Silence Says Something

Silence Says Something

Note: Back in April 2014, I wrote this post as a part of an online series on Race and Justice for Transform Minnesota, a local, evangelical organization here in Minneapolis. Since that time, several things have happened that have deepened my resolve to call for cross-cultural dialogue among Christians:

  1. Death of Eric Garner – On July 17th, a 43-year old New York man died after being placed in a prohibited chokehold by police as they tried to question and arrest him. In video of the incident, you can hear Garner screaming that he couldn’t breathe. The incident is under investigation.
  2. Creating Options Together Conference – CRU Inner City, a Christian organization with partners in nearly every urban center in the country, hosted a week-long conference designed to practically equip leaders to minister in urban areas.  It was a great week that provided a glimmer of hope in the midst of evangelical culture.  
  3. Death of John Crawford – On August 5th, a 22-year old Ohio man was shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart store while holding a toy gun, a BB/Pellet gun that he had picked up in the store.  Witnesses report that Crawford screamed, “It’s a toy,” just before being shot by police. His death has been ruled a homicide and is under investigation. 
  4. Death of Mike Brown – On August 9th, an unarmed 18-year old Missouri teen was shot multiple times and killed by police.  The incident is under investigation and details really are unclear.  The incident, however, has set off several days of protests and confrontations between police and residents. 

Each of these events has impacted me in its own way, and they leave me more determined than ever to keep sharing this message. Grace & Peace! 

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I love communication. I feel it is one of the greatest abilities given to humanity. Be it the cry of an infant, the excited squeal of a group of teenage girls at the mall, the cheerful banter of a family over a meal, even the sobbing that accompanies the loss of a loved one—I can’t imagine what life would be like without the gift of communication.

“In a loud, painful public discourse, white evangelicals have been largely silent, absent and evasive. Why is that?”

The things that we say—our spoken words—are probably the most recognizable form of communication, but many people would agree that everything about us communicates something: our facial expressions, outfits, posture, choice of friends or spending habits. They all communicate something about who we are, what we value, where we are headed.

Even with all of that being true, there is an aspect of communication that we often misunderstand or overlook altogether. I’m referring to silence. Silence communicates.

When I think about the nearly 13 years since I met my wife during our college years and the eight years that I’ve served in vocational ministry in Minneapolis, I’ve had to become a much better communicator. Being married and being a pastor have taught me to listen for words, to watch for nonverbal cues, and to pay attention to moments of silence.

I’ve become acutely aware of the ways in which silence can be just as effective an indicator of a person or group’s thoughts, feelings, values and intentions as a mouthful of words. At times, silence conveys a message that causes one to have great hope. At other times, silence is deafening, harmful and cowardly.

“Unfortunately, there has been an undeniable silence among white evangelical Christians.”

Let me explain one example of the latter.

Jordan Davis is a name the average American probably had never heard before 2012 and probably had forgotten again until last month. That’s understandable, though. Jordan was a regular young man from Florida. His life was not in any way remarkable or noteworthy. He lived the life one would expect of a teenage boy: full of music, sports and time with his friends.

What separates Jordan’s story from that of the vast majority of other American teens is that in November 2012, he had an encounter with an armed adult at a Florida gas station. At the end of that encounter, Jordan Davis lay in the back of a friend’s SUV with two gunshot wounds in his legs and another that had ripped through his liver, lungs and aorta.

Jordan died that night and his shooter drove away, returned to his hotel and had a drink before falling asleep. The shooter was later arrested, but not until he and his fiancé had driven 130 miles the next day back to their home.

Fast forward to February 2014. Just months after handing out a not guilty verdict in the murder of another young black Florida teen named Trayvon Martin, the state sat on the brink of another pivotal legal decision in the trial of Jordan’s killer. Despite the testimony of Jordan’s three friends who were also in the vehicle that night and the damaging testimony of his own fiancé, Jordan’s killer was found not guilty of first-degree murder.

In a strange legal ruling, the jury convicted the shooter on the charge of attempted murder for firing 9-10 shots into the vehicle, but did not convict him of first-degree murder when three of those bullets found their target. The public outrage was immediate and fierce. Unfortunately, it was mostly divided along racial lines.

In the weeks since the verdict, there has been a lot communicated by men and women who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. There have been calls for boycotts of the state of Florida, appeals to the moral conscience of our entire nation, prayer for the safety and protection of our children and much more. Cries for God’s justice have echoed from pulpits, pews, prayer benches and street corners.

