Racial Tensions & Job’s Friends

“…it’s a good time for old white guys to shut up and listen.”

Kevin Bacon recently chatted virtually with Jimmy Fallon about the current racial tension in America.  The actor said, “For an old guy like me, born in 1958, to witness the passion of young people for social justice—it leaves me speechless, which is probably a good idea because I think it’s a good time for old white guys like me to just shut up and listen.” 

     That’s good advice from Mr. Bacon.  Not only for “old white guys”—but for all of us!  Last week, I watched two evangelical friends in a text messaging duel.  One defended the recent violence as justified because of the racism endured by blacks.  The other argued that rioting and looting are sins, and cannot be excused.  The two  lunged and parried at each other, neither giving an inch.  Neither changed his mind on the issues.  They only seemed interested in scoring points in an endless duel.  

     I was tempted to jump in and correct both of these dueling texters.  I’m glad I shut up and watched.  Frankly, I’m not qualified.  I don’t know what it’s like to live in the skin of an African American.  Neither do my two evangelical friends.  I’m getting a bit tired of watching white folks jumping up on their “I can’t breathe” soapboxes to pontificate on issues they can’t possibly understand.     

     Sadly, we live in a social media age of instant opinion and nonstop chatter.  Much of what I read on Twitter, Instagram, emails, texts, and Facebook posts is appalling.  Social media may amplify our voice, but it also amplifies our stupidity.  Kevin Bacon is right:  it’s time to shut up and listen—not only when it comes to matters of racial justice, but on every other issue that polarizes people today.  And it’s high time that we Boomers listen to our children and grandkids.   

Listen Critically

     Listening well doesn’t mean you have to agree with what you hear.  Nor do you have to immediately respond.  Good listening demands thoughtful reflection before you react.  Christians should always measure what they hear against Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, lots of folks aren’t doing that today.  Look at the mad rush to jump aboard the Black Lives Matter bandwagon.  White folks who have been silent on racial inequities are suddenly champions of social justice.  Evangelical pastors who never preached about these issues can’t join the Woke Movement fast enough.  Corporations with abysmal records on hiring and promoting African Americans are overnight trumpeting their commitment to eradicate “systemic” racism.  

     Christians can’t afford to be gullible on this or any other social issue. As the old saying goes, “The devil is in the details.”  The devil is in much of what passes for compassion today.  His deceptions appeal to our hearts—also to our self-interests. Who wants to be labeled by the mob as a judgmental, bigoted, narrow-minded person whose religious beliefs discriminate against others?  But compassion can never be separated from our biblical convictions. As Christ followers, if we abandon the Scriptures in order to be attractive to others, we have lost everything.      

Listen Empathetically

     On the other hand, sticking to our convictions doesn’t mean we have to abandon compassion for others.  Empathy requires listening.  Read the Gospels and you will be struck by how much Jesus watched and listened.  If you want to be like Him, you will listen with your eyes.  People speak to us more with body language than words.  We must also listen with our hearts to connect to what their hearts are saying.  Emotions often speak louder than words.  And we should listen by asking questions.  Jesus almost always answered questions with questions.  Too often our conversations are like drive-by shootings in which we fire off easy answers to hard questions or pious platitudes that miss the mark. Jesus was a heart surgeon who did sensitive and careful probing to help others discover the real source of their wounds,        

     But here’s the rub: what about people whose ideas are repugnant to us or the way they express them is offensive?  How do we listen empathetically to them?  Our first response is often to write them off, or to straighten them out, or badger them into our way of thinking.  At times like that, it’s really hard to shut up and listen.

Job’s Friends 

     Maybe you remember Job’s friends.  Righteous Job had lost everything: his kids, his vast wealth and health.  For months, he sat on an ash heap, rubbing soot into his oozing, itching boils and scraping them with shards of broken pottery to find relief. He had been reduced to a grotesque scarecrow; a blackened pile of puss, boils, and unending pain—cursed by his wife and abandoned by society. 

     At last, his long-lost friends showed up to comfort him.  For seven days they all sat quietly, listening to his silent cries and feeling his pain. Their empathy was like oil, loosening the rusty hinges of his shut-up heart.  Their compassion encouraged Job to open up and share his anger at life and God. Yet his bottled-up emotions had festered for so long that his words washed over his friends like a torrent of raw sewage. 

      Job’s friends were immediately offended by his scandalous words and the outrageous way he expressed them.  So they began to argue with Job, to fix him and his way of thinking.  The debate dragged on for 28 chapters in the biblical book of Job.  Job complained about God’s unfair dealing with him and they leaped to their Creator’s defense.  He cursed his bitter life and they responded with pious platitudes. It was like the texting war between my two friends the other day.  Neither Job nor his friends gave an inch.  In the end, God had to intervene and tell them that they were all wrong.  And so are most of us.  It’s when we listen to others and reflect on what they say, that we moderate our own stubborn views and come closer to the ultimate truth.

     We are so arrogant when we think we can fix others.  Job needed compassion. Instead, he got corrective theology from friends who weren’t correct themselves. He was desperate for them to feel his pain.  They were hell-bent on fixing his faults.  Yet, how could they understand him when they hadn’t existentially experienced what he was going through?  Before you want to mount your soapboxes to pontificate on things you haven’t experienced yourself, you might want to remember Job’s friends.

     Job surely wished he hadn’t opened up his wounded heart to share his deepest feelings with his friends.  Too often, our children, grandkids and friends feel the same way about us.  If we are too quick to give answers, or correct their thinking, or try to fix them, they will shut down in our presence.  We need to hone the art of shutting up and listening.  To our children and grandchildren.  To those who are protesting.  To those who have experienced racism.  To those who are going through stuff we have never experienced.  To those who hold to moral, social, and political views that differ from ours.  As the half-brother of Jesus wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” [James 1:19]  Kevin Bacon would agree with those words.  So, should we.    

Dr. Bob Petterson
Legacy Imperative