"The power of silence" (Edie Wakevainen)

Edie Wakevainen

Speaking Up or Remaining Silent

A Sermon for September 23, 2018 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)

St. Luke’s, Ferndale



In 2013, in an NPR segment called “Bravery by speaking up or keeping quiet…” host Michel Martin talked about Malala Yousafzai. You may remember that at age 15, she was shot in the head by Islamic extremists who wanted to keep her from speaking about the importance of education for girls in Pakistan. A year later she said this: “The terrorists tried to stop us, but neither their ideas nor their bullets could win, and since that day our voices have grown louder and louder.” Malala spoke up when others may have remained silent.


Later in the segment, Martin talked about 87-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She was the biracial daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond of SC. Her famous father never acknowledged her publicly, and she chose to honor his wish to conceal her parentage, until after he died. Mrs. Washington-Williams remained silent when others in a similar situation may have spoken up.


Unlike Malala, who is considered very brave, Mrs. Washington-Williams faced criticism for not speaking up. We human beings are quick to judge others’ behavior, even though we are not privy to the reasoning behind their choices. Even though we know how difficult it is to decide whether to speak up or stay silent, we judge.


The decision to speak or keep silence is not just a contemporary issue. In fact, two of today’s lectionary readings reflect its importance long ago. The passage from James addresses when to remain silent—that is, if we feel the need to boast or lie it is better to say nothing. And the Gospel lesson has us staring silence in the face, twice. First, the disciples avoid speaking up first when they don’t understand what Jesus has said to them. Why didn’t they ask? Later they keep silent when he asks them what they were talking about. Why didn’t they answer?  


Like Malala and Mrs. Washington-Williams, and like the disciples, we choose whether to speak or keep silent, often many times a day. As followers of Jesus in the way of love, how might we discern when to speak and when to keep silent? I believe the answer is as simple and difficult as the answer Jesus gave to the Pharisees when one of them asked him which was the greatest commandment.


We know the answer, right? We are to love God and love our neighbor. It makes sense to me that these commandments are linked. If we truly love God, we will also love our neighbor. Deciding whether to speak or keep silent is a matter of choosing the course of action consistent with loving God and loving our neighbor. It’s an imperative that reminds me of a quote from Fr. James Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross; he said, “Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.”


I’d like to look at some situations that call for decisions about speaking up or remaining silent, with these commandments in mind. My hope is that it will help us gain some clarity about how to proceed next time we face this decision.


First, I invite you to consider two examples of times we tend to remain silent when we ought to speak.


Have you ever failed to tell someone something they really needed to know? Lying by omission is intentionally failing to state the truth in a situation in which disclosure is expected. My friend was excited about a person who asked her out for a date. My heart sank when she told me. What I knew about the person who issued the invitation was not good—in fact, if my friend knew these things, she would never have accepted the invitation. To begin with, the guy was married! I could have let it go. Instead I told her what I knew. She turned down the date. Loving God and loving our neighbor means being honest and putting others’ interests before our own. Speaking up to tell the whole truth, even when it’s awkward, is walking the way of love.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” We wrongly choose silence over speaking up when we remain silent in the face of abuse or injustice perpetrated on others, particularly the powerless or marginalized. Perhaps we are in a situation in which everyone knows that others are being treated unfairly or badly. Yet no one says anything out of fear of repercussions. Loving God and our neighbor means speaking truth to power, risking retaliation or ridicule by pointing out the wrongs to those in authority. Speaking up on behalf of victims of abuse or injustice, at risk to ourselves, is walking the way of love.


Now I invite you to consider two examples of times we tend to speak when we ought to remain silent.


“Why didn’t they speak up?” When I hear that on the news or read it on social media these days, I sense shaming behind the words. It’s easy to disapprove of others who don’t take actions we think they should take. Yesterday on FB, my friend posted under the hashtag “why I didn’t report.” He said this: Because the perpetrators were popular. Because my family was new and their parents were in positions of power. Because I’d already heard the grownups saying, “Boys will be boys!” Because it wasn’t until a little less than two weeks ago (25-30 years later) that a psychiatrist agreed with my suspicion that it was indeed sexual assault.

I don’t know if Jonathan felt pressure to speak up before yesterday. But his hashtag makes me wonder. Loving God and our neighbor means respecting others’ thoughts and feelings about things that are outside our experience and showing compassion to those who have the lived experience. Keeping silent and allowing those most affected by a situation to determine how and when to respond is walking the way of love.


What about the times we speak even though that’s not what another person needs or wants? This can often happen when the other is suffering. We want to do or tell or fix, when the situation calls for a ministry of presence, a way of being. In being present, we share space with the other person, setting aside our need to do something. We are in the moment rather than anticipating what to do next. We focus on the other, resisting the temptation to compare our own experiences to theirs. Just like in the previous example, loving God and our neighbor means putting the others’ needs before mine. Keeping silent when that is what someone else needs most is walking the way of love.


Rabbi Adam Cutler suggested asking three questions when deciding whether to speak or remain silent. I believe his questions are even more helpful when we intersect them with our two greatest commandments. Here they are. Am I loving God and neighbor if I speak up or if I keep silent? Which course of action would help me to make a difference next time? And which course of action am I more likely to regret in 20 years?  Whether we speak up or remain silent, may we always do so in light of the way of love. AMEN.

Clare Hickman