Meditations / Sermons

January 20, 2008
The Silence of Good People

Amos 5:24
… let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Luke 19: 39-40
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!"
40 "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."

The first time I came south I was nine years old. It was 1961, my mom and I were visiting my sister whose husband was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base outside Montgomery, Alabama before we left to join my dad in Germany.

It was the first and only time in my life I saw signs that said ‘colored’ and ‘white’ over water fountains and on bathroom doors. I was indignant. Angry. Outraged. My first act of protest was to drink out of the ‘colored’ fountains and pee in the ’colored’ bathrooms.

Two years later, when I was a continent away, Rosa Parks sat down in the front of a bus in that same city. Though I was only a child at the time of my protest, and a white one at that, Ms. Parks has always felt like heart sister to me. No, I didn’t share the weariness of her soul, the fortitude of her faith or the constant dehumanization she bore in her every day living, but I saw with the same unfettered eyes of a child of Godde the brutality and tragedy of segregation. It was my first real encounter with evil. I kept asking my mom-‘hadn’t they heard of the constitution and the bill of rights in Alabama?’ I could not fathom what I had seen…

In Germany, my mom took me to Dachau, the death camp where thousands of Jews, many gypsies, gays and lesbians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and dissenters were tortured and murdered, I witnessed another evil that was beyond my ability to comprehend. Both events bear witness to the capacity humanity has to perpetrate evil. And any time we are silent, we are complicit.

Dr. King said, in his letter from a Birmingham jail, that the greater tragedy was not the actions of bad people but the silence of good people. So this is my question to us today: where are we being silent in our lives?

The thing is, I am not talking about political ideology. I am talking about faith walking. How do we encounter each one as a child of Godde and as brother or sister- no matter how different someone may seem from us? Where is the common ground we stand on as followers in the way of Christ?

I have seen what silence does to a person. Over and over again I have seen how silence becomes betrayal- both of one’s self and of one’s relationship with the Holy One. Gays and lesbians and African-Americans who are light enough to ‘pass’ can hide who they are. But they live in fear of being found out. They live in an environment that encourages internalized self-loathing. And they act out in ways that are destructive both to themselves and others. If you believe that who you are is inherently wrong then you have no theological or ethical grounding for making choices. How you are in the world is not an important question when you see who you are to be flawed or wrong or evil.

We may believe that silence keeps us safe, protects us from discrimination or violence, but silence ultimately degrades our souls. How can we choose the difficult path of following Christ if we believe we must hide our identity? Our choices become muddied both by our self-loathing - which implies an inability to make difficult, brave, moral choices and by our complicity with those who actively perpetrate violence or dehumanize us. If we do not speak against, we stand with.

While Jesus may have been speaking in an entirely different context when he told the Pharisees that his followers could not keep silent, but there is more truth in his words: Godde’s word, God’s justice, will not be silenced, because even if we are stove up with fear, all of creation will speak out! I am reminded of how right now the earth is speaking to us out of deep anguish for justice. Calling us to justice in voices of the wind and oceans, farmlands and glaciers.

I would remind us that loudness is not the opposite of silence. Angry vitriol can dehumanize as much as silence does. I am not saying that anger is bad Let us be enraged whenever a brother or sister is degraded, tortured, demeaned or suffering injustice. But we cannot, in turn, dehumanize the oppressor – no matter how badly we want to. That is not the way of Christ.

There is a third way. Christ walked in that third way and called his followers to it. Martin walked in Christ’s way, and Ghandi and Howard Thurman and Barbara Jordan. And, my friends, we are called to walk in that third way.
The third way is fairly simple, though extremely difficult. The third way insists that we trust the Holy One, that we live in faithfulness with prayer and thanksgiving. The third way is this: first, we must claim our value as beloved children of the Most High and let nothing take that away from you.

Second, we must stand and speak our truth and demand respect, justice and compassion for all people- for people of all races and nationalities, all spiritual paths, all classes, genders, sexual orientations, all abilities - and for the planet and all the creatures that dwell on the planet, on earth and in the oceans and streams and in the air.

Third, we must confront our fear rather than be controlled by it. And we must live as people of integrity. Another tough one, and by this I mean we cannot live in fear of losing our jobs, our families or our relationships. We cannot live in fear of losing our lives. If we do we give power to those who can (and will) hurt us by our silence. We are more hurt by living in constant fear and anxiety than we are by living with the consequences of speaking truth. Jesus taught the greatest lesson about living with integrity: it is more important to live with integrity than it is to save your life.

Years ago, Act Up came out with a bumper sticker that said : silence = death. Audre Lorde reminds us in Sister Outsider, "your silence will not protect you.” Act Up was right. Audre Lorde was right. Not only will our silence align us with the perpetrators of the same evils we abhor. We become less human when we remain silent.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus taught us to love. Perhaps the hardest love he taught was to love our enemies. Love of those who persecute you. Love, not as in "I think you’re swell.” But love as in ‘the choices I make will be life-giving.’ The ground I stand on is compassion- ubuntu- the south African word for compassion that recognizes our sameness as the basis of compassion. Love, as Christ loved, allows for the possibility of reconciliation with justice, peace with justice. To love as Christ loves saves the world.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Today, let us remember Martin as a faithful brother. We do not gather to idolize him, but to remember him and his walk with Christ. And to remember Martin is to hear the prophetic word and to be called to a prophetic walk.

These things I remember as I remember Martin: Speak with both the strength of conviction and the strength of compassion as one who is called to love those who hate you. Speak even if your voice shakes. Speak with your life.