I think it’s so true that asking questions is the way we learn from each other. Especially, asking open-ended questions like,“What’s this like for you?”Open ended questions often begin life-changing conversations. I also believe that words and ideas can bring life, or they can bring death. And the words from God’s heart, as Isaiah says, are always meant to call forth life.
We have testimony of God’s word of life in Holy Scripture. But I believe we also find it in the conversations we share with each other, especially the life-changing open-ended ones where we are truly trying to listen to the experience of others that can be so different from our own.
Jesus’ Parable of the Sower in Matthew’s Gospel is a teaching metaphor. He says someone went out to their field to grow new life. Some of the seed sprouted and prospered: the seed that fell on good soil. But the rest of the seed didn’t prove life-giving, as the sower intended. It fell on rocky ground where it never took root, or it fell among thorns and weeds where it was eventually choked out by the lure of wealth and status quo. I think the metaphor is about listening deeply to what God in Christ Jesus is saying about peace and justice in the reign of God.
For me, listening is different than simply hearing. Listening deeply requires close attention, especially to what God is saying. Because sometimes the life-giving word of God can be upsetting to the way we thought the world should be. It can be life-changing to hear that the reign of God is about transformation; that it’s calling for a re-ordering of human society; a reformation of the ways power is currently distributed.
Throughout the Bible, God consistently stands with the outsider, the left-behind, and the marginalized: the ones who are not benefitting from ‘the way things have always been’. These are the ones hungry for hope. The ones always ready to be good soil for the reign of God to come near. God’s Word speaks in the voices of the oppressed throughout Scripture, those oppressed by empires that enslaved them, empires that even crucified the Son of God. We learn that God never did stand for slavery. “Let my people go” was the Word of God to Pharoah. God’s heart abhors the enslavement of one human by another.
Yet here we stand today: a nation whose wealth was built on slave labor. And we have molded ourselves into a nation, that through law and public policy, continues to guarantee this wealth remains in the hands of those whose ancestors benefitted the most from slave labor. And those policies, and laws, have endured for centuries. Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the financial gap between blacks and whites is still as wide today. White wealth has soared, while black wealth has stagnated. To me, it’s as simple and as horrifying as that.
But God is good. God is eternal. God takes the Really Long View! We are clearly not there yet, as a nation that orders itself according to God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. But both Isaiah’s vision of abundant life for all, and Jesus’ metaphor of the Seeds of the kingdom of God tell us that God ain’t done with us yet! Jesus says, “God needs good soil”to grow the kingdom of peace and justice for all. God needs good soil, that receives the re-forming, life-changing, life-giving words of God’s reign, with keen ears, open hearts, and open minds, ready to withstand the weeds, withstand the thorns, withstand the burning sun, that would keep God’s word from taking hold in our hearts.
Jesus’ metaphor reminds us that it will take constant attention, constant self-awareness on our part to be good soil. And it begins with listening. In our time, listening to the experience of our Black siblings, and believing them. Being good soil, for their words of testimony to take root in white people’s hearts and consciences so that life-giving change can grow as the Word of God intends. I’ve heard it said that the gap between black experience and white ignorance in our country is bridged by belief. Believe the testimony of black Americans. That testimony is the seed of which Isaiah the prophet speaks, saying, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Good soil receives the word, the testimony of the oppressed with whom our God stands, believes it, and the reign of God begins to take root.
I want to share with you the testimony, the experience, of a young black man named Ethan Walker. Ethan is a graduate student at BYU in Provo, studying mathematics. He writes,
“Some people wince at ‘Black Lives Matter.’ They honestly and earnestly say, ‘It’s not only black lives. All lives matter.’ I address these people directly. I believe you value every person’s life. I also believe there are fundamental things about the black experience you may not understand. I reach out to you in good faith, seeking to examine police violence with you, through the eyes of a young black man.” . . . . . . . “I often call my fiancé late in the evening, just to chat. I don’t want my room-mates to eavesdrop on these intimate conversations, so I step outside to speak privately with someone I love.”
What is there to fear in this situation? I immediately worry about the police. What if someone sees me from their window and calls the cops because I “look suspicious?” What if that cop sees my hand in my pocket and assumes the worst? It may seem irrational to fear something as uncommon as police violence. But statistics substantiate this fear, endemic to the black community. Unjustified police violence is random and unpredictable, bringing deep terror upon the black community. . . . It captures how trapped, anxious, and helpless police shootings make me feel. I need to fight against this terror. I need to let people know what I’m feeling. I need to hope for a better future.
When I say ‘black lives matter’ I am trying to feel hope that black people can be safe. When I say ‘black lives matter’ I am trying to force this country to change. When I say ‘black lives matter’ I am asking people to see my despair and reach out.
When someone responds with “All Lives Matter” it rejects my pleadings and dismisses my fears. Black Lives Matter has always been about the black experience. How we experience America differently from white people. This is why we say black lives matter, and why we unite in shining a light on police violence.
I ask you. Look at our distress with new eyes. See at least a fraction of our experience. And join together in commitment, to make black lives matter.” (Ethan Walker of Provo,UT)
“Word of God. Word of life,” we say.
Jesus’ parable of the Sower of the Seeds warns us away from being those who hear such Word of reformation, but, as he says, “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, choke the word and it yields nothing.” Systemic racism is rooted in self-interest that says “I got mine. It’s all good.” As Ibram Kendi says, it’s like a cancer that is metasticizing not only in our country, but around the world. It only brings death, if it’s not rooted out.
I think our task as followers of Christ, is to be good soil for the testimony of all black lives to take root and grow. So that death, and blind self-interest, are rooted out, and the kingdom of God may grow, to the glory of God.