“Let anyone with ears listen!”
--Matthew 11:15 NRSV
The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “The first duty of love is to listen.” I don’t know about you, but listening is pretty difficult for me. “Chase, are you listening to me?” is a common refrain in my house that usually is said by my wife when my nose is buried in my phone. When I talk with others, especially people I disagree with, often I’m not listening to their words at all but merely thinking of what I will say next. Listening, really listening is valued less and less in a culture that allows all of us to post our thoughts at all times.
The last few weeks of protest following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has heightened the awareness among white people of the suffering of black people. The effects of hundreds of years of systemic oppression are very much a part of our present however much we wish to believe they are in our collective rearview mirror. Yet, this week the media is beginning to turn away and while protests persist their furor has died down. I would offer, however, that white folks, myself included, who really wish for our culture to improve must remain in listening mode.
Now that we white people don’t have the pain of systemic racism thrust in our faces in the same way as we did during the last two weeks, we can’t simply go back to our safe white spaces where we don’t have to think about it anymore. We must keep listening. If we stop listening to what the African American community is saying, we will just be in this same place again. Who else must die and what else must burn to get our attention once more?
The spiritual writer Douglas Steere wrote, “Someone once suggested to me that in every conversation between two people there are always at least six persons present. What each person said are two; what each person meant to say are two more; and what each person understood the other to say are two more.” He illustrates the essential barriers to communication between any two people. This is especially true when it comes to black people and white people talking about racism. Plenty of times I have reacted to the pain voiced by a black person with my own disbelief or defensiveness. I heard only an attack, when what was really being expressed was pain, fear, and anger. Those emotions might have been directed at me, but they weren’t about me. I have had to learn (and I still struggle to accept) that like most things, when I talk with a black person about race, I need to switch my focus from me to them. I have to actually listen.
Morton Kelsey, who has written a lot on prayer, says,
“Real listening is a kind of prayer, for as we listen, we
penetrate through the human ego and hear the Spirit
of God, which dwells in the heart of everyone. Real
listening is a religious experience.
Often, when I have listened deeply to another, I have the same sense of awe as when I have entered into a holy place and communed with the heart of being itself.” When I have been able, with God’s help, to remove my ego from center stage and to actually listen to the pain our culture’s racism inflicts on black people, I have discovered the voice of God speaking. Defensiveness, denial, disbelief each drown out the voice of God when white folks say they are listening to African American people. How do I know? Because I am guilty of telling black people I have listened to them when I have merely been protecting my own misguided attempts of respectability.
We can do better. We must do better. We have to keep listening.
What is God saying to you through black people in our culture these last few weeks? Have you been able to stop and listen? Don’t turn away. Don’t change the channel. Keep listening. God has more to say to you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851