But we haven’t let that happen!
The American church has a problem. We have a narrative problem. Each one of us is born and raised into a larger story, a narrative. Just as the infant Moses was drawn out of the Nile, each of us are drawn out of stories that make sense of the world in which we live. These narratives quickly and effectively help us make value judgments, moral decisions and determine right versus wrong. We are aware of some narratives, but others are less obvious, even hidden. The problem is not that we have narratives, but rather we are increasingly entering into narrative feedback loops that reinforce our own views and dismiss others who do not share our stories. Our tendency is to expose ourselves to voices that only reinforce our personal narratives and disallow or dismiss the stories that would help us understand those who differ from us. Our Bible classes and home groups can contribute to this problem. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter timelines builds this problem. Watching only the news channel of your choice fuels this problem. Reading links from only your favorite extremist blogger or your favorite extremist politician fuel this problem. We surround ourselves with people who only say what we want to hear. We are losing our ability to sense the image of God found in all people.
To say it straight: Good-hearted church going people are allowing these feedback loops to trump the call of the Gospel to love one another as Christ has loved us.
If we believe the Gospel, we believe that Jesus fully entered our stories to completely understand us. This is Incarnation. He was not content to stay outside of our narratives but to completely immerse himself in our conditions. The call to listen deeply to another narrative is an incarnational movement!
Jonathan Storment invited me to journey with a group of ministers, 10 of us Black and 10 White, to historical Civil Rights Movement sites in mid-August. Standing at these important locations and reflecting upon the events was a time of both learning and renewal. As meaningful as this was, the lasting benefits of the trip were the meals we ate together. Each evening we divided into groups of about 6-7 people who could visit around a table. As I listened to many of my Black brothers share, I became aware I did not understand what they were saying. It wasn’t that I didn’t comprehend their words, but I felt like I was only picking up one side of a phone conversation. The words didn’t have meaning for me because I wasn’t in the flow of their narrative. I had a lot of listening to do in order to begin to understand.
One man talked about the hatred and resentment he carried for almost 50 years. Another talked about the shame he has born all his life because of his race. Still another shared about what it was like to talk to his son about how to get pulled over by the police. The stories came forth and began to weave a narrative. I learned one man witnessed the aftermath of a lynching when he was a boy and because of that he never felt safe around white people in his small hometown. Another shared how he struggled to reconcile the respect his father received as a senior NCO in the Army with the disrespect they received at home. Still another friend talked about the meticulous training his parents gave him about how to prevent being perceived as a threat to any law enforcement agents. I heard how many Blacks learned to trust the Federal government more than state and local governments because the Federal government freed slaves, integrated the buses and schools, and granted the right to vote over the objections of local governments.
The more I listened, the more I began to understand not just the events that happened, but also why unfolding events are happening. One cannot begin to understand the story surrounding Michael Brown without first understanding the narrative of Emmitt Till. One cannot understand Emanuel AME Church in Charleston without also knowing the story of 16th Avenue Baptist in Birmingham. Understanding the narratives of those with whom I differ for any reason opens the narrative loop and restores our ability to see people as people to be loved instead of problems to be solved.
So how do we go about this discovery of narratives? Stop reading and listening to opinions that simply reiterate or amplify your own stories. Break out of the narrative feedback loops. Read authors whom you would not normally read. Be aware of times when you feel like you do not understand an individual or a group’s actions. Engage people outside of your normal circles. And above all, share a meal or two with someone different than you. Ask questions and learn from him or her. Ask the question behind the question. Listen well. We don’t have to agree with someone even after understanding that person’s narrative, but if we want to be ambassadors of the Gospel we must attempt to understand.
Listening to understand narratives is difficult. We might have to check our own narratives or admit that there are multiple ways of interpreting the world around us. We might discover things we’ve never considered before. It can be unsettling. It can be tough.
But don’t we want to do for others what Jesus has done for us? Listen well.