Thoughts on Race, Reconciliation and the Power of Listening First

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Thoughts on Race, Reconciliation and the Power of Listening First

One of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is that before you can agree or disagree with another person, you must first understand them and their concerns. Consequently, I’ve learned to choose in advance to listen carefully to those who come with complaints and concerns. This is especially true of those who come angry and particularly of those who are angry with me, the church I serve, or the God I serve.

The natural tendency for all of us when confronted by an angry person is to go on the offense or defense, explaining what you’ve done or not done or explaining away what they’ve said. Real conversation rarely takes place under those conditions. You quickly find yourselves talking past each other in a struggle over who is right, who is wrong, and what should be done.

But I’ve learned to listen, paying close attention. I’ve learned that listening isn’t the same as agreeing, but listening is essential to move both parties to a better place. I don’t know where I picked this up, but I’ve also learned to ask and keep asking the person to tell me more until they have no more to tell me. It isn’t comfortable. Sometimes I have to bite my lip. But listen, I do. And I take notes—to be sure. Once done, I repeat back to the person what they’ve said to me as carefully and clearly as I can. My goal is for that person to be able to say at the end, “Yes! You’ve heard me. That is how I feel.” When that happens, I know I’ve come to that golden place of understanding. It is then that I can honestly, respectfully agree, disagree, challenge, or affirm. Only then.

This process is a way of putting yourself “in another person’s shoes” and seeing their side of things. Curiously, the result is that when you make this kind of effort, the angry person deflates. Very often, they amend what they said in the heat of the moment. Very often, I’ve learned some things I didn’t know and couldn’t see. There are times when I realize they are right to be offended. Sometimes I can only say, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” Regardless, it is only after we try to understand the other person’s perspective that there is an honest chance at reconciliation and restoration. To get things started, one of us has to open the door by simply listening with the aim of understanding.

I’ve been doing a lot of listening lately, in an indirect way, after the tragic event of George Floyd’s killing. I’ve tried to understand what is being said and perhaps why by doing more reading and watching reports and analyses from media outlets, left and right.

Help, for me, has come from an unexpected place. Gen. Charles Q. Brown became the Air Force chief of staff and the first black military service chief in American history with the confirmation of the U.S. Senate on June 9. The Wall Street Journal marked his confirmation with a brief article on him, relaying how he sent a video to those under his command to explain what he was thinking during this tense and emotional time.

In the video, General Brown offers open, honest reflections on what it has meant for him to be black in America. He talks of his growing years, his life of service to his country, his commitment to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. He says that growing up in “the sweet land of liberty” has not always meant liberty and equality for him. What it has involved has been a life of trying to fit in. It has meant trying to fit in with whites in an all-white elementary school, trying to fit in in a high school divided by blacks and whites.  It meant trying to fit in in the Air Force. It meant fitting in with whites who didn’t expect to see a black pilot. It meant fitting in with black airmen who felt he wasn’t black enough because he spent too much time with whites in his squadron. It meant having to excel and prove himself because his white mentors seemed to expect less from him than from others. It sometimes meant being mistreated time and again.

What struck me was Brown’s description of his life as one of “navigating through two worlds,” which he describes as “each having its perspective and views,” particularly when it comes to race relations and racism. As a father, he describes the necessity of raising his sons to live as he did and does: in the same two worlds.

Unlike so many of late, white and black, Brown’s response to all that is taking place shows great maturity, humility, and thoughtful reflection. He shows an absence of anger or bitterness. He says at the close of the video:

“I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force. (But) I’m thinking about how I can make improvements—personally, professionally, and institutionally—so that all airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity in a conservative environment where they can reach their full potential. I’m thinking I don’t have all the answers on how to create such an environment …. (But) I want the wisdom and knowledge to lead, participate in and listen to necessary conversations on racism …. I want the wisdom to lead those willing to take committed and sustained action to make our Air Force better.”

I like his spirit. Listening more and talking less is a highly recommended strategy for followers of Jesus of all colors (see James 1). It is difficult for me and many of us who are white Americans to understand, much less empathize with, black Americans. They tell us they’ve been treated differently, suspiciously, unfairly, unequally.  Rarely have I had to navigate living as a minority person in two worlds. Rarely have I been treated differently or suspiciously because of my race. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t or isn’t happening to others.

And so I think that it is time for me to listen, even to angry and accusing voices. It is time for me to say, “Tell me more.” In the end, I know that listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with what I’ve heard. I may agree; I may not. I know too that such listening doesn’t help if I stay silent. Love responds truthfully as well as listening faithfully. But as a follower of Jesus, I can answer honestly only after I have come to understand what the other person is seeking to say. How else could I reply with the gospel we both need in this situation?

Because all persons are created by God and Father of Jesus, we all do have lives and needs that matter regardless of our skin color. Freedom from injustice is one of those needs. Indeed, because our God is just, injustice matters to Him, and it should matter to us. What is more, because Christ is the Savior of this world, following Him means, too, knowing that none of us can fix what is wrong in our country and our relationships. No person, white or black, can do what He can do though many think they can. Jesus is the only one who can save and heal. He has called His people to be agents of his healing, bearing, and living out His gospel.

In such a situation as ours, this means understanding where others are. And that means listening to understand. It means saying, “Tell me more. I need to see what you see so I can see better how to respond in ways that honor Jesus and His good news for you and me.”