Our age is an age of voice. Everyone has a voice that we want heard by others.
But the inevitable corollary to living in such an age is that many, many voices crying out in the Wilderness of Twitter means also that there will be a bewildering cacophony of voices are all striving to be heard at once.
That can mean only one thing: if some voices are to be heard at all, others will necessarily need to be silenced.
But as has been abundantly, and rightly, noted these days: Having a voice silenced is one of the signs of living under oppression of some sort.
But what if silence were golden, as the old saying goes? What if there is, as Scripture says, a time to speak and a time to be silent? (Interestingly, the verse I’m alluding to, Ecclesiastes 3:7 actually reverses the saying: “a time to be silent and a time to speak”–might silence logically precede speaking?)
I’m writing this in the midst of a massive social upheaval, which, by the way, I won’t name or describe, for fear that whatever I say about it, the main import of what I would want to say will be–silenced. Silenced either because what I say does not align with mainstream attitudes, or with the attitudes of my peers; silenced because I have no authority to speak on it; or silenced just because I haven’t simply said it loud or brash enough. So if you are reading this at some future date, you will have to look at the original posting date to piece together what I am referring to. For those reading right now as this is posted, it will be obvious.
As a public theologian, I often feel under tremendous pressure to say something to each and every issue that comes up. I’m feeling that pressure right now, to be sure. Especially because I see so many of my fellow theologians saying such important stuff. Good on them.
But whether it be fear, or simply a kind of intellectual paralysis that keeps me from speaking directly to the issues at hand, or more likely, a deep sense of spiritual inadequacy to speak to the issues, I’ve tended to view my silence in such times as a kind of fault, a sign of theological or professional or even personal weakness.
I’m reminded of a criticism that Karl Barth faced often in his life. Why don’t you address issue X or debate Y? For example, though Barth directly and often addressed the problem of German National Socialism head on, he was silent on the invasion of communism in the Eastern bloc countries. Why a scathing critique of Nazism, and yet silence on Soviet Communism, his critics demanded? To which Barth, for the most part, remained silent.
Perhaps Barth failed. (He certainly had his share of personal, moral and yes, theological failures). Perhaps I am failing right now. (That’s certainly a good possibility). Maybe Barth should have given as much effort to critique Stalin as he did Hitler. Maybe I should be putting more effort to speak to the current issues as some of the issues I’ve spoken to in the past. God will be the judge. However, I am instructed and inspired by Barth’s decision, and maybe even discipline, to remain silent, despite the harsh criticism, even condemnation, he subsequently received.
I’ve also, more importantly, been comforted deeply as of late by the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:38)
In the midst of the current crises (yes, I use the plural there), I admit that I am feeling weary and burdened by it all. And my burden just grows as I feel increasing pressure to say something profound, incisive, sharp, definitive, witty, even. So I find myself silent on today’s pressing issues dominating air and (a)ether(net). And so Jesus’ words have been a balm to my soul in these trying times. I’m a theologian, yes, charged to speak God’s Word to the situation we find ourselves in. But sometimes, I think, theologians, too, should be quiet. Sometimes I have to resign myself that it’s okay not to speak all of the time.
Notice, I didn’t say theologians should always be silent. I do not judge those who are seeking to speak a word into our current situation. God bless them, God bless you who read this and are labouring to speak God’s Word to our situation.
But for those who do speak: Be sure to protect your soul as you speak. And be sure you have to speak. Just because you can speak and have a platform and audience to whom to speak, don’t presume you are thereby bound to speak. Speak out of the well-spring of Spirit-filled prayer and Spirit-led biblical reflection, not just out of an intellectual guttural reaction.
This all comes to me as I’ve been reflecting lately, and deeply struck by, the places in the Gospels where we sometimes see Jesus in silence.
As I see it, there are three types of silence we can observe in Jesus. I think all of them can be instructive to us at this time.
The Silence of parable
The first type of silence that Jesus practiced was the silence of parable. Now this isn’t a direct kind of verbal silence but is a kind of verbal indirection and/or redirection. It’s speech that does not say something head on, but which expects that which is not said to have the impact.
Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts knows that Jesus often spoke in parables as a way of indirectly saying something. It’s why he sometimes said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (e.g., Mark 4:9, 23).
The silence of parable is such that a story or analogy or even a personal account might have greater impact than speaking to an issue head on. Jesus spoke in parables very intentionally, knowing that there would be three types of responses.
Some, of course, would hear a parable from Jesus and with frustration, say, “What in the world is he talking about?”
