Feast of St. Stephen, First Martyr

December 26, 2016 / By: Hans Gustafson

I’ve never been stoned; that is, I’ve never had several people hurl rocks at me in an effort to kill or seriously maim me. Todays’ readings depict Stephen being stoned by a mob refusing to listen while shouting at him at the top of their lungs. We read, “they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at [Stephen], dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 10:57-58, NRSV). It seems natural to identify with Stephen in this story, the one being silenced, berated, ignored, beaten, and killed. Shockingly, we read how Stephen seems to remain clam, steadfast, and prayerful amidst this torture. It conjures up the memory of the famous 1963 World Press Photograph of the Year, which depicts Thích Quảng Đức, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burning to death in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection in an effort to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

I’ve never been stoned, nor do I ever hope to be. Should such a misfortune fall upon me, I most certainly cannot imagine enduring it in the serene manner of Stephen or Quảng Đức. Though I’d like to identify more with the persecuted Stephen here, I admit that I am more similar to the stoners in this text; that is, I am more likely to “cover my ears,” “yell at the top of my voice,” and refrain from listening to those who might experience and interpret the world in ways that run contrary to my own.

In a world of increasing interconnectivity and encounter with the other (cultures, politics, religions, races, etc.), I am reminded of the great need for listening in my own development as a full person. The religious traditions and cultural worldviews that are alive today offer an abundance of resources to help cultivate this seemingly simple, yet most challenging, skill of listening. Many religious traditions teach generally about the divinity of the human person. In our interaction with others, they teach, we interact with the divine, with God. In listening to others, we listen to God. If this is the case, or even in the neighborhood of being the case, I am challenged to uncover my ears, refrain from shouting, and listen … to really listen.

Hans Gustafson, Associate Director, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning; Adjunct Professor, Department of Theology