as a first step toward addressing racism
As we live through a time of pandemic and protest, I revisited the Rule of Benedict to read what wisdom Benedict might speak into these tumultuous days. I found guidance right at the outset of the Prologue: Listen. Listen is the first word of the Rule of Benedict, written over 1500 years ago for those attempting to create sacred community. The Rule was to be a guide for living in community, weaving together spiritual wisdom and practical instruction for daily living. Benedict’s guide has survived the test of time, and part of that durability is the insistence that both practical and spiritual matters begin with listening.
LISTENING IS ENGAGED
Listen. This ancient wisdom may seem like an outdated prescription or an underwhelming instruction for what is happening in our world right now. Listening?! In the face of pandemic, protest and police violence? Benedict’s understanding of spiritual and practical listening is anything but passive. Really hearing people requires engagement. If we are honest, most of us struggle to listen well, even with our close friends and loved ones. We are easily distracted by our own thoughts and we often prepare our response before someone has even finished speaking.
As a culture, Americans value debate as a way of getting to the truth. American journalism frequently frames social concerns as “two different sides of an issue.” Presenting “both sides” often means listening to people arguing. Debate is one way to understand an issue, but I hear Benedict inviting us into a different way of understanding, one that focuses more on story and less on argument. Benedict’s call was to listen to scripture as well as to other people—and then to draw connections between the scriptural narrative and how we are called to treat other people in our midst.
LISTENING IS CURIOUS
By taking time to listen carefully, we practice humility. We acknowledge that other people have things to teach us and that we do not have all the answers. Engaged listening not only involves hearing from people we already know or the people from whom we want to hear. Engaged listening means fostering enough genuine curiosity to expand our usual circles. Benedict’s call to listen means deliberately seeking out voices that have been underrepresented or silenced in different ways. Benedict himself advises special attention should be given to the perspectives of the young, the elderly, and the weak when seeking counsel. If we truly listen, what might we hear from people who are hurting, marginalized, and excluded?
Part of preparing ourselves to listen means asking genuine questions.
- What is it that we honestly do not understand?
- If we find ourselves surprised by the strong response of protesters across the country (and around the world), what if we got really curious about that?
- What if we made an effort to seek out and hear the voices of those organizing the protests?
- What do we need to learn from the history of this country that leaves most Americans living in communities strongly segregated by race?
- What affect is COVID-19 having on communities differently and why are Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities affected at much higher rates than white communities?
- Why does Minnesota have some of the highest racial disparities in health care, graduation rates, and home ownership in the country?
Where do white people begin this process of listening? Most white Americans have very few friends of a different race. If it is true that 75% of white people do not have a close friend who isn’t white, this poses a significant challenge to the ability to listen to people from different backgrounds. How are white people learning about the lived experience of people of color and indigenous people in this country? Even if white people do have friends of different backgrounds, those friends should not be responsible for educating white people about the history of race in this country. Part of caring about our community as a whole is learning about our history and understanding the context in which we live.
One thing that I have heard many Black people say in recent days is “listen to us tell our own stories”. White people often listen to other white people talk about Black people. We rarely listen to Black people tell their own stories. Whether we have many Black friends or not, it is important that white people pay attention to Black writers, artists, historians if we want to understand an important part of the story of our country.
Listening is a posture of learning, of seeking to understand. We can listen to the voices of writers and artists and teachers over the centuries. Fiction and nonfiction alike can help people build empathy and expand their understanding of what it means to be human—honoring other people’s humanity more fully and helping us live more fully into our own humanity. In this moment in history, when we are struggling with health disparities, economic disparities, and strong differences in communities’ relationship with the police, what voices have something important to teach us?
LISTENING WITH THE EARS OF OUR HEARTS
Benedict’s first instruction was to establish listening as the anchoring word for his Rule. He then goes on to say: “Incline the ear of your heart.” Benedict’s notion of engaged listening draws from the center of who we are. Statistics and news reports may help us understand the scope of certain problems, but rarely do they speak to our hearts. Benedict would not have us simply comprehend social challenges intellectually. He calls us as Christians to listen, to see every human being as a child of God. Racism, then, is not simply a political or social problem. It is a theological problem, a spiritual challenge, a matter to be addressed with our hearts as well as our minds and bodies.
I am certainly not saying that heartful and engaged listening is the only action that is necessary right now. But, following Benedict’s example, it’s a good place to begin.
In small and large ways, each encounter where we truly listen and each encounter when we are truly listened to changes us. Listening often requires discomfort. The good news is that discomfort is the first step toward growth. Let your listening mean something. Let it change you. Let it be the first step toward more thoughtful engagement, speech, and action.
Many people and organizations have been compiling book recommendations as a starting point for better understanding racism. This is by no means a comprehensive list. These are simply my recommendations for a starting point for better understanding racism and African American History.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Counting Descent by Clint Smith III (poems)
Learn more about core Benedictine values.