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Feb 24, 2017 | The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson

Choose Listening Over Echo Chamber


In the 1960s television sitcom “Get Smart,” at the most crucial moments of discernment and decision, Max, Agent 99, and the Chief would sit across a table and activate “the cone of silence.” The futuristic plexiglass cone would descend from the ceiling and envelop all the conversation partners. But the cone never worked correctly. It was an echo chamber. Rather than facilitating listening, the cone of silence prevented anyone from hearing anyone else. Max, Agent 99, and the Chief could make out only a word here or a phrase there, and through their partial hearing they often came to the wrong conclusions. They ended up frustrated and confused, unable to discern how to move forward. The irony was that, at the very moment in which listening to one another was most important, the characters created conditions in which listening was impossible.

The image of the cone of silence came to my mind repeatedly these past several months. We have experienced what was surely the most toxic election cycle in my lifetime, and perhaps in our nation’s history. Epithets and reckless speech first lobbed from the top then bounced down until common citizens began to believe the worst motives of one another. Sound bites prevailed; real conversation among people ceased; and even among folks who've known each other for years, sometimes within families, suspicion began to take root.

And now, people representing both sides of the divide say honestly that they aren’t interested in hearing from someone who cast a vote different from their own. Both sides continue to call down the proverbial cone of silence, in which the echo chamber completely cuts them off from listening to any divergent voices. In our digital day and age that avoidance is easy. Our cones of silence are so impermeable that even the Facebook algorithm sends us only those news items that track with our own already-expressed opinions.

How can we remove the cone of silence and listen to one another again?  How can we find the path toward reconciliation?    

In the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples approach Jesus to say that someone else is preaching in Jesus’ name. The disciples disagree with the man’s method, and perhaps with his message, and they attempt to silence him. But Jesus says to them, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

The Resurrection
Christ Church Cathedral, Houston
East Nave No. 9
“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, …suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.” –Matthew 28:1-4


Could there be a phrase more counterintuitive or countercultural?  Whoever is not against us is for us. In Jesus’ world people were increasingly defined by their interest groups. Narrow were the things that defined who was with you and who was against you. As with William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo, everybody had to stand on one side or the other. The Herodians sneered at the Saducees. The Saducees would not truck with the Pharisees (except to conspire against Jesus, that is). The Romans disregarded everyone.

None of these separations were casual. They were vicious. People wouldn’t even break bread with one another. They spit venom and used dehumanizing rhetoric. There was no generous allowance for difference. If you disagreed, it meant you didn’t love God, you didn’t love country, you didn’t love your fellow man. Each group believed—deeply—that if you weren’t for them, you were against them. In other words, in this respect their world was a whole lot like ours.

In this context the disciples want to silence the voice of the other, but from Jesus they receive a perspective-shifting word. Value is not placed on things that divide, Jesus says. Value is imputed to anyone who seeks to meet the yearning needs of the world in the name of Jesus. Anyone who is not against us is for us.

At Christ Church Cathedral we offer a Faith and Society seminar, which brings together people of widely disparate views to discuss such vexing social topics as gun control, immigration and abortion. The seminar should be a recipe for rancor and a drawing down of the cone of silence. However, seminar participants subscribe to a conversation covenant, the first point of which is, “Each participant will grant that all participants share faith in the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because we begin there, we engage one another with listening ears and open hearts. Regardless of one’s position on the topic of the day, and regardless of how ardently one participant may initially disagree with another, we trust first that we are for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

If Christians practice engaging one another in this way, we will remove the cone of silence and be empathetic toward the point of view of the other. And once we have been formed in this way in the Church (and what is the Church, if not a crucible for formation?) we can carry our conversations into the broader community, as models of graceful listening that seek understanding. That is, indeed, the first step toward reconciliation.

Thompson is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Houston.