This response might seem like a failure to communicate. But for these people, a parable is actually a grace to them because their hearts may not have been in a place either to accept or reject the truth to which the parable points. To them the parable is simply verbal nonsense, a kind of encoded message for which they did not have the cipher. Receiving the message doesn’t necessarily mean that they reject it. It may have been that they simply weren’t capable or equipped or in a place to hear it or understand it. Perhaps days and weeks later, as they mulled over that verbal nonsense in their head, the Spirit would enlighten them a with spiritual decoding Key such that they joyfully accept it. Others, tragically, harden their hearts even further in outright rejection, even once the key is given. (Cf. Heb 6:1-9)
Others would hear Jesus speak a parable and be offended, sometimes even to the point of responding in utter rage. I think of the time Jesus quoted the Proverb (a super-short parable, of sorts), “Physician, heal thyself” only to face an angry mob wanting to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). These heard the parable and understood its meaning quite well, thank you very much. It wasn’t for lack of understanding, but refusal of will to bend their hearts and minds to it.
(I’m reminded of a friend in my McGill days who was doing his PhD in NT. He probably understood the meaning of Jesus’ parables at one level better than I ever will, but who outrightly confessed to me that he rejected them not because he couldn’t understand them, but because he could not commit himself to the life of discipleship that he knew Jesus demanded. Sad!)
And yet others, whose heart-soil was freshly cultivated by the Spirit to receive the seed of the Word, received the hidden truth of the parable with joy–and repented.
Today, I wonder: Who are the parable-theologians we ought to be listening to? And to what extent might we be called, not to face issues head on, but to work with story, with analogy, with testimony, not to solve an otherwise insoluble puzzle, but to throw something into the mix that the Spirit might choose to use, whether that be for the sake of repentance, comfort, or exhortation, or all.
Maybe sometimes the stories being told are the theological words that need to be heard. Maybe the key to hearing them isn’t for me to come along and give a theological explanation. Maybe the Spirit can use those stories on their own to reveal the truths people need to absorb deep within their spirits and souls. Maybe we don’t always need a theologian to come alongside to clarify what is already clear. As in digital image manipulation, sometimes over-clarifying something actually leads to distortion.
We need more poet theologians. More novel (as in the book) theologians. More creative arts theologians. More story-tellers. More spoken-word artists. More painters. More musicians. More Christians who simply say, “I don’t have all the answers but here’s a little story about something that Jesus has done for me.” These parables of life, literature art, and story may well be used of God in sometimes more powerful ways than the “direct-speech” in which we theologians so often engage.
The Silence of Rest
If the silence of parable is a kind of indirect speech, a type of verbal Judo whereby we redirect speech away from direct speaking to a critical issue, the second is all-out bodily silence–a silence of rest.
In Mark 6, we read:
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
As I write this, I confess that this is the place from which I write. I am exhausted by a year filled with double-duty, with family crisis and distance, with personal health issues, with various global crises, and with the tiredness that comes just weeks before some slated time-off.
It’s perhaps a good reason why I need probably need to simply to shut up and not pretend to have the energy or words to say that I might otherwise wish I had.
As the apostles excitedly report to Jesus a résumé of their accomplishments, all the good things they had done and all the good stuff they had said, they turn around and–there are more people in need!
The response we might have expected from our Loving Lord is that of compassion. Based on his responses elsewhere in the Gospels, we might expect him to look at the multitudes in need with deep love and care. We expect his heart to break for them. We expect him to turn to the apostles and say, “You feed them.” (He did direct the apostles to do just that on other occasions).
What a mighty surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “You know what? Let’s go. You’re all tired and hungry–and so am I. Let’s find a quiet place where we can eat, and rest. Enough working, enough talking. Let’s take a personal day.”
As I wrote the previous paragraph, the image of a kindergarten or pre-school class came to mind. I think of the tremendous amount of energy expended by a class of pre-schoolers throughout the course of the day, and I’m not surprised that, in the midst of it all, both kids and teachers need “nap time.” (Maybe teachers more than kids, but kids for sure, need it, too!)
Humans are “soulish” creatures (Cf. Gen2:7) which means that who we are as humans is not simply the sum total of our words and actions. Far too often, we derive our worth precisely in that, as rewarding as it can be. The apostles, I’m sure, were thrilled beyond imagination to be on the Lord’s mission, speaking and doing and helping as they were. But Jesus knew them better than themselves. Humans cannot be sustained alone on the bread of their words and actions. Such bread will eventually lead to malnourishment of the soul.
I guess the rather simple but oft-overlooked point is this: Sometimes, even when the multitude of people and issues seem to be raising more urgent need than ever, the best thing is to pull away, to rest, to be silent, to have a snack and a nap. Elijah and Jesus did it. So, too, should we.
And so today, I covenant with the Lord, and maybe some of you, too, that today, and perhaps even for the next while, it’s okay that I have little reserve of words to say and actions to do in the face of the current crises.
I will rest in silence.
The Silence in the Face of Power
And sometimes The Word said–Nothing.
There are a few occasions in the Gospels where Jesus surprises us with nothing.
For example, sometimes he refuses to answer a question.
