When I was younger, I spoke my opinions as if they were facts, and because I had low emotional intelligence I wasn’t aware I was doing this. This made it harder for others around me to disagree, especially since I tended to speak first and loudest. I didn’t know how to be gentle, and I was much more quick to speak than I was to listen.
Gradually I began to understand this dynamic is present in all human systems, from one-on-one conversations to entire societies and traditions of thought. If there are no facilitators or built-in structures to allow other perspectives to receive equal time, or if those with differing thoughts are shy, introverted or less verbally skilled, it can seem like “the best” ideas have naturally risen to the surface when in reality the group has simply been swayed by the loudest person.
You’ve probably heard it said that history is written by the winners; I came to understand something like this to be true. This doesn’t mean history can’t be trusted; rather, history may be more complicated than we thought. We look at history and see what we want to see or what we are prepared to see rather than what’s there.
I’ve greatly benefited from learning to pay attention to voices “on the margins” of conversations. Sometimes these underrepresented or disenfranchised voices are drowned out, not because they’re wrong but because they’re less powerful or less popular. This is sin. Christians should cultivate compassion for those who may be pushed aside or ignored, which demonstrates love because Christ loved us before we had voices to speak, much less anything good to say.
Another way to think of this is “empathetic listening,” which doesn’t require you to have no convictions or forfeit the existence of truth. But when you give time and attention to these voices, your mind may be changed — or it may not. Empathetic listening demands being attentive, giving intentional space to those whose perspectives are overlooked or minimized and being willing to interrogate your own perspective, recognizing that pride, when left unchecked, can easily blind us to truth.
Because my point isn’t to call attention to any particular conversation, I’m not going to use specific examples of marginalized voices here. Instead I want you to consider your own possible blind spots. This has helped me be a better small group leader in my church, and in general I think the Holy Spirit has used insights like these to help me be a kinder person.
Most importantly, this has helped me become a better student of Scripture. Jesus in particular was doubly a minority, rejected by His own people and by the military/civic leaders. He didn’t write any books or found any sort of philosophical school, yet He’s the person who’s had the largest individual impact on world history. His voice, which would have been so easy to ignore or suppress (and my how they tried to do just that!), changed history, showing the world that marginalized people and perspectives are of great value.
Recently I’ve been thinking about what happens when these two priorities — empathetic listening and being a student of Scripture — conflict. If we believe Scripture teaches one thing and a marginalized or minority perspective says, “No, this teaching has been misunderstood and is in fact harmful,” what do we do?
I don’t want to ignore or downplay the perspective that’s different than mine; in humility I recognize wrestling with these conflicting views helps me identify blind spots I didn’t realize I had. But Christians are a people of the Book, so at the end of the day our priority must be to rightly understand and submit to Scripture.
All of us need to have our perspectives challenged and shaped by the Holy Spirit, and Scripture is the main tool God uses to form the mind of Jesus Christ in us all. This is the claim Scripture makes about itself, and it’s how its authority has historically functioned in the church. Each of us only see part of reality, and all of our reading and understanding is conditioned one way or another.
Practically speaking, however, Christians are committed to discovering as much as we can about Scripture because truth exists apart from, and despite, our limited perspectives. This means both the powerful and the marginalized find themselves interrogated by the triune God in Scripture, by truth that isn’t dependent on earthly authority in order to be read and understood. That’s what the Bible is doing in and for the church, and it’s our life’s task to see it rightly and submit to it through faith.
This is not a formula for having hard conversations. I’m well aware Christians disagree on all kinds of matters, and I have Christian brothers and sisters who bring experiences to the table I can’t fully understand or relate to. That qualifier “fully,” however, is important, because we’re all humans created in God’s image.
I don’t want to downplay the unique and sometimes inscrutable ways culture and experiences form us, but I also don’t want to downplay the radical unity of the family that’s created in Christ across all racial, gender, socioeconomic and cultural lines. This gives us common ground, and one important part of that common ground is our shared need for grace.
In the Bible we’re confronted with the reality that left to ourselves we did not choose God. We are confronted with a God who chose us even in our rebellion, and with a Savior whose sacrifice demands we give up everything to follow Him. And we’re given the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), which gives us hope that our own flawed and limited perspectives can gradually be supplanted by the wisdom of God.
I’m committed to hearing disenfranchised voices because God heard my own cry when I was marginalized by my own sin. I’m equally committed to honoring the voice of God in Scripture, seeking to hear it as clearly as I can (rather than hearing myself or someone else’s voice in its place), which means I want to study and understand the text, and I want to follow guides who are willing, even at great personal cost, to seek to live into Scripture. This probably won’t make difficult conversations any easier, but it’ll make it more likely my words are conduits for the gospel hope we all need, whether powerful or disenfranchised.