One of the greatest blessings of living in the Western world is freedom of speech. While we often experience tension and disagreement around where the boundaries to that freedom should lie, we can be thankful that we do not live in a country ruled by an oppressive regime and exist in constant fear that our words could cause us and our families to suffer. As followers of Jesus, we can “preach Christ and Christ crucified” in the public sphere. We may experience disagreement or social pressure to quiet ourselves, but we do not experience government violence or imprisonment for talking about Jesus.
I live in the Greater Vancouver area of British Columbia. During my undergraduate days at a local Christian university, one of the large public universities in the city had a “Free Speech Alley” in which anyone could stand and speak about any topic. Students and faculty walking down that passageway were aware that, on a non-rainy day in Vancouver, they might experience a wide range of talkers focusing on everything from Marxism to sexuality to the perils of the lake of fire. But here’s the thing: if you stopped and watched events unfold, you noticed that most people simply walked down the “alley” without stopping, kind of like it was some sort of unique exhibit. And this raises what I believe to be a fundamental issue with free speech; that is, just because we have the right to speak doesn’t mean anyone is listening! Another example can be found in our halls of government, where it often feels as though everyone is competing to have their voice heard, but I’m not always sure anyone is really listening. Might it be that this reality creates an opportunity for those of us who follow Jesus?
When we step back and reflect on how we grow as humans, how we develop and become more like Jesus, it is generally through intimate relationships of mentoring and discipleship. It is through the give and take of two humans sharing vulnerably and really seeing and hearing each other. It is through listening well and being heard that we are able to process deep emotions, think through challenging issues, and make critically thoughtful decisions about what it means to be human. In essence, we grow through the support and accountability involved in being deeply known by another. These are the relationships in which we know we are loved (support) and in that love are challenged to become more fully who God has created us to be (accountability). This is the fundamental truth and somewhat ironic process of following Jesus. We come to God to confess our sins knowing we are already truly known, hence the irony of any false pretense in our faith walk. This truth exposes the silliness of avoiding complete vulnerability with God, who already knows us and who loves us anyway! I believe that fostering a true relationship with God allows us to move toward fostering true relationships with others.
But here’s the challenge: we live in a society in which the right to speak up dominates over the call to listen. And with the exponential growth and influence of social media, that right to speak has morphed into the right to present. Our right to speak has become a highly polished practice of presenting oneself via media in a very specific way. We know that the word “media” derives from the term “middle,” indicating that social media is essentially what gets in the middle of our authentic being together. Knowing via social media can never be true knowing, as there will always be something between, something mediating the reality of who we are, mediating the presentation of self in everyday life. And so we speak and present, and speak and present, but do we feel heard? And if we feel heard, is it true hearing or a weak forgery that simply “likes” or “reposts” our voice, basically affirming again our right to speak and present but never really moving us toward growth?
Now compare the speaking and hearing occurring on social media to the intimacy of prayer and reflection we are invited into as followers of Jesus. When we recognize our total depravity, we come to the cross stripped of pretense (presentation) and are completely vulnerable and accepted in that place of vulnerability. And we come before a savior who has been waiting for us. We come to Christ as wanted. We come to Christ as longed for, just as we are, in all of our humanity. American theologian Stanley Hauwerwas talks about this being known as “the friendship of Christ.” It is not a soft relationship that avoids difficult conversations, that presents everything as good and fine. It is the kind of knowing that is real, that allows for vulnerability and honesty. And it is just this kind of knowing that fosters our growth in our journey to become more Christ-like. I like to call it the radical kinship of Christ.
So what does all of that have to do with speaking and listening? I believe that we are called to both invite others into that radical kinship with Christ and to model the kinship Christ offers us in our relationships with others (might that actually be the invitation as well?). I also believe we cannot do this without listening well. We need to be the kind of people who create a space in which others can feel safe enough to be heard, safe enough to be vulnerable. When we reflect deeply on the theological concept that all humans are created in God’s image, it becomes even more clear that to treat someone as the crowning glory of creation requires treating them with exceptional dignity. One of the most straightforward ways to achieve that is simply to listen well, to create time and space for people to be heard, to honor their “image-bearingness” by being fully present to them. It is this kind of deep listening and vulnerable sharing in which intimacy will develop, the kind of intimacy that leads to a relationship of both support and accountability to growth.
Let’s clarify what listening actually looks like and what it means to create time and space for it. Listening starts with a posture that reflects the posture of Christ.
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. 25th anniversary edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Beacon Press, 1987.
———. The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Beacon Press, 1984.
Hauerwas, Stanley, 2010. “Friendship and Community.” https://vimeo.com/11645713.
Hauerwas, Stanley and Charles Pinches, Christians among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
Gorman, Michael. Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. Eerdmans, Michigan, 2001.
David Loewen is currently the superintendent of Surrey Christian School and has served as head of school at two other Christian schools. He is an adjunct faculty member in Trinity Western University’s Masters of Arts in Leadership program. Loewen holds a PhD in Organizational Theory and Leadership Studies. He is happily married to his wife, Sharlene, has three beautiful children (Chloe, Olivia, and Ilyah), and cares for two rather spoiled and self-absorbed chickens.