Silence: The Unexpected, Prophetic Starting Point for Justice

Racial justice and reconciliation are impossible without the work of silence.

One of my favorite stories of the newly canonized Catholic saint, Mother Teresa, has to do with her description of prayer.

She was once asked about her prayer life. The interviewer asked what does she say to God when she prays? Her answer? “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”

Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”

Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”

There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.

Finally, Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.” Racial justice and reconciliation are impossible without the work of silence. Click To Tweet

Silence and Justice

Mother Teresa’s prayer life is my favorite story of describing what prayer is. Prayer is the act of listening to God listen. Quite paradoxical! There is an intimacy present in this kind of prayer that moves deeper than feelings or experiences. When I think about this story, I’m moved to silence and awe.

When I consider Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s life, I also realize that this silence is not an end of itself, but also a means to an end. Her prayer life was an example not just of intimacy with God, but a life of silence that overflowed into works of justice and mercy. Her silence in this respect is prophetic. And in this perpetual hostile environment of racial strife, we desperately need prophetic silence.

As a student of the Desert Fathers and Mothers from North Africa over the past 15 years, silence is something I treasure. Although I became a Christ-follower in the Pentecostal tradition, over the past two decades, I have integrated the contemplative stream to my discipleship. In the process, I have learned a thing or two about this formation practice. Most recently, I’ve reflected deeply on the connection between silence and justice. They are deeply connected in ways that bring shalom, and in ways that bring disintegration.

Biblically speaking, silence is often the precursor to justice and redemption. Moses dwells in the desert for 40 years before his proclamation of freedom and God’s redemption manifests. John the Baptist encounters God in the silence of the wilderness and emerges as a clear voice of justice and redemption.

Most importantly, Jesus, before his first sermon in Luke 4 spends 40 days fasting, in prayer and in silence, and his ministry bursts forward with words of liberation that deeply penetrate (and disturbs) the hearts of his hearers. All of this is what I call “prophetic silence.” Prophetic silence is the act of surrendering our words, to listen for the Word, which is to infuse our words with prophetic power. Prophetic silence is surrendering our words to listen for the Word. Click To Tweet

Formation or Navel Gazing?

It’s this kind of silence that pastors, leaders, and activists need to cultivate. This silence is needed for the sake of our souls, the depth of our message and the longevity of the movement for racial justice. Without this silence, we will continue to see personal burnout, lack of nuance and short-lived movements.

Silence is a critical practice because it confronts us with God, which leads to confrontation with ourselves. Without this dual-confrontation our words and deeds are woefully inadequate. This is what the desert tradition teaches us.

The desert tradition didn’t emerge from a longing to naval gaze. It flowed from a burden to save the world from its disintegration. This is why the practice of silence (especially Christian silence) is to find it’s ground in God and be ultimately oriented towards justice, shalom and redemption. This is silence for the sake of justice. There’s another kind of silence, which is practiced for the sake of self-preservation. Sadly, this kind of silence is prevalent in our churches.

The Silence of Friends

Passive silence—which speaks louder that words—flows from hearts of people who have decided to align their lives with status quo. Passive silence is silence that emerges from the fear of losing church members. Passive silence is violence against those crying out for justice. This kind of silence is a far cry from the good news of the kingdom of God.

Dr. King is famously noted for saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

These words resonate deeply in the lives of many today who are burdened by the conspicuous silence and lack of empathy shown by friends amidst racial injustice. In this time of racial hostility, some of the most discouraging and heartbreaking acts have come from people who choose to remain silent.

This kind of silence is actually violence. To borrow the well-known phrase from Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If I could modify that for our time I’d say, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of racism is for Christian people to do nothing.”

Cultivate Prophetic Silence

We need more than ever to cultivate prophetic silence. In so doing we fuel the words we speak with the life and power of God. How do we begin? Here are some simple ideas to get going:

  • Study the life of Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. Note the connection between silence and action.
  • Commit to at least 5 minutes of silent prayer each day (implementing Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer).
  • As God leads, increase the amount of time spent in silence.

When we choose to be silent for sake of justice, our words will carry more weight and our impact will extend much further.

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