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Racism, the Church, and the Power of Listening

By November 22, 2011One Comment

Well it’s 7am and I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport waiting to board a plane. My mind is brimming with all the insights and challenges from the past few days at the SBL Conference. God taught me a lot!

One of the best sessions that I attended was on the topic of Womanist Theology. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a strand of theology that represents  the perspectives of African American women. It developed in response to the predominantly white feminist theology and the predominantly male black theology. In the session I attended, women of color shared stories of grappling with race and identity in a broken world, as well as insights on how these struggles intersect with faith.

The stories were moving, to say the least. At an academic conference where papers are typically read behind a podium, these women preached. It was the only session that brought me to tears because I was so gripped and inspired. As I sat there listening to their perspectives, I was both educated,  humbled, and broken.

The session that morning was the culmination of a lesson that God has been teaching me about racism and its cousins. Namely, God has been teaching me the importance of listening. More specifically, God has been teaching me about the importance of allowing marginalized voices to be heard.

One of the causes and consequences of racism is that one, single narrative dominates. One privileged voice narrates history and the experience of humanity from its own particular perspective. As a result, we are less likely to hear other perspectives, and we are therefore less likely to understand them. When one narrative is dominant, other cares and concerns are frequently silenced. They become all but invisible.

As our country continues to understand racism and the church repents of its sin, there is a tendency to continue dominating the narrative. There is a temptation to make the story of redemption about us, about our guilt, and about our need for forgiveness. Some of us might be able to tell stories of our own courage in the face of racism, or how we are different from the generation that preceded us, but the story continues to be about us nonetheless.

Now don’t get me wrong. Stories of repentance and personal redemption aren’t bad. In fact, they are important. But what is also important, I’m learning, is that we listen to those voices that have been silenced for so long. Rather than recall past interactions with minorities from my own perspective–whether the interaction was noble or shameful–I need to consider my sister or brother. I need to consider my neighbor’s perspective and experience. What was her story? Who was her family? What was her life like?

At the heart of racism is a terrible self-centeredness. It is an inability to see through the eyes of another. Deceptively, this mentality can persist in altruistic forms, but God is helping me to identify that pitfall. He is helping me to re-understand the words, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” (James 1:19) He is also teaching me a new dimension of the Incarnation of Christ. God was not content to stand afar and save us. He heard our cry. He came near to us. He became so intimately one with us that he could share in our experience, and we in his.

That willingness to step out of one’s comfort and come near to the stranger, to hear her and love her and be near to her, is a Christ-like impulse. It is a discipline that we as Christians must continue to embrace if we hope to overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of hate. And it begins with the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor. I can love my neighbor best when I know how she needs to be loved. And I will know how she needs to be loved when I take the time to listen.

One Comment

  • Fabulous post, Sharon. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the need to have relationships with people whose perspectives are vastly different than mine, to listen to and learn from voices that have traditionally been marginalized. I feel so “out of my element” in some of the things I’ve been doing lately–it’s humbling, and a good reminder that sometimes we DO need to get out of our element so God can grow us (although THAT seems rather self-focused too! :-D). Anyhow. Thanks for the great reminder and encouragement to draw near to people.

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