Unfortunately, there has been an undeniable silence among white evangelical Christians. In a loud, painful public discourse, white evangelicals have been largely silent, absent and evasive. Why is that?

I believe there are a few reasons, some understandable, others a bit more difficult to excuse. Here’s my best estimation of why many white evangelicals chose silence in this and other cases of racial injustice:

Fear

Many white evangelicals realize that confronting racial injustice is dirty, messy work. The terrain is full of land mines and any misunderstanding—any comment taken out of context, any assumption made—can potentially “set things off.” I’ve seen situations where well-meaning friends have been accused of being prejudiced, ignorant, even racist. For many, that possibility is enough to keep them quiet, even when biblical justice calls for them to do otherwise.

Perceived Lack of Skills

Similar to the previous reason, many white evangelicals don’t believe they have the right skills to navigate this type of situation. They believe they lack the right words or the necessary experiences. Being silent often seems less treacherous.

Distance

Some white evangelicals are so emotionally disconnected from the likes of a Jordan Davis that they really have no reference point in which to identify. The idea of their teenage children leaving home and losing their life at the hand of some troubled adult just isn’t a reality for them. They remain quiet, often while harboring thoughts like, There must be more to the story. Stuff like this doesn’t just happen. Social distance makes it difficult for us to identify with those in other stages of life.

Unresolved Guilt

Finally, many white evangelicals remain silent about racial injustice because in order to address situations like the Jordan Davis case, we would have to address the historic, systemic roots of racism and injustice based on race in this country, including in the American church. Unresolved guilt, even for Bible-believing Christians is a struggle.

One of the underlying reasons that evangelicals are more committed to international missions than they are to missional living at home is that in order to do the hard work of justice in America, it would require us to acknowledge the deep, dark legacy of racism and racial injustice that haunts the American church. It’s easier to do compassion work on the other side of the globe than it is to let justice roll down our own streets.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood well the complexities of balancing the call to follow Christ with the challenge to fight injustice. In fact, his work to eradicate racial injustice was fueled by his love of God and his proper understanding of the Imago Dei. In 1956, Dr. King said: “There are not gradations in the image of God. Every man, from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that.”

I join Dr. King in pointing us toward a day when every human life is equally valued in our churches, our communities and given equal protection by our justice system. Even more so, I look with eagerness to the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, freeing us from all vestiges of sin, death and hatred.

Until then, let us not give in to any impulse that would keep us silent! Until then, let us refuse to be silenced by fear, ability, distance or guilt!

Silence

8 comments

  1. That you for this. I am guilty of being silent. Often it’s because of the reasons you’ve listed. Other times I think of the times I’ve spoken up only to be shouted down, told I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I should refrain from speaking up because I can’t really speak from a place of understanding. I want to understand. I want to join in the discussion. I hate my own ignorance and strive to learn more. Sometimes the divides are so wide but I’ll keep trying to cross as long as I can.

    • Your story is common, Amy. I encourage you to engage relationally first. Look for folks who are familiar with your true character and begin there. These are tough conversations to have, but relationships help with the heavy lifting.

      I pray that your courage and commitment continue to grow in the days ahead!

  2. Kevin Schuit

    I’ve been thinking over this past week that white Evangelicals (like myself) are often more future focused than present focused. We will say, “God will take care of it in the end.” I’m not sure this is a cause of inaction or an excuse for it. I tend to think we say it to justify not doing anything. My church today took a step toward reclaiming lament, to name injustice, declare that this is not the way things are meant to be, and cry to God for deliverance. We did it for those we can name, Mike Brown and John Crawford, and for those we can’t name, the millions who are oppressed for being different, and for the faceless men, women, and children in formal and informal battlefields around the world: Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and our own cities and towns where injustice occurs daily. On the whole, white evangelicals need to reclaim lament so that we can participate in the suffering of others. We lose lament when we are too comfortable in our own places to see the suffering and oppression in others.

    • Thanks for your words, Kevin. A great resource on the topic of lament & justice is Dr. Soong-Chan Rah of Chicago. Search the web for some of his work on justice and lament…It will definitely be transformative!

      Blessings on you and your church!

  3. Chris Sather

    I am grateful to call you my brother, Edrin. Thank you.

  4. This is a call to act, speak, and stop ignoring our neighbors’ experiences. My cousin is right to ask ye of the most faith to not only have an opinion, but to fully embrace your calling and your platform.

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