"The Path of Curiosity," by Zachary & Claire Helton
A reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
“Your love must be sincere. Hate what is evil and cling to what is good.
Love one another with the affection of sisters and brothers. Try to outdo one another in showing respect.
Don’t grow slack, but be fervent in spirit: the One you serve is Christ.
Rejoice in hope; be patient under trial; persevere in prayer.
Look on the needs of God’s holy people as your own; be generous in offering hospitality.
Bless your persecutors—bless and don’t curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same attitude toward everyone.
Don’t be condescending to those who aren’t as well off as you; don’t be conceited.
Don’t repay evil with evil.
Be concerned with the highest ideal in the eyes of all people.
Do all you can to be at peace with everyone.
Dear friends, don’t try to get even; let God take revenge. To quote scripture, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will pay them back,’ says our God.” But there is more:
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them drink. For in doing so, you will heap burning coals upon their heads.”
Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by doing good.”
This is one of our sacred teachings,
Thanks be to God.
It was April of last year when Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber launched her new podcast called The Confessional, in which she invites her guests to recount stories of themselves at their worst, and then asks them to take the next and more difficult step: to look upon themselves with redemptive eyes. In the first episode she welcomes her first guest, Megan Phelps-Roper, whose name may ring a bell because she’s become fairly well-known for who she isn’t (anymore).
Phelps-Roper was born into a close-knit family in Topeka, Kansas in the mid-80s, and from the moment of her birth she was, as so many of us are, swept up into the priorities and anxieties, hopes and fears of her parents and grandparents. And, like most of us, she also learned to relate to those ideals through the religious stories her family told. The difference, however, between her experience and ours, was that her grandfather was the Rev. Fred Phelps, the founding pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church.
Most of us are familiar with Westboro, so I won’t belabor the point. They embody a caricature of the biases and hateful rhetoric of American culture wars, their politics and theology so extreme that even far-right politicians squirm when they show up in the news cycle. For a podcast about people when they’re at their worst, Bolz-Weber would have had a hard time finding a more potent place to start.
In the episode, Megan Phelps-Roper recounts what it was like for her being born into a family that routinely protested funerals and churches, singing and holding signage claiming that the dead and their bereaved families deserved whatever tragedy had befallen them. She recounted the zeal that had led them to put on a show of forced laughter and dancing around counter-protestors in order to ensure they’d be seen by mourning families – grieving parents and children – certain all the while that the All-Powerful and Angry God of Righteousness was on their side.
But the turn in the story comes when, in 2012, Megan Phelps-Roper, ultra-conservative and religious fundamentalist, changed her mind. At great personal cost, in November of that year, she made the choice to walk away from it all.
Now, if you’re anything like me, there is one question burning in your mind: How? In a world where we are so often more interested in digging in our heels than learning that we might be wrong, more interested in criticizing the other team than examining ourselves, what happened to this woman that was actually effective in leading her to change her mind? What is it that actually worked?
In the episode, Bolz-Weber asks Megan, “When did you start to feel unnerved by what you and your family were doing?”
Megan responds that it started with conversations on Twitter, where her role was to use the platform to spread Westboro’s message. But then something unexpected happened. Most people, Megan says, weren’t interested in her experience as a member of Westboro, as a protester. They wanted to talk about, “the things that I believed that showed that I was a terrible person.” (End of quote.) But then, sometimes, someone would say something like, You know, everybody hates you – that must be so hard. As Megan says, “they were clearly showing interest in my experience as a human being, and not just in what Westboro believes.”
She goes on to reflect on how, as these kinds of interactions continued, she began to reflect that curiosity and genuine interest back at some of the more compassionate voices that reached out to her over Twitter. Eventually she reached a breaking point. One of those voices was a teenage boy in Australia who tweeted a photo essay from The Atlantic about the famine in Somalia, with an image of an emaciated child as the cover photo. Megan knew her role was to take that photo and write what Westboro calls “Godsmack” about it, an article explaining how this is a punishment from God because (quote) “you all are so evil.” But she couldn’t. Instead, she began to weep, and that was the beginning of the end.
