It’s like the guy who enters a coffee shop and takes a seat at a table next to a group of women. One woman begins to share her recent account of a traumatic labor and delivery. In the company of friends, she recounts how she wanted to have a natural birth at home, but after 20 hours of labor, complications arose and an ambulance had to rush her to the hospital. As she continues to emotionally share about the struggle and pain and third degree tearing, the man inserts himself into the conversation from the side table. “I had a horrible kidney stone last year. It was terribly painful. . .”
The women look at him with sideways glances. Seriously? Now is not the time.
Several years ago we moved to Virginia. This was a region of the United States I had not lived in before. I started hearing firsthand stories and personally witnessing the effects of long-term injustice. Oh, it was always there. The stories were being told. Everywhere a person can live, there are stories. But I didn’t have ears to hear or eyes to see. A couple years later, after returning from yet another stint abroad, I called a friend to talk about what I was seeing and hearing in my country of citizenship. Living abroad over the course of many years, I had seen and known things that seemed so much worse than the injustice that was rising to the fore in the U.S. I told the American friend over the phone, “Yes, but I’ve been to South Africa and India where it’s so much worse. I’ve just been to Namibia and you wouldn’t believe some of the things I hear white people say about black Africans.” She patiently listened, then responded. “Forget about Namibia and South Africa.” This is your context now. Start learning. Start listening.
I spent my professional and academic years learning about injustice. ‘Human rights, war crimes and genocide’ was one of my most impressionable and informative classes in college. I’ve been to concentration camps in Germany. I’ve been to the genocide memorial in Rwanda. I’ve been to locations on Africa’s coast where enslaved people were sold and shipped to foreign lands. As a child, we vacationed in a South Africa under apartheid. But I ultimately came to realize that all my personal experience and education did not give me the context to understand injustice in my own country.
When I read or heard stories, I was that guy, changing the conversation to focus on my personal experience, not listening patiently to understand the storyteller’s experience. When you listen to someone else’s birth story, you don’t interject with how much better or worse your birth story is. You don’t interrupt to talk about a friend’s experience. (I, by the way, am guilty of all of that). You listen.
I wanted to relate every injustice people were experiencing to unjust or unfair treatment I have experienced. I wanted to compare their grief to mine. It’s in our nature to interject and turn the focus on ourselves and our hurts, our knowledge or our experience, when someone else is speaking. If you are married or live with children, you can relate to this first hand, perhaps on an hourly basis. We don’t let our spouse finish their version of the story before we have to interject our opinion or interpretation of events. I am guilty of this all too frequently. Interrupting with a ‘yes, but. . .’ is a natural course of action. If we naturally listened instead of speaking, however, James wouldn’t have to explicitly instruct Christ followers to be ‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (James 1:19).
So, when I returned to the U.S., I began to practice two ways of listening.
First, listen to personal accounts without responding or interrupting with a ‘yes, but. . .’ I joined a private Facebook group where people of color were safe to share their stories. The moderators of the group know human nature. New members are not permitted to comment for three months. They can only listen, hopefully with the humility to learn. It’s a good thing they have the rule. I had a lot of ‘yes, buts’ to almost every story someone shared those first few months.
They shared the types of stories – witness testimonies – that are now in the minds of every American. There was one in particular I remember from my first few weeks. A black woman prefaced her story with how broken and grieved she was feeling at this particular experience that had happened over the weekend. She just needed a place to share with people who understood.
She was about to open the door and enter a Cracker Barrel restaurant when a white man pushed past her and commented that she, a n—–, should get out of the way.
I was shocked. That kind of thing happened in the 1960’s, of course. I read Black Like Me in middle school. I knew about that. But now?! Words of affirmation and lament poured in on the comments thread. People were shedding tears with her. People were praying for her. No one said ‘yes, but. . .’
In that space, in that Facebook group, I learned to listen. And I watched how others graciously responded to the hurt and pain people shared through their stories of being marginalized, insulted, unjustly accused, never given the benefit of the doubt and more. There was not one ‘yes, but. . .’
Second, listen by learning context. This is what my friend was urging me to do. From those first days of living in the American South, I started reading books like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isobel Wilkerson or American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion by John Wilsey (book review). The reading of good books is important because, as Andy Crouch recently noted, “any book worth reading, fiction or nonfiction, took skilled persons months or years to produce based on deep reflection on the world.” It will provide context that “will give you far more actionable truth than any video or news report.”
We all have barriers to listening. Once, when a friend recommended a particular book, I responded “I already know what that’s about and I’m not interested in hearing his perspective.” As if, by merely listening to this man’s idea’s through reading his book, I would be defiled. Like a Pharisee, I was also concerned with what other Christians might think of me if they knew I was reading a book by a certain author. I had more fear of man than faith in the Holy Spirit who gives discernment to those who listen.
And that’s the thing with listening. No one ever comes to a point where they need to stop listening, where they finally know it all and can make decisions and judgments for the rest of their lives based on what they knew at the point when they stopped listening.
As I type, helicopters hover overhead, passing to and fro over our home in downtown San Diego. I listen as I type. But listening is much more complex than sound waves entering the ear or passive hearing. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word shema – hear – is used often. More than just hearing, shema calls upon the listener to pay attention or focus. It implies that a response is expected. In the Old Testament, the great listener is God, who shema’s the cries of his people. David, in the Psalms, cries out to God frequently, beginning his prayers with “Hear me Lord! Shema!” The shema of the Bible is even more complex, suggesting that “real listening takes effort and action.”*
Right now, take a pause from the ‘yes, buts.’
*For an excellent, illustrated overview of shema, I recommend this short video clip, from which the concepts in this paragraph are based.