean it when we say, willingly and seriously, as I do to you today:

I condemn no man for not thinking as I do.

‘This is my truth. Tell me yours.’

This address was first given by Christopher Proctor at a Sunday morning service on 2 June 2024. The reading from the Epistle of James, which Chris refers to is below:

Epistle of James 1, 19-27: Listening and Doing (NIV)

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce

the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.


Spirit of life and love, god of our hearts,

Through our gentle speech

and our open-hearted listening

may we become a blessing to the world.

Blessed be and amen.

Photo caption: Christopher Proctor


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