Bolz-Weber reflects on Megan’s story, saying, “The thing I think is so interesting to me about your story of…your thinking changing is that it didn’t happen as a result of people yelling at you on Twitter, it happened as a result of people having compassion for you and curiosity about you.”
And that’s the turn. Megan Phelps-Roper did not change her mind because finally she’d been yelled at one too many times. She did not change her mind by being shamed into it. She didn’t even change her mind because of well-reasoned and logical arguments. She left behind her hate-filled worldview, along with everyone and everything she knew, because someone had the courage to demonstrate curiosity and compassion. She changed because, for just a moment, someone was able to set aside their judgment of the role she was playing and say to her, “Everyone is yelling at you, that’s got to be so hard. Are you okay?” And that changed everything.
“Bless your enemies,” Paul writes to the church of Rome, which was split into two opposing parties that seemed to hate one another. “I know you want to curse them, but if you want anything to change, you must bless them. I know you want to repay their evil with evil, but that will only push you deeper into your resentments – no one’s mind will change. Instead, meet evil with good. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them drink. When you do this, they might remember your humanity, feel the burn of guilt at how they’ve behaved, and be transformed by love. Do not fight hate with hate. Overcome hate with good.” The perennial wisdom of these words is self-evident. They could just as easily have been written about Megan Phelps-Roper; about you, or me. It is a truth hidden since the beginning of time that it is kindness, not judgment, that disarms us and opens up the pathway for our transformation.
What is it in us that, time and again, convinces us this isn’t true? What is this lie that calls for judgment and dominance, and how might we shine the light of truth on it to expose it for the lie that it is? How can we become the kind of people for whom this disarming kindness is possible – natural, even? This is a question that asks us to turn our attention from Topeka, Kansas to the streets of Detroit, Michigan.
Marshall Rosenberg was born in the mid-30s to Jewish parents, into what was also an impoverished and unstable home. In June of 1943, when he was nine years old, his family moved to Detroit where, one week later, the city erupted in chaos. The Detroit race riots, the combustion of a powder keg of systemic racism, xenophobic social tension, and limited war-time resources, left 433 wounded and 34 dead, and from his living room window, locked inside of his home for three days, nine-year-old Rosenberg had a front row seat. During those formative three days, the seed of a question was planted in his mind. It was a seed that grew and sprouted as he experienced the harsh anti-Semitism that waited for him at school each day. It was the seed of a question that would shape the trajectory of his life: Why do we do this to each other? What is it, in us, that leads us to disconnect from our compassionate nature, and leads us to believe instead that we must behave violently and exploitatively?
Driven by these questions, Rosenberg went into the field of psychotherapy and completed a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. After some time he would come to pioneer a field of study he called, “Nonviolent Communication,” and it is here that we can find a key to answering our question.
Dr. Rosenberg’s premise is surprisingly simple. We’ve evolved to communicate through a language of judgment. We communicate with a logic that I am right, you are wrong, and I must win so that I can be in charge. We defend ourselves, reacting with the impulse to withdraw or attack. Does this sound familiar?
But what would happen, Rosenberg wondered, if we could learn a new language? What would happen if we could train ourselves to recognize when we’re stepping into that pattern, and instead focus our attention on curiosity? Specifically, what if we focused our attention on two particular questions: How are we feeling – what emotion? And what need is not being met to give rise to that feeling? It works in reverse as well: What are they feeling? What need is not being met in them that gives rise to that feeling?
From there, so the teaching goes, we are able to communicate in a whole new way. Rather than jumping to defensiveness or telling others why they’re wrong, we can give ourselves the tools to try to understand. We might say something like, “It sounds like when ‘this’ happens, you’re feeling angry, because your need for safety isn’t being met. Is that right?” Rosenberg found that the simple experience of hearing their feelings and needs reflected back to them disarmed the ego of those he worked with, and could enable them to hear whatever needed to be said next. “Well, when I see ‘this,’ I feel ‘this way,’ because this need of mine isn’t being met.”
