The Catholic Church provides a three-year rotation for Sunday scripture readings. The rotation allows the faithful to hear the same readings at regular intervals, applying the lessons from familiar biblical passages to the changing times and seasons.
So it happened that, one weekend last month, I went to church and heard a reading from the first book of Kings, one in which the Lord instructs Elijah to go outside on Mount Horeb and await God’s passage. The reading resonated with me for its relevance in our current climate—one dominated by noise and shouting rather than deliberation and contemplation.
For instance, compare and contrast just a few recent incidents with the biblical passage from Kings. At Howard University last week, a group of protestors shouted throughout a speech given former FBI Director James Comey, despite pleas from other attendees and administrators to allow Comey to speak uninterrupted.
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
NFL games across the country became the scene of protests and booing, as players’ reactions to the national anthem and President Trump’s related comments almost eclipsed on-the-field activities.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
At my alma mater, The American University, an incident where individuals hung Confederate flag posters around campus on the same night as a speech on racial equality prompted a statement from the student government referencing the nation’s “history of white supremacy,” as if recalling the sins of past generations—too numerous to count—would cause boorish and offensively provocative behavior to cease.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
So many of our current culture wars center around symbols—flags, anthems, ceremonies. But almost by definition, symbols carry different meanings to different people. A Confederate flag that symbolizes ancestral heritage to some symbolizes a system of racial oppression and exploitation to others.
The repeated, and seemingly intensifying, conflicts over these symbols stem not just from disparate definitions of what they mean, but a growing sense of disempowerment, disillusionment, and even alienation, numerous groups feel—from each other, and from the country as a whole. From Black Lives Matter to the white working class, the burgeoning protest movements and last November’s “primal scream” election illustrate how alienated segments of society believe amplifying their tone will allow them to regain power taken from them.
But as the reading from Kings reminds us, wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice:
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Lost in last weekend’s debate about football protests lies a simple question: If NFL players, faced with the prospect of suspensions or other costly sanctions, all suddenly decide to stand at attention for the national anthem, what exactly have critics of the anthem protests achieved? Would those players have suddenly changed their opinions of the police, the military, or the judicial system? Likewise, if the gay rights movement wins court rulings requiring bakers to make cakes for same-sex weddings, would such a move ensure the entire country “approves” of gay marriage?
Groups’ sense of alienation might prompt them to seek the imprimatur of a sanctioning body—whether NFL owners or a court of law—to demonstrate theirs as the “official” or “correct” position. But while sanctioning bodies might be able, given enough force, to impact behavior, no sanctioning body can ultimately change one’s beliefs.
That’s where the lesson from Kings comes in. Changing others’ beliefs involves listening for the whisper amidst the wind, the earthquakes, and the fire—the modern noise that has coarsened our debate. It requires understanding the sense of concern, or even disillusionment, that may have prompted the protests in the first place. It involves seeing others as they are, not as we wish they would be.
Listening isn’t always easy, but it is worthwhile. I won’t claim perfection on this front—far from it. But over the past week, I’ve run into some more diverse perspectives on the health-care debate, which is my professional specialty. In several cases, they’ve imparted factual knowledge, and while they haven’t necessarily changed my beliefs, they have modified my perspective and allowed me to see things from a different light.
At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.