How All Three Go Together, and How We Are Missing the Lesson
I lived I St. Louis for six years. In the small private school in which I taught, white students from Florissant sat next to black students from Ferguson. I don't recall any difference in the way I felt about them. I loved all of them, possibly excepting the few who vandalized my car, plagiarized papers, and intentionally made life difficult. (They were, by the way, all white kids. Oh, you've got to love high schoolers. And I do.)
Everyone wants to talk about Ferguson. Unless they deliberately don't want to talk about it.
I don't want to talk about it, precisely. Instead, I want to talk about the way we talk about it. Which is to say, badly. I want to talk about the way Christians should talk about it. Or the way Christians should just talk. Which is to say, perhaps less.
I've seen the views pour onto Facebook today. They are not exactly unanimous. My conservative friends listen to one set of news and form their opinions. My liberal friends do the same with their preferred sources. Both do what they know; neither changes their mind. Neither listens to anyone on the other side. Not really. Neither seems even aware that there is another option—that they may not have the only facts. Opinions are largely split on party lines, again.
Nothing has changed at all. Outrage will continue for a while, and then life will give way to the next crisis.
Before any verdicts are read, any evidence presented, any knowledge pursued, our personal verdicts have been formed. We know the truth. We know what really happened. How do we know? Because we know what we already believe, and the news we listen to is whatever conforms to those preformed beliefs. So our mantra becomes “everyone knows” because, well, we know, and it seems obvious to us.
I don't know. I have no idea what really happened. And if I was not present in the community, and if I don't know the community dynamics intimately, all my information passes through the filter of what I do know and what I do prefer and what I think about the world from where I sit in it and where I've come from. The plain facts are, we who were not there don't know. No one is telling the entire truth. And no one, neither a police officer nor a young black man, can be convicted based on facts people hundreds of miles away don't know.
But Ferguson is not what I want to talk about.
I see in this situation a picture of how to do and how not to do our faith as well. On so many faith issues, we are sure we're right. Sure enough to kick others off the farm if they don't conform. But too often, our “facts” are really opinions formed by what we've heard and know and the refusal to listen to anything to the contrary. Or possibly the ignorance that there is a side to the contrary. We believe what we know. There is comfort in that, and often enough there is stability in the midst of a chaotic world. But that doesn't make it right.
I saw this play out just this week. A friend posted a blog piece, written by a woman who has researched, studied, and loved Scripture, about submission in marriage and how it doesn't mean what we think it means. Not surprisingly (to me), someone commented right away: “I think women who read the Bible this way just don't want to submit. It's a heart issue.” No mention of the writer's scholarship. No logical or biblical evidence that she was not correct. Just a personal attack of her heart and motivation, based on no more evidence than “I think.” Plus, she and several others mentioned that the woman with whom the blogger disagreed, a Hollywood star with no knowledge of the Greek language or theology, was closer to the truth. Why? Because she said what they were used to hearing.
While the Bereans were praised for searching the Scriptures to make sure what they were being told was true, some American Christians seem content to regurgitate their party line and act suspiciously, in fact, toward those who do study Scripture and come away with another interpretation. Something very un-Acts-like is going on there.
Like Ferguson, we're just not listening.
Jesus knew how to listen. When he sat down by the woman at the well (John 4), he could have told her that everyone knew the Samaritan culture, and her personal lifestyle, were all wrong. He could have. Instead, he waited and listened while she explained her beliefs, implied her social status, and wrestled with his reasons for talking to her. He sat down and listened to someone with whom he would not agree. The fact that Jesus, on account of being Jesus and all, was right (something we cannot assume for ourselves), does not negate his willingness to engage her on an honest, loving basis.
He could have done the same with Jairus (to some extent he did, but it was only to provoke talking and listening), Matthew, Nicodemus, and, let's not forget, Judas. If ever there was an example of someone trying to hear and be heard by someone of a completely different mindset, that surely is it. Jesus spent three years with Judas. They certainly talked and shared details of their hearts. Jesus knew how to listen. Even though he was always right. He still made the effort to listen, because he knew that was the way to help others understand him and think through their own ideas out loud. For us, that needs to go both ways. Both parties must seek to understand the other and clarify, maybe even change, their thoughts by putting them out there in clear, cold air to test their hardiness.
Try it. Trying saying to someone with whom you disagree, “I honestly want to understand where you're coming from. Can we engage in kind conversation? Can you tell me why and what and how you reach your conclusions? Can we talk? Can I listen? If I come at you with a predetermined mindset, will you call me on it? Can I do the same for you?
I think I can see Jesus now, doing a little fist pump and saying, “Yes!”