|From National Archives|
I was glued to Ken Burn’s series on the Vietnam War. Burns knows how to listen. That’s why he can document American history in a way that leaves all of us all feeling heard.
In his 1990 documentary, The Civil War, Burns wove the voices of Barbara Fields and Shelby Foot together without there being the slightest hint of an argument. Seven years later, in the film, Thomas Jefferson, it was harder for me to imagine George Will and Gore Vidal agreeing about anything, but Burns had me sympathizing with them both.
Now, Burns has taken on the monumental task of listening to all the parties in the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese officials, as well as diverse American soldiers and marines—they all have their say. Their stories are woven into a coherent whole that leaves me wanting to carry along something from all of them.
Very few public figures can still convene such conversations. If Burns is not America’s poet laureate, he is something more important. For two generations he has used his combination of images, words and music to become our national storyteller. He is one of our few remaining shapers of national identity precisely because he listens generously to everyone.
Burn’s current film highlights that America failed in Southeast Asia precisely because we refused to listen to people on the ground. We willfully ignored complexities.
Being able to feel what other people’s lives are really like is what Christians call compassion. Compassion is a capacity to understand others even when their motivations for behaving like they do are complex or even contradictory. Agreement is not necessary. Compassion is something more fundamental. It comes from the Father of all compassion. It imitates the Son, who came into our world in order to sympathize with weaknesses. Compassion is empowered by the Spirit who resides within us. This Spirit interprets our complex groans to ourselves, one another, and to God. Compassion is very slow to speak and always quick to listen—even when it’s complicated.Only this kind of compassion is qualified to speak.