21 December 2017

On not selling our silence

Christmas blessings!

When my sisters and I were young, and we had been caught in some misdeed, the punishment we feared the most was a caning, administered by our father with a hardwood railing taken from an old crib. The minimum number of blows was ten. I kept a running total of these beatings by penciling tally marks on the inside of my bedroom closet door. We did not suffer in silence like the Spartan boy with his stolen fox; we cried loudly for mercy, dragging the awful proceedings out as long as we could, and then screamed bloody murder during the actual beatings.

On one occasion, both Ellen and I were sentenced to a caning. I can't remember our crime; surely it wasn't as serious as the time we secretly repaired our television with stolen parts (shameful details here), for which we were somehow never punished. Anyway, on this occasion, we raised the usual racket. The next morning, as I walked down the stairs from our apartment, a neighbor met me and asked what all that screaming was about last night. I instantly came up with some innocent explanation, although I don't now remember the cover story. In short, I lied to protect family secrets.

I've thought about that whole episode now and again through the years, but never particularly considered the role of the neighbor. She did not keep silent. In fact, throughout my life, I can think of several times in my growing-up years when a neighbor or relative saved our bacon by not shrugging off some evidence that things within our family were decidedly not ok. The whole drama of my younger sister being taken out of that home under threat of police action was actually based on a neighbor not keeping quiet.

All this came back to me today when I read Robin Mohr's tweet about the hashtag #SilenceIsNotSpiritual. Silence is spiritual oxygen to me, so it's hard to read those four bald words without wincing. But it's also clear what the hashtag is referring to. It's in the same family as Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's constant theme, "Apathy in the face of human suffering is radical evil." ("Behold the Lamb," pdf.)

The silence of the disciple and the non-silence of the truth-telling witness have this in common: both require attentiveness. Both have the same yearning: to know truth, whatever the cost. We train our senses to "regard" our neighbors, our whole world, through the eyes of faith, just as we're learning to regard Jesus.

Attentiveness is important but not sufficient. We remain attentively silent as long as it takes for the truth to begin reaching us, but then we communicate. We do not hide in the silence. The blessings of worship are not private; they're to be made accessible to all who need them, so we learn to provide access to these gospel-order communities of ours, based on a radical commitment to truth. That same radical commitment has to hold when the truth is ugly, when the truth is violence, isolation, bondage.

I heard a startling quotation in this week's Slate podcast about the Watergate scandal. In the bonus segment, Mary McCarthy's book The Mask of State provided this description of John Mitchell in the Senate's Watergate hearing room: "He sat before them stonily, the very picture of a man who had sold his silence."

I have personally not been paid or threatened for my silence, at least not since childhood, but countless people have -- people at the receiving end of violence, assault, harassment. My years as a Quaker denominational worker made me aware of too many cases -- such as the pastor who described how he tried to intervene in a domestic violence situation, but the abusive husband was a friend of the local sheriff. Those cases are precisely when the community needs to support them, not isolate and betray them. If your church doesn't know how, here's one place that has experience educating churches to overcome the wrong kind of silence. Dare we hope that the tide is turning?

Here's a query specifically for us Quakers who cherish silence. Is our culture as conflict-averse as it sometimes seems to me? Does that syndrome interfere with our ability to break silence when necessary?

Also on Slate: evangelical women are speaking out.

Jasmin Morrell on the darkness of the womb: #MeToo and the Black Madonna.
We are not meant, of course, to continually dwell in silence and darkness. But integrating them into the center of our being is one of the ways to access the full breadth of our humanity and our divinity. So often in my own life, silence precedes my ability to give voice to some aspect of my story, and darkness precedes a morning where I am able to begin again because I’ve been renewed.
Steven Davison on the evolution of "inward" and "inner" light. Where does that divine spark or seed come from, and when?

This week's links on presidential accountability and impeachment: If Trump fires Mueller. Top U.S. Democrat warns White House. Impeachment and the case of presidential obstruction.

"When things go wrong, so wrong with you, it hurts me, too."

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