What if a primary task of discipleship were not to speak, but to listen?
The Scriptures teach us a great deal about the importance of the land in constructing and locating a sense of personal and even spiritual identity. The land represents a place where you are free to be who you are. It reveals both the promise and power of God as well as providing a sense of stability, security and peace.
The importance of the land is just as evident today as it was for the wandering Hebrews but what is different is the increasingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of our modern landscape.
All over the world people are on the move. Some because they want to, and others because they have to. In the community I am a part of we have seen an increasing number of people join us whose homeland is not this one. For some of them this was their intention but for a disturbingly large number they are here as a result of war, political instability or persecution. This merging of social and cultural identities forces us as a church to ask the question: how do we recognise the significance of a person’s land in forming their identity, and therefore how to we begin to embrace diversity in an increasingly globalised world?
One of the first tasks of a community that seeks to create a place where diversity is not just acknowledged but embraced, is to become truth-tellers. We must commit ourselves to telling the truth about our own social and cultural location, and the impact this formation has had on our perspective(s).
I am a straight, white, educated, western male. I am in the majority in almost every room I step into. This is the truth of my own social location, and for the most part I make no apology for it because I had little say in any of it. I am, however, acutely aware that because of who I am, questions of diversity and openness are a challenge, as they represent experiences I am often unfamiliar with having grown up in a male-dominated west. A starting point for me as I begin to move towards a more diverse expression of my faith is an acknowledgment of my own predisposed bias and patterns, as I begin to hear the experience of others.
In contrast to my (and dare I say, many of your own) social location, the scriptures present us with voices that seem to emerge from the underside of privilege. Theirs are voices of people enslaved to foreign and oppressive empires, displaced from families and cultural homelands. They are people at the mercy of principalities and powers, sometimes identified as darkly spiritual and other times expressed as the legions of Rome. For many of us therefore, telling the truth about our own location is to realise that it is profoundly different to that of scripture, and thus our primary task is not to speak but to listen.
Becoming a Listening Community
Over the last century particularly, various arms of the Christian church have made it their goal to assert particular views and opinions on the world stage in an attempt to explain the validity of their faith. This has arguably led to even greater division and exclusive self-definition. As a church community however, we have rejected the need to “stand firm” in open hostility to the world and instead attempt to sit and listen to the voices of the many stories around us. It is strange how the simple act of listening can disarm you, and lead you into places where compassion and mercy are more dominant that fear or anger.
Scripture teaches us the power of the land in forming a person’s identity – you only need to understand what a Samaritan was to a Jew to realise the incredible power your birthplace had on forming your perspective of others. However, those who chose to follow Jesus were invited into a strangely nomadic existence. Not only did Jesus acknowledge that he had no place to call “home” (Matt.8:20) but more importantly he refused to entertain the prejudice that often comes with such ingrained cultural bias (Jn.4:9-10). He sat with those on the outskirts of society, and embraced them without fear. So how can we become a community of openness to people of all lands and experiences?
Once we have honestly located ourselves and become true listeners, we will finally be ready to embrace the journey towards openness. Many churches today claim to be a place called “home” and yet when people who have struggled to find a home come to the door, they find that they are invited into the house but are not allowed up the table with the rest of the family. This is a strange and divisive kind of home. To truly embrace openness we must commit ourselves and our communities to a kind of welcome that anticipates high levels of diversity and difference, that submits to the practice of listening in order to learn, and gives those on the outskirts a place to identify with.
As I mentioned before, our small community has seen so many people come through the doors who have spent much of their life running away from war, persecution or prejudice. We cannot replace the land that has been taken from them, but we can still give them a place to belong. A place of honest and open welcome. A place called home.