I’ll be honest — I like a good fight. I grew up on the Rocky movies. Jo March is my favorite of the Little Women and she “rather craves violence.” As an educator, I’m fascinated by the world wars. For goodness’ sake, Peter is my favorite disciple! It’s thrilling every time I read about him cutting off the ear of that soldier who came for Jesus in the Garden. He’s ready to fight the good fight, I think, defending the Messiah whom he loves.
There are some honorable reasons in this world to fight, yet so many of us struggle as we attempt to enter the proverbial ring. The fight for justice is nothing new in our nation’s history, but it has certainly taken on new life in the wake of the recent deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police. For many of our young people, the fight against racial injustice has become one of the key indicators of being a good person — and for some, of being an authentic Christian.
As youth leaders and parents, we should celebrate this; the impetus to value all human lives and seek justice is at the heart of our God. Sometimes we need our younger folks to remind us that we may have become crusty in our acceptance of the way things are. A younger generation’s ability to see the world differently should unsettle us, leaving us asking difficult questions. The youthful call to action, to fight, is a gift, and yet many of us — teenagers and adults alike — are left wondering what we should actually do.
As an adult who loves and serves our youth, there are times you may feel paralyzed: Should I place a sign in my yard? Which sign? Should I participate in a protest or speak up at a community meeting? Should I “like” a post on Facebook? Should I even try to talk with my teenagers about the most recent event in the news? And if so, how?
The answer to those questions take various forms, and the Bible is clear that we are called to action: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). However, an action that is oft overlooked and highly undervalued in our society, an action that could dramatically alter the way we fight in our pursuit of justice, is the act of listening.
James wrote, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (1:19-20).
We tend to be quick to speak, and these days perhaps even quicker to post, often in our anger. In fact, it seems it is now fashionable to fight for social justice merely through posting and reposting comments on social media. And while there are some who are using their voices — both through spoken words and social media platforms — to invite and engage in thoughtful dialogue, the majority of us seem more interested in presenting our own self-important monologue than we are in listening.
Sometimes our need to speak is cloaked in the claim that we need to defend our faith or our values, but I’ve yet to locate a Biblical mandate for this. When Peter (the same Peter who cut off the ear of the soldier) later instructed his readers, this is what he wrote: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).
There is little gentleness and respect around any debated issue in our current hyper politicized environment, racial injustice included. Wherever you may fall in your current understanding of this issue, it would help to view yourself and others on a learning spectrum. No one is perfectly “woke,” nor is any one person 100% ignorant, and we all have room for growth. We could all stand to listen.
As leaders, we might start by listening to our students, our children, and their friends, as they can be surprisingly insightful and well-informed. In turn, they could also benefit from observing adults who are practicing the art of robust listening. Listen to your neighbors, especially those with experiences different than yours. Don’t expect anyone to outright teach you what you need to know, but don’t underestimate the power of walking many miles with others in their shoes.
Listen to the voices of history in your own city or town, as the struggle for civil rights didn’t just play out in Birmingham or Little Rock, but also right where you live. Listen to the voices of authors, reporters, artists, musicians, actors, directors, pastors, and theologians who share stories about their experience of being non-white in America. Listen to the Holy Spirit as you read God’s Word and ask Him to continue to make you new, to ”remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
This truth is certain: We will lose the opportunity to speak about the hope of Christ that is in us if we are so preoccupied with promoting our own ideas about racial injustice that we never pause and listen.
As youth leaders and parents, we must listen in order to stay in the conversation with our teenagers, to allow space for growth, and to preserve the chance to make our own voices heard. One can only imagine how this model of listening and learning from each other could dramatically improve communication in all of society.
Listening is so important, yet so difficult. This is rooted in our pride, which makes defense our first impulse.
Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t need us to defend him. He didn’t need Peter to defend him — it wasn’t his fight, after all. Jesus was the only one who could fight against the powers of sin and darkness, and He did this without a single weapon, and with very few words. He won by losing it all, by giving up his very own life and his union with the Father for those he loves. When he could have called forth a legion of angels to trample his enemies, he was silent before those who questioned him. Jesus absorbed each hateful word and every bone- crushing blow, making no effort whatsoever to defend himself. His willingness to absorb the sin of all mankind killed Him.
Jesus, the one who could fill a list for eternity with perfectly just defenses for himself, never exhibited the need to do so. Not only is this because Jesus is God, but because Jesus was far more concerned about loving others than he was about defending who he was (and is, and evermore shall be). Why, then, is it so difficult for me — for us — to love and listen to others? Why am I so quick to defend myself?
The answer is that I am not willing to die. I don’t want to die to self, so I end up trying to protect myself (and thus, my beliefs) in all of life — at home, at work, at play. It’s a process as natural as breathing. The defense mechanisms kick in before my brain becomes aware. I must live!
Let us be reminded of what Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
May our kids observe us learning to listen as we die to self a little more each day. In watching that, the kids we love will discover more about how to “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).