Luke 20 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2 “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
3 He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: 4 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
5 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”
7 So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
8 Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Now granted, Jesus does speak here, but I’m awed by how here, at least, he answers a question with a question. And when the answer was not forthcoming, Jesus decided that therefore, he too, would not answer. I wish the editors of the text would have entitled this section, “When Christ clammed up!”
I think this little incident is instructive for us, especially in situations where, perhaps, we are being forced to take a side, fully knowing that whatever answer we give, we will be condemned from both sides.
Jesus saw through these power plays. And he simply refused to play along. How refreshing is that!
For me, at least, I am the kind of person who always wants to be on the right side. I’m not inherently a rebellious personality or a rhetorical provocateur. I want peace and quiet and order. That can, to be sure, good at times, but it can also be a bad thing. It can be a sign of complicity, duplicity, and cowardice.
So yes, sometimes we have to stand up for the right things, even if we are unpopular with our peers for doing so and even when it causes high level of stress and discomfort. I’ve been there and frankly, I don’t like it.
But sometimes, is there not an overwhelming sense of pressure to answer every question and respond to every critique? Maybe it’s just me but it seems to me that theologians and pastors and Bible teachers here are flooding the internet (“Hey, look at me as I post yet another blog post!” Smirk…) with an attempt to be heard, to provide answers, to guide the flock.
Again, I do not judge those who do this. May God bless you.
But for others, let me suggest that though Jesus often and regularly calls out injustice and hypocrisy and, yes, sin itself, other times, he knows that sometimes, anything he says will be condemned from every side and that sometimes, it is just better to be silent. It serves no purpose, ours or God’s, when we speak and it does nothing but create a deeper trench of division or even hatred. Sometimes we have to hang on to our pearls.
So Jesus is my exemplar here: If Jesus doesn’t have to answer every question thrown at him, I would hope he will be okay when I don’t answer every question either. May I simply have the grace and discernment to know when to speak and when to be silent. And it is in those times of silence when in fact, my actions will need to speak louder than my words.
But there’s another crucial moment of silence in Jesus’ ministry:
62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. (Matt 26)
If you want to do a fascinating study, read through the various Gospel accounts and observe how Jesus responded, or didn’t, before the authorities leading up to his crucifixion. Whole books could be written on how Jesus responded, or didn’t, to various audiences.
Both before the high priest and Pilate, Jesus spoke. And was silent. Matthew records that Pilate was amazed that “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge.” (Matt 27:14)
In the face of false accusation, in the face of power seeking to divide and conquer, Jesus is silent.
Now, I acknowledge that we have to be so very careful here. When Jesus was accused of wrongdoing, we know the charges were false. He is the man in whom no fault or deceit can be found. In that regard, he isn’t like us. Unlike Jesus, we have plenty of accusations that could be lodged against us for good and right reason. And if we are silent, it is because we know the accusations to be true. Such silence, in the face of a direct confrontation of grace (L. Gregory Jones) would be tantamount to a denial. When we’ve sinned, we ought to confess with our mouth.
Nevertheless, we need to be instructed here by Jesus: He is silent at a crucial moment, that is, when the rhetoric directed toward him is being used as means of exerting power over him.
It’s in those moments, Jesus refuses to play and meets the rhetoric with silence.
Isn’t it ironic? The crowds wanted Jesus to be quiet, and Pilate wanted him to speak.
To the crowds Jesus spoke, and to Pilate Jesus refused to speak. What’s the commonality?
In both cases, speech was being used as a power-play. The crowds demanded silence from Jesus because his words to them were uncomfortable. “We had better shut him up, then!” the crowds reasoned.
Pilate on the other hand, wanted answers from Jesus because he knew that Jesus was being unjustly accused. For Pilate to condemn and innocent man would call into question his own concern for justice. “Answer me, dammit!” we can hear Pilate demand. “I have the power of life and death over you and you refuse to answer me?”
But again, Jesus knew the truth. As he says in John 10:17-18, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”
So, when being threatened to speak lest we overpower you, the appropriate response seems to be silence. Not rolling over and cowering, but standing firm in silence. Sometimes those verbal power-plays come at us from without–from those outside the Church, outside the faith. But tragically, all too often those power plays are coming at us from within. Even Christians are being forced to line up on sides and say the right words. In such instances, I think we need to have the courage of silence.
Undoubtedly, we are in time when speech is being used in both good and wicked and yes, even in trivial ways. Speech is a gift of God and having a voice is part of what it means to be created as the ambassador image of God. We speak and preach and instruct and praise and worship with our mouths to the Glory of God.
But speech, we so well know, can divide and conquer as well. And so when demands are placed upon us, demands and pressures to speak so that the other side can be overwhelmed or silenced, we had better weigh our speech carefully and prayerfully. If we are being called upon to silence others, our speech is violence.
In that case, it is better, I believe, to be silent.