For their participation in a gun law reform demonstration on the Tennessee state legislature floor, Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled from their elected positions. This expulsion was described by some as a “public lynching.” Violence is not limited to physical abuse. It includes words or actions that violate and belittle a person’s humanity. Certainly the 145 mass shootings in the United States since mid-April qualify as “violating humanity.” But so do legislators refusing to listen to the growing outrage and consensus on our nation’s need for gun safety, including a ban on the sale and distribution of assault weapons.
I thought of the Tennessee legislators as I read Acts 7:55-60 for this Fifth Sunday in Lent. In this Scripture, we have leaders who refuse to listen. Stephen, newly commissioned as a deacon, is the threatening, prophetic voice eliminated in this story by a public stoning.
Stephen ran into opposition for his work because, according to Luke, his opponents could not stand “the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (Acts 6:10). These opponents arranged public accusations of blasphemy against him. Brought before the council, Stephen doesn’t do himself any favors in a long and perplexing speech, making no effort to defend himself from the false charges. But it doesn’t seem to matter, because those who’ve put him on trial aren’t really listening. In fact, we read they “cover their ears” (Acts 7:57) when Stephen describes a revelatory vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven.
The power of speech to influence and inspire has been studied and hailed by scholars, preachers, and fans of TED Talks. But more attention needs to be given to the power of listening. In 1951, Carl Rogers first introduced “active listening” to describe his non-judgmental, empathic approach. Active listening, also called “high quality listening,” has been proven to reduce defensiveness, increase receptiveness, and pave the way for open-minded conversations where speakers and listeners alike are willing to share their views, consider new information, and potentially change their minds.
According to Rogers and other scholars, the listener must genuinely recognize, respect and value the intrinsic worth of the person who is speaking. In other words, the listener must believe the person speaking is worth listening to. If we do not value the speaker’s humanity, if we belittle and demean voices with whom we may disagree as our “opponents,” it’s much easier to ignore them … or more dangerously, silence them.
In today’s divisive climate, our inability to value people who are not of our particular tribe is a fundamental cause of our society’s most vexing problems. People are hungry to be heard because too few are genuinely and actively listening.
While Stephen is dying, his words reflect a love for his killers that is not reciprocated. As Stephen dies, he prays for God to forgive his murderers, paralleling the final words of Jesus on the cross. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus says in Luke 23:34, “for they do not know what they are doing.”
As disciples of Christ, we are called to see the imago Dei (image of God) in every person. This valuing of others encourages a countercultural, yet highly effective approach to solving interpersonal and societal problems. The sooner we can recognize and honor each other’s intrinsic value, the sooner we can listen to hear and understand, the sooner we will save ourselves from a most destructive and dehumanizing path.
Questions for reflection:
- What thoughts, ideas, images, arose as you read this passage?
- Describe a time when you felt heard and understood. How did this experience feel? What difference did this experience make?
- Describe a time when you genuinely and actively listened to someone with whom you disagree? What was this experience like? What did you learn?
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