What shall I say? Many of us have been agonizing over that question. What can we say, whether we’re talking with family at home, participating in conversations that swirl around at work, or pastoring a community of faith? What will we say about the brutal public killing by police officers of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on the streets of Minneapolis, on 25th May? And what have we said or, to our shame, not said about the ugly reality of pervasive and pernicious racism, of which the murder of George Floyd is only one sickening instance? What will we say about this evil that has poisoned the history of the one humanity that God created, infecting and distorting the political, economic, societal and cultural realities that we inhabit now, not only in the USA but also in Aotearoa New Zealand? What will we say about the Church, the new humanity born of the Spirit, intended to be built through reconciliation into the manifestation of God’s wisdom in Christ, but in so many ways more reflective of a racially divided world than of a reconciled Body?
The acute pain of recent events demands a reaction now, and we are seeing it across the world. Our long-term response, however, must be shaped by an honest recognition and deep understanding of the chronic condition that those events have again exposed. What reorientation of values and priorities is required in our world, local and global? What reformation of society and of church will that involve? In discerning and directing that response it is not my voice or the voices of people like me that most need to be heard. We have been speaking, mostly to each other, for centuries. For me, therefore, the question, “What shall I say?” has to be put on hold. There is an urgent prior question: “Whom should I hear?” And, accordingly, “How shall I listen?”
Those questions are crucial because unless I learn how to hear people who are different to me I have no hope of ever beginning to comprehend the realities that are at the heart of the issue. As a white male with an education, a job, a salary, a home and much else, how can I get through the layers of ignorance, indifference and defensiveness that keep me from seeing the nature and extent of the privilege and advantage that is inherent in the first of those descriptors, “white”? That can only begin when I stop speaking and put myself in the places and among the people from whom I will hear how life is experienced by others who walk the same streets, but inside a skin that looks different to mine. And how will I hear what God is saying to the Church, the Body of Christ gathered from every race and tribe, unless I learn to listen both to and with the members of the Body in all their God-given diversity?
Such questions motivated me a few years ago to develop a course in Carey’s postgraduate programme on “Intercultural Bible Reading.” It was an exploration of how the Bible engages and is heard by people in different social and cultural locations. We followed a simple process. Each student recruited a group of people who shared some social, cultural or ethnic commonality and who were willing to participate. Those reading groups included Ni-Vanuatu women seasonal workers in Nelson; first-generation Cook Islanders who had brought up children in NZ; Burmese refugee women; a Filipino fellowship group; recent Chinese immigrants; 1.5 and 2nd generation immigrants from Hong Kong; a group from a Tamil congregation hosted by a local English-speaking church; and several others.
Two passages from the Bible were selected, and each group met for two sessions arranged with the student. In each session one of those passages was read or heard, in whatever language the group was best able to operate in, and they simply talked about what they had heard, with minimal intervention from the facilitator. The conversations were recorded, transcribed, and (if they were in a language other than English) translated into English. Those transcripts and translations were collated, and the students met as a group over a few days to analyse them and reflect on what was being learned. The results were rich and often surprising. Observations and insights from so many perspectives shed fresh light on familiar passages. It was sometimes startling as an aspect of the text that most groups might have passed over as insignificant proved highly confronting for others. In different ways, every group found that the Bible passages resonated with their own life experiences. Deep, honest conversations ensued in which attitudes, values and assumptions were expressed and hurts and hopes were brought into the open. It was not unusual for ministry to be offered and received within a group, and in every case, community was created or strengthened as they encountered each other in deeper ways in the context of their engagement with the Bible.
For the students, most of whom were preparing for or already functioning in church ministry, there was some profound learning. The minister of the church that hosted a Tamil congregation enlisted his reading group from among them. He had told me that he already knew them well because he preached once a month in the Tamil service (through an interpreter). Five minutes into the conversation, however, he realized that he didn’t actually know them at all! As they began to talk about the passage they had read, so much emerged about their experiences, their faith, and their lives that he had known nothing about. An Anglican priest in Nelson had regularly offered meals and friendship to the Ni-Vanuatu women who were employed locally as seasonal workers. When they met around the Bible, however, the relationship reached a new level and she gained deep respect for the spiritual life and leadership of women whom she had formerly seen primarily as recipients of her hospitality. There were tears and hugs as the women, who had themselves been fragmented into different tribal and linguistic groups, ministered to each other and to the priest with a deep sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
The gains were significant, but for pastors and pastoral students who saw it as their role and responsibility to speak, they came at the cost of some initial discomfort and, to be blunt, a surrendering of power. It was difficult to hold back from “correcting” interpretations, frustrating when they itched to steer discussions towards what they judged to be the important learning from the passage. To be fair to them, there was also some discomfort in the groups themselves if their expectation had been that an authorized person would be telling them what was in the Bible, and what it meant for their lives; some groups had never been invited to express their own responses to it. Pressing through that initial discomfort, however, proved immensely worthwhile. For the students, listening in as the Bible engaged people and evoked responses in the contexts of their lives opened up a deeper understanding of the participants, their histories, their experiences and their faith. Looking on, they became more aware of how God was present and involved in the stories that they heard and in the present lives of the group members. Should an appropriate time come for those temporarily muted preachers and leaders to speak to their group, it would be with more adequate understanding, deeper respect, and a more conscious alignment with what they were discerning of God’s relationship with and work in them.
To the Carey alumni, stakeholders, pastors and other interested people who take time to read this Carey Newsletter, might I suggest that, for long-term culture shift in our churches, making intercultural Bible reading a habitual practice could yield significant gains. And that, particularly for leaders, asking permission to sit with groups of people who are very different to you, not to speak but to listen in as they engage with the Bible and with each other, would open your eyes and minds and encourage and challenge your hearts. As our students found, there might be initial awkwardness if both they and you assume that you are there to speak and direct, but if you persist in being present as a listener, to learn without judging, to hear without correcting, to ponder rather than immediately respond, you will in fact be teaching as you model humility, attentiveness, and trust in God’s Spirit among them and God’s word doing its work.
I conclude by returning more directly to the issue of racism that, having seen so starkly, we must confront. Many of us are among those whom the racist history, structures and culture of our society, institutions and churches has privileged. It is we who bear the greatest responsibility to listen. Nurturing a habit of intercultural Bible reading might be one way to cultivate attentiveness to others and, with others, to God. However it is done, let us stop talking and listen to those – and there are many in our churches and communities and among our colleagues – who experience racism as a daily, life-long, unjust, destructive reality. Let’s take the steps we need to take so that we can sit with those who can open up that experienced reality to us, including exposing our privilege and its effects on them and on us. Not to debate, discuss or strategize, but to listen with courage and humility, with repentance and love. Because if we don’t, we will be positioning ourselves not with God’s messengers such as Isaiah, but among those to whom he was sent:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:9-10)
Written by George Wieland