Silence. It is a morally pregnant act, perhaps always, and perhaps especially this year.
In the early days of the protests, many people—mostly on social media, which seems these days to be the preferred gym for exercising our moral urges—interpreted silence as complicity in racism. Posters on the streets screamed “silence is violence.” And then, only days later, the heat transferred, as many demanded silence so that voices historically silenced could speak freely, uninterrupted, unjudged and on their own merits.
For all the confusion and resentment these rapid shifts in cultural command create for our commons, it’s actually rich territory for the Christian, for whom silence has a holy history. When God spoke to Elijah at Horeb, the Lord was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the still small voice. Proverbs and the Psalms invoke silence repeatedly as the posture proper to worship and obeisance. The book of James extols its wisdom. Many Christians interpret the four hundred years between testaments as a time of God’s silence, the scattered people of Israel depleted by captivity and assimilation, a messianic deliverer the focalizing force for hope. St. Augustine’s own confession of his conversion ends with a gorgeous passage lacing the word “hushed” throughout.
In one of this week’s feature essays, “What Am I to Say?,” Joseph Capizzi reflects on the discomfiting value of silence in the midst of so much uncertainty and the criss-crossing forces of fire. “The noise of the surety of our colleagues and friends, of sudden expertise, is pummeling our ears, drowning out the silence that we need to hear the word of God,” he writes. “Silence is a space, and silence can be fertile.”
Wisdom is a needed companion here. Questions of who and before whom, when, and where should always be part of the calculus. Silence can be an expression of awe, of grief, of lament, and of human accompaniment. It is often a way to avoid sin, and it knows the expectancy of holy waiting. But it can also be an act of cowardice, indifference, and of sheer incompetence and malice too. We need discerning friends, stretching experiences, and a whole lot of prayer to know the difference.
Breaking Ground’s first podcast episode is right in tune. We heard from two cops on what nationwide reform of police culture might involve. It was a life-giving conversation, notes of this purposeful silence, listening, humility, and the reframe of power punctuating its arc. I encourage you to have a listen, to hear the song beneath the waves, and from there, to act.