A week ago, after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, my friend Patrick McNeal and I insisted that it was “no time for silence,” that the church should “talk about” what happened. We meant more than to comment or share our opinion of the trial. We meant that the verdict, and the way it struck people across the nation, especially people of color, offered us—church folk who would follow Jesus earnestly—an opportunity to listen to people who are different than we are, to learn from them and one another, to deepen our understandings, and then … what? Well, often when people can talk together they can begin to see some things together better than before, pray together, dream together and even act together. Let me say more about this and why I think it so critical.
As I begin I want to confess two things. First, Patrick was more convinced of what I wrote above than I was. Second, Patrick was right—more right—than I was. Patrick had insight and wisdom beyond my own. He nailed it, and I want to thank him. Indeed, in the first few days after our post, more than ten thousand people had read it and many began to talk about it. A relative few commented and began to carry on discussions that are ongoing. Here I suggest why we must not miss such opportunities to talk, think, pray, and act together.
When we start to talk with each other, we see very clearly how different we are and how differently we see the issues beneath and behind the trial and verdict prompting our discussion. Soon we discover that we are really lousy at talking with each other, especially with others who are different. At the same time, we learn or observe that we prefer to talk at each other more than with each other. Thus, it becomes clear that we are not on “the same page,” and perhaps not even on “the same side.”
In fact, when we start to talk together often we do not sound very much like the people we claim to be—earnest followers of Jesus who himself is the way, the truth and the life. Rather, we sound more like other people who talk, for a living. Too often we sound like people who live on the right (not in the right, but on the right) or on the left. We sound like them both in what we say and how we say it. Sometimes if you didn’t know better, you could read what we write and listen to what we say and recognize scarcely anything distinctively Christ-like in what we’ve said or written. I am not so much commenting here on the content of what we say, but on the fact that we have hardly anything new or different to say that can’t be heard ad nauseam from the most prominent talking heads of the day whether from the “right” or the “left.” If, however, we speak and write as an expression of following Jesus, what we actually say and how we say it should clearly trace back to the One we’re following. We should care about making this connection clear, especially if we’re talking to one another.
When we start to talk together and try to listen, as happened somewhat over the past week, we also note that though we claim to follow the same Lord, read and trust the same Scriptures, rely on the same Holy Spirit to illumine, guide and empower us, still we are very far apart in how we see and understand important matters, and in how we should respond. I believe it is critical for us to note this fact and see in it a great opportunity. If it pleases the Lord of the Church for us to follow him together and to become his Body in the world, and if each has a contribution to offer to the whole Body our Lord is making of us, then the different ways we see and understand might grant us fuller and more accurate insight. Our differences could point the way to “seeing” more as Jesus sees.
When we start to talk and encounter these differences, we must do something with them. As I’ve suggested, learning how our brothers and sisters see can lead to clearer vision and broader perspectives. I would also humbly suggest that a consideration of these differences raises the possibility that some of our differences reflect the sins of prejudice, self-centeredness, and hyper-individualism. That is, we see some things the way we do simply because we want to, it is our preferred way, or because we are confident that our view though not perfect is “right enough” and needs no help from others, or because deep down we really care mostly about ourselves and our own. We may also think the way we do simply because we belong to groups that have always thought this way, and only this way, and we’ve simply accepted that at face value. But, in view of all the differences among us, we might ask why do we or how should we think as people whose first priority, we confess, is following Jesus and his group? I believe we might especially ask this question when we find ourselves in conversation with folks whose commitments we would never question, but whose best understanding of following Jesus diverges from ours. Maybe, neither has it all right and both could benefit from a course correction that can come only through “the other.”
When we start to talk together and realize that others experience and see things differently, we have new opportunities to love. If our brothers and sisters tell us how they see matters and live, and do so with pain, we care, we want to know more because that is what love does. They are our brothers and sisters. Often we do not really know how it is with others but not because we don’t want to know (though sometimes that may be partly true); rather because we had no way of knowing. Then, a verdict is announced, and we talk about how that strikes us in the larger Family, and we learn about the fears and dangers some of us live in or with, and we hear about the pain of what once happened or what may happen. We enter into the world of some of our brothers and sisters. We have new opportunities to know, to love and to care for one another, opportunities we are grateful to receive.
When we start to talk and listen, really listen, we can come together. We can be together in ways not possible if silence prevails. We can experience reconciliation, the overcoming of fear and prejudice, the willingness to agree to disagree as friends and loved ones, and more. As the Apostle Paul might put it, we’ve been handed an opportunity to participate in the demolishing of dividing walls and the creation of a new kind of human community. This would be good for all who experience it, and would work for the good of those who for now see it only from the outside.
When we start to talk together, the possibility of actually doing something about what is not right in our world emerges. It is common to posit as alternatives those who talk about stuff and those who do stuff. But these are false alternatives. In Jesus the word becomes flesh—the ultimate conversation somehow en-fleshes into the ultimate community that lives in new-creation mode by resurrection power.
Specifically with respect to matters of race and class, most white people do not really know any people of color, and vice versa. If they were to talk and share, however, to step into one another’s lives, they could understand each other and their understanding would not leave them the same. In the togetherness forged by starting to talk there would come a discontent simply to settle for the status quo. In our deeper knowing and loving we would agree there must be a way, and would begin to seek it together. Then, by God’s grace, talking and sharing would lead to prayer, which in turn would birth dreams—dreams that renew, restore, and re-create.
For our part of the Family of Jesus—the Free Methodist Church—we are committed to loving God and people and making disciples who are like Jesus. As a result, among other things, we aim to engage in multiple healthy and thriving ministry initiatives in our nation’s cities where literally the world’s peoples have come to us. What could be more strategic than the kind of conversations that got started and could continue, conversations that help us to see and learn from the differences among us so that we may enter into the real lives of one another more deeply, and show the better way of Jesus more powerfully?