We’ve been working through Rosenberg’s book on in our book study on Wednesday nights for the last five weeks now, and in the book he shares this story:
A student of Nonviolent Communication volunteering at a food bank was shocked when an elderly co-worker burst out from behind a newspaper and said, “What we need to do in this country is bring back the stigma of illegitimacy!”
Now, you’re probably having a reaction right now – maybe judging this woman’s outburst as wrong and dangerous. There are probably things you might want to say about shame and harm, especially if you can imagine she had expressed this view in the form of a Facebook post or Tweet. Or, perhaps you’d silently judge this woman as ignorant and withdraw until later when you could process your feelings in private.
The student, however, chose to get curious about this woman’s feelings and needs.
“Are you reading something about teenage pregnancies in the paper?” she asked.
“Yes!” her coworker responded. “It’s unbelievable how many of them are doing it!”
The student tried to listen not so much to the content of the woman’s argument, but to listen instead for her feelings and the unmet needs or values giving rise to them. “I want to understand better,” the student said. “Are you feeling alarmed because you’d like kids to have stable families?”
“Of course!” the woman replied. “My father would’ve killed me if I’d done anything like that.”
The student said, “So it sounds like you’re annoyed that there is no fear of punishment for the girls who get pregnant these days?”
“Well,” the coworker said, “at least fear and punishment worked! It says here that girls are having babies just so taxpayers like me can take care of them!”
The temptation to evaluate and respond was strong, but the student kept on. She recognized the woman was feeling annoyed because she valued responsible use of her tax money, and she didn’t feel she was getting it.
“So,” she tried, “you’re exasperated because you’d like your tax money to be used for other purposes. is that right?”
“Certainly is!” her coworker said. “Do you know that my son and his wife want a second child, and they can’t have one because it costs so much?”
“Sounds like you’re sad about that,” the student offered. “You’d like to have a second grandchild.”
At this point, the student sensed a release in her co-worker. “Yes, I would,” she said, as a moment of silence elapsed. The student felt surprised to discover that, while she still wanted to express her own views, the tension had dissipated. She felt empathetic, not adversarial. It was then time to get curious about herself, what she was feeling and needing.
“You know,” the student said at last, “when you first said that we should bring back the stigma of illegitimacy, I felt really scared, because it matters to me that all of us here care deeply for people who need help. Some people who come here for food are teenage parents, and I want to be sure they feel welcomed and cared for. Would you mind telling me how you feel when you see our unmarried teen clients come in? Like Amy or Dashal?”
Rosenberg then writes that the conversation continued with several more exchanges until the student felt reassurance that her coworker did indeed offer caring and respectful help to their unmarried clients, and learned over the course of the encounter that she could, in fact, disagree with someone in a way that met her need for honesty and mutual respect. Both of them felt heard. Both of them felt understood. Both of them felt loved, and it opened a pathway for growth.
“Love one another with the sincere love of brothers and sisters,” Paul writes. “Outdo one another, not in shows of power, but in shows of respect. Look on the needs of others as though they were your own, and be generous in offering hospitality.”
Megan Phelps-Roper, Marshall Rosenberg, the Apostle Paul – they all invite us to ask the same question. What if we were to look at our opponents, at the Democrats or the Republicans, at anti-maskers or liberal snowflakes, at our own mothers or fathers…what if we were to look at ourselves not as right or wrong for the judging, but as the children that we are continuing to grow and react to unmet needs and unheard feelings? Who would we be? Rather than judgment, what if we looked at that which we don’t like with curiosity which gives birth to understanding, and understanding which gives birth to empathy, and empathy which gives birth to love, and love which clears the path to transformation?
Is this not, after all, how God looks at you?
In the light of these questions, may the darkness of judgment give way, and may we love a new world into being.