How Hard The Hearing

By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University

In an interview with Mother Theresa, not long before she passed away, the topic of her own prayer life came up. The interviewer clearly wanted to know how a real spiritual adept prayed–and with such apparent spiritual efficacy.

Her answer showed her to be a true adept: “Mostly, I just listen,” she smiled.

I’ve been thinking about that strange confluence–of praying, speaking and listening–as I’ve watched current events continue to unfold in Egypt (and Yemen, and Tunisia) in the past week.

The short thing to say about this cluster of events is also the easiest: people get very disgruntled when they feel that no one is listening to them. And if this has been going on for a long time… well, you see what can happen. The democratic spirit can hit the proverbial fan. And that may well go a long way toward explaining what is happening right now.

Of course, it is important to add that desperate poverty is at least as important an explanatory clue for explaining what is happening right now. We may recall the street protests in Ukraine some years ago. One of the things that explained the packed streets there was the 40% unemployment rate… which meant that a lot of people, disgruntled or no, had a lot of time for marching.

But the marching in Egypt is motivated, risky, real. Whether it is religiously motivated is, and will continue to be, a matter of some dispute. Much depends on what you think of as “religious,” and how sacred you deem your commitment to democratic processes (and the pious listening this entails) to be. I’ve spoken of Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” in that regard, and the point may be expanded, deepened, even internationalized now.

Clearly President Mubarak has concluded that his last, best hope is to convince the world that this thing is religiously motivated, and to ride the lingering fear of global “Islamism” (a very loose and ragbag category) to justify his continued crack-down.

To be fair, there is no doubt that Mubarak came by his fear of politicized religion honestly enough; the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for daring to make peace with Israel, among other things. But they also complained that these reformist Egyptian leaders were acting like modern pharaohs, and that Islam was an egalitarian religion opposed to all such dominating authority structures. A President with the pharaonic name of ‘Hosni’ is well advised to be cautious and to heed the warning. So he has yet to do, after fully forty years of rigorous state policing; these street protests are the bitter harvest of that form of governance.

It is easy to wag a finger, or shake a head, at what is happening halfway around the world. But this story has connective threads that tie it very much closer to our homeland.

It has something to do with that fundamental, nearly instinctive, democratic reaction against the perception of not being heard. The political terrain in the United States has been very nearly defined for roughly the same amount of time that Mubarak has been the Egyptian President, by this deep resentment of remaining unheard.

When Republican majorities took over both legislative branches in 1994, Democrats felt almost immediately sidelined, outmaneuvered, un-listened to and un-heeded.

When the pendulum swung the other way on the Obama wave in 2008, Republicans almost immediately began feeling the same way. That see-saw version of modern politics continues unabated. And we remain as uncertain as the Egyptian administration about whether this grassroots seesaw is a religiously motivated groundswell or not.

What we do know is that there has been tremendous traction in both parties when this politics of sentiment and resentment is voiced. Both sides have legitimate grievances, and a point. Nothing was more powerful, nor telling, about the decision to sit together at the President’s most recent State of the Union Address than the surprising result that you could actually listen to the speech.

No rousing bursts of applause, standing ovation, or endless shouts of hurrah. The thing was rather quiet, subdued almost. And maybe that’s how it is supposed to be, in a democracy. You make the time, and the space, to listen.

Which brings me back, end-around fashion, to Mother Theresa. She understood the power in listening. Not because it was God talking, and not because she had to. Not at all. Rather, because it was her prayer, and she had her own power to monitor and to hold in the check of justice. So she listened, mostly, attended to where the prayer led, to what surprising thing might get said next. She remained open to a politics of surprise.

There’s a parable for contemporary leadership in there somewhere, secular as well as religious. And it’s all much closer to us than we may think.

Filed Under: FeaturedLouis A. RuprechtPoliticsViews, News, & Issues

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