Speaking Up

With thanks to Reverend Reginald Green.

I was raised to be a nice girl. In my household of origin one of the biggest compliments you could pay a child was to say that they “don’t complain.” For myself, and I’m sure, many little girls out there, being a nice girl was synonymous with being quiet, with grinning and bearing it, with laughing it off.

Well I’m a big girl now, and I’m done laughing it off.

I’ve heard some lament that social media used to be a “fun” place; it used to be a “nice” place. It’s still like that, many times. But as of late, many have made the conscious decision to use the forums that we have to speak up. Because to me, social media can no longer be just fun, no longer be just nice. In an increasingly fragmented society, the current reality is that social media are becoming important meeting-places for civic conversation. At least on my newsfeeds, ideas are shared, articles are dissected; in some 2-D way, we can celebrate together, we can lament together. There’s a lot that is ugly, for sure, but there is a lot that is civil and even fruitful. And this messy back and forth makes up, in part, the hard work of democracy.

Obviously, we cannot contain our conversations to the virtual realm. Even and especially when conflicts arise, it becomes even more important to lean into those conversations and to lean harder into those relationships. To follow up on the phone, to make invitations in person. This is awkward, and it goes against our first inclinations. But this, too, is the hard work of democracy. It’s the work of persuasion –not bludgeoning, intimidation, or mockery – but invitation into entering a different way of thinking. And no one responds favorably to an invitation from somebody they don’t trust.

I have faltered in this, for sure. I have been tempted toward fight or flight, running for cover. I’m grateful for the young woman who tracked me down at church and followed up. I’m grateful for the standing tea date we have. I’m grateful for the local grandma who calls it like she sees it. She’s calling it from a different viewpoint, but I respect that she owns her opinion and doesn’t mince words. I’m grateful for the standing playdate we have for our little girls.

Because here’s the truth about silence: it’s easy. And it when things are hard, the conflict-averse among us want to believe that life is all kittens and rainbows, that the “nice” thing to do is to ignore the unpleasantness. But silence and denial are the best way to stay complicit in the decline of justice. At its most benign, silence perpetuates the status quo; at its worst, silence and its close cousin, tone policing, are used as tools to shut down the marginalized. Silence always serves the privileged.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had much to say on the topic of silence: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”; “To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it”; “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” In certain times, in certain places, God has raised up people to speak: we see this in the figure of John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, calling his people to repentance; we see this in John the disciple, who while exiled on the island of Patmos heeds God’s call to “Write!”; we see this in Jesus himself, who has choice words for the powerful, hypocritical elite, but who blesses the poor in spirit, who speaks gently to the little child, the leper, the criminal, the prostitute. The Jesus who came as an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner, an exile.

This is the Jesus of the whole Gospel, the Word made flesh, God incarnate. The Jesus who, when he stood in front of a synagogue for the first time, opened a scroll and read from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He did not shy away from our need; he came, he preached, he healed, he died, and he rose again so that we can have hope through him to defeat the evil in this world. As Philippians 2 tells us, Jesus did not stay aloft in his heavenly realm; eschewing power and privilege, he stooped to us, became one of us. He showed up. May we show up where it matters: may we run to the margins; may we stand in solidarity. May we use free speech in all its forms: speaking, writing, organizing, petitioning.

May we speak up. May we preach a whole Gospel as well.

There’s another side of this, too: as quickly as we are wont to speak, we must be twice as ready to listen: to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to get angry. Similarly, the late great Fred Rogers reminds us that “listening is where love begins.” May we listen well to each other’s stories; may we, as Atticus Finch tells Scout, “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” When we listen we cultivate a teachable spirit; indeed, listening, and listening well, is at the heart of humility itself. I’ve heard it said too that what really changes us in the end is the books we read and the people we meet, but this is true only if we listen well, if we are open to change.

May we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly – ever so humbly – with our God.

The Christianity I know calls us to a gentle and quiet spirit, to proclaim our faith with gentleness and respect. Surely I, and most of us, have a ways to go in cultivating these attributes, and we must repent, repent, repent of the ways we have missed the mark. But gentleness, quietude of spirit, and respect are not disparate from speaking up: in fact, they are inextricable. If we are firm in our convictions, steeled in our desire for shalom, our minds covered in a quiet peace that surpasses understanding, we will be free to treat others as we wish to be treated, free to welcome the stranger. Because perfect love drives out fear, we, out of the abounding love shown in Christ and given through the Holy Spirit, can speak and act not from the shackles of our own self-interested fear but from the freedom of sacrificial love. Fear points us further inward and consumes us; love points us outward to the limitless beauty and potential of the Other, towards true shalom.

That’s why I believe that the true work ahead of us is to press forward in radical love, in conversation and in practice. Do we, as Christians, really believe in “overcoming evil with good”? Do we really believe that when the “light shines in the darkness”, “darkness cannot overcome it”? Do we really believe that “love never fails”? Do we really believe that God can heal the sick, make the blind see, make the lame walk? Do we really believe that God can raise the dead? If so, we can believe that when we speak up for our convictions and speak against evil, when we extend a hand in mercy and generosity, when we stoop down to hand a cup of water to the least of these – that God is there. That for the hard questions about borders and security, the tensions between caution and hospitality, between liberty and equality, that God generously grants wisdom, that our lot is secure, that he will make the boundaries fall in pleasant places. But that, first and foremost, we are a people to whom God has not given a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind.

Truth be told, I’m not that worried about Trump. To me, DJT’s ascension is a reflection of our broken society: we put him up there, we can take him down. What I believe deserves our time and energy is the mobilization of a movement: resistance against, to be sure, and with that the work of restoration for the world that we want to see. A renewed moral vision that requires we pass through the place of dissent and out on the other side to a place of cooperation, a movement through critique and into synthesis, a breaking away from the forces of tyranny and toward, always toward, a more perfect union. It’s hard work, and messy. But I see it happening around me, and because of that I have hope both for our country and for Christianity in America. But for me, it begins with Jesus’s parting words before his ascension: to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” May we fight for the good we want to see. May we never be silent.

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