Learning to Listen
My head and heart have been swimming for the past couple of weeks ever since the violent events that took place in Charlottesville, VA. In case you’ve been living under a rock, a group of white supremacists gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Another group gathered to counter-protest. By the end of the weekend several people were dead.
Whatever I say, I feel like it needs to go beyond the heat of the current moment. All of us need a biblical compass for how to think about the events that have been going on. I feel like the best way to do that is actually by way of personal confession.
Before I say anything else, I am well aware of the importance of history and family and lineage to folks in the south. I’m very self-aware of my own lineage. I am a northerner, for the most part. Descended from Germans and Scots who immigrated from Seskatchewan to Colorado. It was still too cold, apparently, so they moved east to Kansas and just stopped. I’m a midwesterner from a town of 5,000. Growing up I not only didn’t have any black friends, I also didn’t know anyone who was black except through the television and through movies. I idolized Bill Cosby, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan.
One thing I know is that many folks from Kansas tend to have an elevated sense of superiority on racial issues – but their smugness only comes from the fact that they’ve had the luxury of never needing to think about or deal with race directly. For Kansans, nearly all discussions of race and ethnicity are in the abstract. I brought that smugness with me to Mississippi, and I confess it.
I had numerous classmates while I was going to RTS who talked a lot about race and racial issues. There was constant discussion around “racial reconciliation,” and I rarely went to the events on campus dedicated to this subject. I was a Kansan. I wasn’t racist. I knew my Bible. I knew that all men were created equal. I knew that all men of all races were equal before God and made in his image. My parents taught me this from a young age, as did my school and church. Why would I need to go to these meetings? Besides, we have a black President (so I reasoned), the race question is over now. I became annoyed at the idea of the constant focus on racial issues. Don’t these guys know that good theology is going to answer these racial issues? This was my attitude, I confess it.
You know, we often have a way of thinking that the moment we’re in is unique and nobody has ever seen anything like it before. But truthfully, we are not the first generation to struggle with racism. Racial issues go as far back as the time of Christ. There was no greater division in all of the world than the division between Jew and Gentile.
When the early church came about, the church was immediately filled with drastic racial tension. These two groups who used to avoid each other like the plague were now living side by side. You had Hebrews and Greeks living together and having “all things in common.” They willingly shared everything with one another and submitted themselves to the Word of God. Even though they had the Apostles themselves living with them and serving them, there was still real racial tension. People could see that there was a difference between the Jews and Greeks, even after coming to Christ.
And then controversy arose. We read about it in Acts 6:1-6. There was racial preferential treatment going on. At least according to the Greeks. Listen to the issue: “A complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” So there’s the complaint. And it’s along racial lines. The Hebrews cannot dodge the issue. The Hebrews are the majority group. All of the Apostles are Hebrew. They’re in Jerusalem – a Hebrew place. Everyone speaks Hebrew, and whoever was in charge of the distribution seems to have been Hebrew as well.
For many of us, I’m afraid that if this happened in our own day we would be tempted to tell the Hellenists, “Look, you all just need to get over it.” This is often the response of a group for whom race isn’t an issue because they’re in the majority. Everything around them already looks like and sounds like them, so race is something as easy to get over as stubbing your toe. As a white guy, I know that way of thinking. I am intimately familiar with it. It’s a luxury that it took me a long time to realize that I even have.
So here’s the question: what did the Apostles do? Well the first answer is, they listened. They didn’t ignore the complaint. They took it very seriously. In fact, they ended up choosing seven men to serve in the distribution of food. Remarkably, all of their names are Hellenistic. All of them are Greek (Acts 6:5). Do you see what they did? Christians heard a complaint about racial favortism and they took it seriously. They even over-corrected, putting the Greeks completely in charge of the distribution. It’s just remarkable.
If we want to follow the model of the Apostles when it comes to racial issues, let me suggest that the first step is to follow their example and listen. Listen and take the hurts and concerns of our own brothers and sisters in the minority around us seriously.
I mentioned my annoyance at the constant discussions of race when I was in seminary. I’m ashamed of my heart attitude. But eventually I stopped shutting my ears and listened to story after story from black brothers and sisters in the Lord – men and women of honorable and upstanding moral character. And often the stories would strike me in ways that surprised me. One of my classmates talked about his fears after the Philando Castile verdict. My friend reasoned like this: that man did everything he was supposed to do. He spoke respectfully. He even told the officer that he had a gun (as the law says he should do – also a great way to lose the element of surprise if he actually planned to kill a police officer, by the way). He was clearly a family man with his wife and child in the car. If this man could be shot and killed, reasoned my friend, then literally every black man in America is unsafe. That’s how he felt.
He explained how, as a person who is always under suspicion he has to go above and beyond what his white friends have to do. He has to carry his ID and phone with him at all times. He has to speak even more carefully and respectfully to those in civil authority. He does this, not to suck up, but because he wants to come home to his family at the end of the day. I can personally say I have no experience of living this way or feeling this way in my own life.
Now, perhaps you’ve already thought about the Castile situation. Perhaps you’ve already heard another narrative. Maybe you look at it the way I did and always tend to give the police officer the benefit of the doubt every time these situations crop up. But when my friend told this story and expressed his fear, both for himself and his family, my cold heart cracked just a little. I put myself in his shoes. I thought about how afraid I would be to ever get pulled over if I were in his position.
And then I thought about how different it is for me. I thought of how freeing it is to be white and not feel like I constantly am under suspicion to most people in the world around me. I have to tell you, this one act of putting myself in another person’s shoes did something remarkable to me: it made me want to listen more. It made me want to lean in closer with an understanding heart.
I pray that you don’t read my confession here and think, “This Kansan is trying to tell us how to sort out southern issues.” I don’t see myself as a Kansan, really. I see myself as another human being, made in the image of God, who still has a lot to learn about the deepest darkest, most secret prejudices of my heart that have been buried under numerous layers of white Kansan smugness.
Let me suggest that, as a church, there is no quick fix for us to solve the racial problems around us. I do want to suggest, however, that the first step is the same first step that the Apostles took in Acts 6, and that’s listening. When our brothers and sisters tell us that they’re hurting, let’s listen. Let’s hear that. Let’s take it seriously. Let’s listen without lecturing back. Let’s listen without giving our own answers about how we think folks from other cultures should act more like us. Listen without feeling the need to point the finger. We have brothers and sisters in the Lord who are hurting. Let’s follow the model of the Apostles, and just listen. That’s the first step; but let’s not stop there.