The Lost Art of Listening

When people think of Rev. Dr. When you think of Martin Luther King, Jr., you might think of what he said—specifically, “I have a dream.” Those famous words come from an unforgettable speech delivered on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held. dr King was certainly a gifted orator rooted in the Black Church tradition, but what people sometimes overlook is that his prophetic speech had deep roots in an unseen source: the silence.

dr King organized, marched, preached and prayed. The latter is not usually discussed when we talk about his legacy, but the life and work of Dr. King show that prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclamation. He was a “drum major for justice,” but that drumbeat had a spiritual foundation.

In his book Never to Leave Us Alone, Vanderbilt University historian Lewis Baldwin examines the prayer life of Dr. King. Baldwin argues that prayer was the “secret.” [nonviolent] weapon” of the civil rights movement. dr King put in “days of silence,” and what we discover through his legacy is the interrelationship between prayer and protest. His prophetic work for justice and love was fueled by an attitude of listening.

As simple as it sounds, it can be difficult to listen to because of what theologian Howard Thurman calls the “clanging echoes of our turbulence.” Thurman, whose writing had a significant influence on King, speaks about what we are experiencing now as all voices on social media are screaming for our attention. We can hear, but that doesn’t mean we listen.

An example of this is found in the Bible in the childhood of Samuel, who would become a great prophet of ancient Israel. When Samuel was just a boy, God spoke and called his name “Samuel!” four times, but three of those times Samuel believes it is the elder priest Eli who is calling him. Only the fourth time does Samuel respond to God’s call with “Speak, for your servant is listening”. Through these words, this future prophet reveals that listening is indeed a prophet’s first task, not speaking.

Another example, closer to our own place and time, came during an unusual concert. On August 29, 1952, David Tudor took the stage at the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock, New York. He sat down at the piano and didn’t make a sound for four and a half minutes. He played “4’33”, a concept work by musician John Cage. Some have called it the “silent piece,” but its purpose is to get people to listen. Cage didn’t think there was such a thing as silence, because during this piece you could hear other sounds – the wind, raindrops, and people talking or walking outside. Many didn’t really like this musical experiment, including his own mother, who felt it was going too far. Expectations weren’t met, but it could also be that people just have a hard time concentrating in silence.

However, silence can be a corrective to a word-centered spirituality that believes that the number of words reveals how deep one’s spirituality is. Perhaps we need an ear-centered theology that honors listening as much as speaking, for as the Apostle Paul writes, “Faith comes by hearing.” When we listen, we show our intellectual and spiritual humility. When we listen, we show that we don’t have all the answers and need guidance.

My emphasis on listening doesn’t mean we never act, because even prophets like Samuel eventually have their say. listening creates language; prophetic words arise from silence. even dr King, speaking about the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, said there was a time to “break the silence.”

dr King shows us that silence and speech are intertwined. The roots of social and civic engagement grow through listening. As the Harlem Renaissance writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson poetically put it, we should “set our ear to the wisdom post.” Or as the saying goes: A quiet tongue makes a wise head.

So speak up, but never forget to listen.

Rev Dr Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs every other Monday.

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