How We Can Fix America's Problems: The Power of Listening

I don't know who came up with the phrase, "sticks and stone can break my bones, but words can never hurt me", but that person was at best gravely mistaken and at worst delusional. 

Words are perhaps the most powerful thing in our world. I find support for this idea in the scriptures:

The creation narrative of Genesis involves God speaking to give purpose to all he has created.

John opens his Gospel by drawing a direct parallel between God and the Word of God.

Words draw their power from the fact they come from the essence of who we are.

When I say, "I love you" or "I hate you" or "I forgive you", I'm revealing the very core of my being - things that exist far deeper than the level of my intellect. It's conveying a part of who I am.

Matthew at one point records Jesus explaining to a crowd who believed that ritual eating laws led to holiness, "It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth." (Matthew 15:11)

Sticks and stones indeed...words are far more like weapons of mass destruction - or at least they can be.

Words, like money, are a tool and are not inherently evil or good. They are inherently powerful, but how they are used determines whether they can harm or heal.

Now, this is obviously important for all of us. What I wish to discuss is how important it is to listen as others use words to express their innermost pain and anguish.

As I write this post, there have been killings of two black men by police officers on back to back days, followed by police officers being killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Please listen to the words of the mother of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota:

"It's becoming more and more repetitive," Castile said. "Every day you hear of another black person being shot down — gunned down — by the people who are supposed to protect us."

Now, before you prepare to respond, whether you agree or disagree - whether you are picking a side - (and I know this is a loaded topic), please...listen to her. She is sharing a part of who she is from her core being with you.

Do you hear her anguish? Her despair? Her frustration?

When somebody is in anguish, despair and frustration, I believe the worst thing we can do is try to "win an argument". The response of a follower of Jesus, in my opinion, should be to care about an individual  experiencing these feelings. To empathize. To weep with those who weep.

In America today, the black community is communicating to us, but I fear we often don't listen. And when we are in great pain and anguish and nobody is listening to us, we're going to seek ways to make them hear us. 

I believe the actions in Dallas and Baton Rouge - which I absolutely do not approve of in any way - are at least in part a result of this failed conversation.

I live in Baltimore, and it is my greatest fear that in the unrest in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, the goal of most people was to make things go back to normal - yet normal created the frustration, pain and anger which led to the "pipes bursting".

Normal, in our country, is that we have been unable to have an open and honest conversation around the issues raised by the black community.

I do not believe that most white Americans are trying to be malicious to black Americans. When a white American responds to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter, they are not trying to be dismissive or disrespectful. Generally, we are projecting our own experiences and understanding of American culture onto black Americans. It is very easy for white Americans to be completely unaware of dynamics which black Americans (as well as Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and any other group) exist within.

The person saying "all lives matter" is honestly trying to point towards something better, they problem is that they simply aren't listening to what is being said.

I never even consider the idea that my daughter, when she starts to drive, could end up dying at a routine traffic stop. I don't worry that she may wear a hoodie in a situation where it will make people fear her.

I have made the decision to try and listen to the black community. I read The New Jim Crow and Ghettoside. I watched part 2 of the ESPN O.J. Simpson Documentary which looks at what conditions and situations led to the 1992 LA Riots (spoiler: it was WAY more than just the Rodney King-LAPD situation).

I started conversations with my black brothers and sisters at church so that I could hear their thoughts and opinions about these topics.

In short, I have tried to do a much better job of listening. I have to tell you, the black community is speaking very loudly and very clearly, but until I was listening, I didn't hear it. I dismissed it, ignored it, swept it aside. Not out of hate, but rather out of selfishness. I want to lead a comfortable and convenient life. Facing the fact that our society is still deeply unjust and unequal disrupts my desire for a clear conscience to enjoy life. 

Yet when we don't listen, we tell our fellow Americans that they must do something more than talk to get our attention.

As Joseph Grenny says, if we don't talk it out, we will act it out.

It's like the husband or wife who feels completely ignored and uncared for. At some point, he or she will force the spouse to pay attention to actions if they are ignoring words.

It is my deepest hope that my fellow white Americans - ESPECIALLY my fellow white American Christians - will begin to listen to what black Americans are saying. 

This isn't a "pick a side" situation where you're either with the cops or with the black community. This is a "listen to what is being said" situation.

You can certainly also listen to concerns and frustrations of police officers. In fact, if we were to start listening to both sides without "choosing a team", I think we could start to find solutions to the problems we have been unable to resolve for decades. I say this because I don't think the solutions are complicated. They haven't worked so far because they have to involve care, concern and compassion which can't be faked or programmed.

Most of us would agree that the church in America doesn't enjoy much (if any) particular esteem. Meaning that if I walk into a mall and ask, "What the healthiest, most useful group in America", I don't think 'the Church' would jump off everyone's lips.

And if we spend our time telling people that Jesus wants us to have the healthiest, fullest life possible (John 10:10), why would they pay attention when we've got just as many issues as anyone else? 

But what if the church led the way in bridging the divide between white Americans and black Americans? What if we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, started to undo that division in our country by listening and caring and building bridges?

What if we demonstrated a healthier engagement than those who are not allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Then perhaps others would be willing and interested to listen to us. 

It's a plan of symmetry: let us listen to others, so that others will also be willing to listen to us.

I don't present it as a manipulative idea. I suggest that we do the things that lead to genuine relationship, because right now, we are sorely lacking that.

And were genuine relationships don't exist, spin control, narrative creation and other harmful practices fill the gaps, and we are left with the world we have today: people talking, but few listening. Great pain leading to angry actions and a blame game rooted in a desire to prove the other side wrong.

Please, go out of your way to listen to what others are saying, and let that lead you to discover how to be happy with those who are happy and to mourn with those who mourn.