Trust nobody, listen to everybody, follow Jesus

A columnist reboots for 2017 with three core principles for engaging public life.

(RNS) A stained glass window at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu, Hawaii, depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

Like a number of left-leaning “voices,” 2016 left me bewildered, disoriented, vertiginous. “No one knows anything,” said Conan O’Brien, and that is exactly how I felt.

But, as my conservative father said to me the other day, “You are at your best after you have been humbled, when you admit you don’t know everything, when you start listening and break out of your liberal elite silo. You have been doing that since the election. Keep it up.”

Being an obedient son, I shall soldier on.

I do believe that a new approach is called for, at least from me. I believe that I had gotten way too narrow in the voices to which I was listening. That I was far too trusting of the Washington-New York-Boston-media-activist-Democratic-liberal complex. And that I was operating out of a reservoir of anger with the conservative white Christian people from whom I come and with whom I have so often clashed in the last 10 years.

So I shall take a deep breath and try again, and I will do so with three basic principles in view: trust nobody, listen to everybody, follow Jesus:

Trust nobody. This means that no politician, political party, newspaper, columnist, magazine, radio program, TV personality, cable news network, website, clergyperson, religious authority, activist, denomination, world leader, fellow scholar, statement of “consensus opinion,” survey result, tweet, line of argument, factual claim, values claim, or any other claim will ever receive unquestioning trust from me. No one knows anything, at least, no one’s claim to know something can be trusted. I will check everything out for myself.

Listen to everybody. I am rejiggering my news sources to read a more balanced diet. I am not assuming that someone that some authority has classified as “X” — liberal, conservative, phobic, humane, stupid, wise, intolerable — is “X” until I engage their ideas for myself, over time. I will assume that there is something to learn even from those with whom I most strongly disagree. I will seek to understand what motivates people across the entire religious, political, moral, and intellectual spectrum in whatever the issue is I am considering. I will devote much of my “ink” to calling attention to voices that seem revelatory or important, no matter whether I like them or not, no matter what label they carry. To listen does not mean to agree, bless, or admire. It means to pay attention to the actual world in which we live.

Follow Jesus. When I venture an opinion, it will be grounded as far as is humanly possible in the life and teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. This is what I have tried to do in my ministry as a scholar and pastor and teacher and it is what I will try to bring to my columns. Of course I know that what I offer is my reading of Jesus, my interpretation of this or that passage, my understanding of the meaning of his life, mission, and message. I can’t get beyond that — but nonetheless this is the one on whom I have staked my life, and I want my commentary to more clearly reflect that.

(By the way, I happen to read Jesus as someone who indeed trusted no human being and listened to everybody. So there you go.)

Trust nobody. Listen to everybody. Follow Jesus. And because everything is contested, and “no one knows anything,” try to enjoy the endless series of arguments that just is public life, while making your own contribution. Advice to myself, and to my readers.

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