Good Relationships Require Good Listening

March 21, 2021
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 17:1-7; Matthew 18:15-20

A recent program on National Public Radio told the story of the so-called “witch camps” of the west African nation of Ghana. These are communities formed of women accused of witchcraft and driven from their homes and villages. The isolated camps offer refuge for these displaced women who have nowhere else to turn but to one another. (https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/03/12/975292632/banished-witches-sing-of-their-pain-and-their-dreams)

There’s a growing movement in Ghana to end the superstitious and misogynistic practice of witchcraft accusation, but the communities still exist. An estimated 1,000 women expelled from their own homes and towns have found their way to these remote, safe places to live. As I listened to the radio story I remembered the parallel biblical reality that those seen as “unclean” were exiled from the places they lived. They found each other, as the banished women in Ghana have.

The NPR story tells of the songs the women in the camps create and sing together. The journalists recorded the pieces and have posted a collection of the songs online. It’s called I’ve Forgotten Now Who I Used to Be. The song titles express the anguish of the women: I Was Accused; Hatred Drove Me from My Home; I Trusted My Family, They Betrayed Me; When I Was Ill You Didn’t Come Visit Me; Everywhere I Turn, There Is Pain.

One song title asserts with confidence Only God Can Judge Me. Listening to the women singing in a language I didn’t know, I could still sense the meaning of their words and sounds. It made me wonder if those in the long-ago colonies outside the towns of ancient Israel sang similar songs. Maybe Jesus, who made it his mission to share love in those places, heard them singing.

“Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer…I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words.” (Psalm 17: 1, 6)

The story of the Ghanaian women has elements of hope, as well. They may have forgotten who they used to be, but in their singing, they find one another. They construct a new community out of their voiced experience, out of their shared struggle. They dream of what might be. They listen, and in their listening find a spark of life in the midst of their desolate existence.

In one song, titled simply Love, Please, a single voice intones what sounds like a hopeful inquiry. The answer is immediate and noisy and full of promise. In the call and response, the women begin to find their way back to the humanity so cruelly taken from them.

Being listened to can be the start of healing. And when we are listeners, we participate in that restoration. That’s true in personal relationships, as well as in broader communities. We’ve seen this working on a national scale in South Africa many years ago and other places where people seek to name past wrongs and be heard. Telling the truth, though, is only half the equation; reconciliation comes when people involved in perpetrating wrong-doing listen, and hear, and own their role.

That’s the goal of the movement for racial equity in this country. It aims at dismantling processes and practices and prejudices that have historically supported or resulted in discrimination. The most effective way to change unfair structures is to hear the stories of those affected by them. We learned this in the movement for inclusivity for LGBTQ persons in the Presbyterian Church. Janie Spahr, a key leader in that effort, used to say, “We need to person the issue.” She was right.

 

The songs of the women excluded from their communities in Ghana person the issue. This is the music of resilience and resistance. In their singing they name their oppression and begin to reclaim their personhood. Change begins with their music. They’re singing for their healing – and calling the world to listen.

If we seek transformation only by “studying the issue” or changing the rules, without hearing the stories of real human beings, the needed shift in power will be slow in coming – if it ever gets here. South Africa could have legislated away apartheid and left it at that, but by also inviting people to tell their stories, and others to own their complicity, as difficult as that process was, the prospect for deep cultural change was given a better chance. Healing a broken, wounded people requires that those oppressed and their oppressors listen to the truth of what has happened.

Jesus recommends this very process in his teaching about how to seek reconciliation. It begins by our hearing another’s personal narrative, especially as it relates to how we have treated them. “If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

The relationship is restored and renewed.

If we listen, Jesus says, there’s hope for restoration in the relationship, a chance to right the wrong. If we don’t listen, he says, the one who has been ill-treated should try again, and bring others into the mix, and try again, but if there’s no willingness to hear them, then, Jesus says, the relationship is severed.

In the heat of the weeks following the death of George Floyd last year, when some were calling for defunding or dismantling the Police Department and others were shouting down that idea, a volley of statements was released, back and forth. Remember that? Groups were staking out their ground, backing away from each other with their statements that sounded so definitive. Putting up walls.

At one point I found myself in the position of brokering a conversation between two such groups, an established business organization and a movement for radical social change. The leaders of the two groups had no relationship at all; they knew what they had read or heard about each other, but they had not had a chance to listen to one another directly.

A couple of us managed to bring together leaders of the two sides, and they began a tentative relationship. Their listening to one another led to the discovery that they were not the stereotypes they had of each other, that they actually had some aims in common, and that they might find a way to work together, at least on some shared objectives.

This is hard work, but that is no reason not to try. The future belongs to those willing to listen.

Some years ago, Westminster selected author Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help for the annual all-church book read. It’s the story of white women in the south and the Black women who worked in their homes. To the white women, the Black workers were invisible. They could speak about them in their presence as if they weren’t there. The book is set in the 1960s, and I remember when I read it being so dismayed that America was like that only fifty years ago, two generations ago – in my lifetime. It was appalling that the full humanity of another person could be overlooked so casually and callously – and that the offending party might not even be aware of it.

That same reality still lingers among us. It showed itself again this past week when the police officer speaking to the press about the violence against Asian-American women in Atlanta said, almost as if in sympathy for the accused killer, “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”

That was white America speaking, showing little empathy for or understanding of the racial realities our neighbors face every day. For too long we’ve looked past and even denied the racial animus directed at those silently deemed “different” or “unacceptable” by many of us, perhaps unawares. It’s like what happened to the women in the radio story.

Without our even being aware of it, assumptions and stereotypes and fear impede our listening to one another. Racism does that; it begins by cutting off the other, leaving little chance for relationship. It refuses to ascribe worth to other individuals on the basis, simply, of how they appear.

In theological terms, that denies the image of God in another human being – which is why the church our church – must be engaged in the growing movement for racial justice. We were reminded this week how urgent that work is.

Our nation needs something like a Truth and Reconciliation process if ever we’re going to confront the sin that lies deeply embedded in our history – the sin still very much present among us. The Minnesota Council of Churches has launched an effort to hear the truth about the treatment of Indigenous People and people of color in our state, and begin to repair the damage done. Westminster has been among the first to help fund this important work; our church’s elders granted $20,000 a year for two years to help jumpstart the project. It will require that we become good listeners.

Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer. I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words.

The psalmist understands that without a God who listens, a God willing to pause and hear their voice, then their religion has no substance. Our faith is formed on our trust that God listens, and hears, and responds – to our prayers, our laments, our petitions, our songs and our dreams.

The same is true in human relationships. Without good listening, our relationships wither, or fray, or break apart. Relationships fail for many reasons; chief among them is that people have stopped listening to one another. As a pastor I see this all the time. I see it in families and in couples – people who have stopped listening to one another.

We began our 40-day journey through Lent describing it as The Listening Season. When we read scripture through a “listening lens,” we begin to understand how important it is that people hear one another. Listening, after all, is at the heart of our life together. When we listen well, we form good and healthy and just relationships.

Jesus says that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is there with them. Maybe he’s saying that when people get together, especially, perhaps, in small groups, in the way of Jesus – that is, with a commitment to listen genuinely to one another – there’s the possibility of love and justice blossoming in that relationship.

Such listening happens best, and is most transforming, when it takes place in small groups. That’s what’s going on in those communities of women banished from their homes and families and villages, as they sing together.

The title of one of their songs is We Are No Different from You.

Jesus knows that. He knows that we discover our common humanity when we listen to one another. And God is present when that happens.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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