June 21, 2020
Silence Is Consent
In the spring of 1964, about one hundred and years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in this country, a young White Presbyterian pastor named Terry, who is now retired in Southern Maryland, and who served a small White congregation in rural Ohio, packed his bag and hopped a bus to Gluckstatdt and Jackson Mississippi. Visions of justice still burning in his heart from his wonderfully inspiring seminary days, young Turk rode out to Mississippi with a couple of other clergy to help organize and register African American citizens to vote. It had been legal to vote since 1870, but there were all kinds of voter suppression from the White establishment that included threats, harassment, beatings, kidnappings murders and lynchings. Black people literally feared for their lives. They wanted to vote, but they wanted to live. Because of state sponsored terrorism, they were traumatized
Out in Gluckstadt Mississippi, they were using the local Black Baptist church as their headquarters for registering African American voters. Gluckstadt, by the way, translated from German means “lucky city.” The pastors went door to door, and they also stayed at the church where there had been a small but steady flow of citizens coming in to register. In the evening the steady flow of people surprisingly slowed, and things got quiet out in the country. There were about six of them there, waiting quietly in the church, when suddenly they heard about ten cars and trucks coming up the road. "Good finally more people to register," they thought.
A couple of the clergy went excitedly outside to meet the people but came back in looking very scared. Instead of eager folks arriving with black skin, an angry crowd had formed, dressed in white robes and white hoods, with torches and guns. They pushed a couple of the clergy around calling them "n-word loving, carpet baggers" and they made them get on the floor, face down, in the middle of sanctuary. They kicked the Black host pastor a couple of times and shot a few guns into the air. As they lit the church on fire and ignited their cross in the front yard, they told the clergy, “You boys come out of this here church, and we’ll shoot you.” And the white robes left.
The trembling ministers shared some prayers. They lay on the floor as long as they could. With flames climbing the wall and smoke filling their lungs, they agreed amongst them that if they were going to die, they would rather get shot at running out of the church than get burned up in it. Maybe they would make it to the woods and escape. The roof was beginning to fall in on them, so they broke for the back door and ran for the trees. By God's providence, the Ku Klux Klan was gone. The flames of the church behind them leapt up towards God in a protest to violence, but the roof caved in—with a crash of fiery hate. How long, Oh Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1. The violence against the Black body and now voter suppression continues into its fifth century. Christian White Americans who tune in to worship have been tempted to think days like this and stories like this were over. They're not.
I have African American colleagues who are saying we are facing a twin pandemic in the United States right now: the plague of COVID-19 and the plague of institutional and cultural racism, and that is why our Gospel passage from Matthew read this morning is so pertinent. It is not a particularly uplifting text: Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell….Do not think I have come to bring peace, I have not come to bring peace, but a sword I have come to set family member against family member (paraphrase) …whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. This is part of what scholars call the missionary discourse. This tenth chapter of Matthew is the commissioning of the disciples to go into the world to heal and help and to share the Gospel of Jesus. This tenth chapter of Matthew seems alien and a world away with its talk of witness, sacrifice, persecution, poverty and martyrdom and yet maybe it fits our time closer than we think.
In the late first century, when Matthew wrote his Gospel, the Christian church was young and developing and also facing two plagues. It was around this time that Christian Jews and more traditional Jews were separating. The Christian Jews followed Jesus and the Torah, the more orthodox Jews accepted Jesus as a teacher but not as the savior, and his words were not considered on a par with the Torah and the prophets. Relations between the two groups were at times very tense. Secondly, there was a rebellion in Israel against Rome in the late 60s and by the year 70 or so the Romans had killed tens of thousands of Jews, destroyed the Jewish temple and leveled Jerusalem to rubble. Israel was subdued and traumatized by violence. Everyone lost someone they knew to death or slavery. With the temple no longer a center for Jews or Christian Jews, local congregational worship and fellowship became central to both faiths, and they grew apart: son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Hence Matthew weaves the challenging experience of the church he led into the telling of the commissioning of the disciples, which had occurred about 40 years earlier. It fits quite well because in both cases, at both times, the people of faith were struggling to maintain life and faith under the suffocating oppression of Rome. The Gospel of Christ Jesus is the word of God for all people who struggle to survive or maintain dignity in the face of the traumas, injustices and systems of the world. God saw a world in need and did not hold silence, but instead came in Jesus the Word to speak a word to the powers and principalities, which fail to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells richly in every human being. For God to have remained silent would have been for God to consent to evil.
Early in our existence as a church, we had an elder in our congregation who worked for Bell Atlantic, one of the predecessors of Verizon. His hope, and our hope as a congregation, was that we would be innovative, flexible, nimble, forward thinking and prophetic. One night at a board meeting which we call the Session, one elder after presenting a plan asked, "Is that all right? Is it O.K. with you all if we do it this way?” No one said a word. The elder wasn't sure how to interpret the silence, until Jim said that at his workplace, Bell Atlantic, they have a policy. Silence is consent. Silence is acceptance. If you don't speak up, or you don't speak out, against a decision or an act then you are for it. Obviously you are for it, you didn't object. What do we pay you for? Jim was saying, “Hey, if you are an elder at Ark and Dove Church, you will be held accountable for your silence.”
Maybe those thoughts from Bell Atlantic were inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Any who have hearts to feel, are well aware that racism, sexism, hate of LGBTQ people and other ills still plague our nation. A disciple of Christ is someone who breaks the silence and speaks a word of love into the chaos. We teach the Six Marks of Discipleship in this church. We call all disciples to: 1. daily prayer, 2. daily scripture reading, 3. regular worship, 4. ongoing Christian education, 5. generous stewardship, and 6. acts of mission mercy and justice. To remain silent in the face of an imperfect world is not mission, not mercy and not justice. We don’t have to walk in a protest to protest injustice; we just need to take a stand.
I officiated a wedding of a member of Ark and Dove some years ago. A White woman married a Black man, and the following Easter, Aunt “Tilley” made it clear that the new husband, the new son-in-law, the new family member, was not welcome on the Eastern Shore at the family gathering because he was Black. It hurt. It was hard. Bu our church family politely told Aunt Tilley that if our son-in-law is not welcome, we will not be coming to the annual family-wide Easter gathering. They took a stand; they did not stay silent, and the stand divided the extended family, but the family in our church maintained their position for a good seven or so years, until finally Aunt Tilley not only caved but acknowledged her error.
The story I told you about Pastor Terry Schoener… I asked him to come share the story with the youth group at Woods Memorial Church, where I was the Associate Pastor, and he was Pastor, sometime in the late 1980s. The following week Terry said to me, “You know Tim… you are the first colleague and first member of any of my churches that ever asked me to tell that story of the KKK, Voter Suppression Jim Crow Terrorism and a church burned to the ground.” I was shocked. In twenty-five years no one ever asked to hear the story about the fight against racism. If the story sounds vaguely familiar to some of you, it is because Terry preached that story here at Ark and Dove some years ago. Will White people go back to White silence after these protests die down? Will White Christians go mousy and meek or will they accept the commissioning of Christ to heal the world? Silence is consent, but to speak a word of prophetic love is to interrupt injustice.
The prophet Jeremiah spent time in silent prayer, which by the way is a heck of a lot different from staying silent in the face of injustice. Jeremiah heard God’s voice in that silence, and Jeremiah writes in Chapter 20:9: If I say I will not mention [God] or speak anymore in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in and I cannot. Saint Francis of Assisi prayed that where there is hatred let me so love. In the spirit of Jeremiah, St Francis, Jesus and Martin—does anybody in this church think that President Trump’s rally, in Tulsa Oklahoma yesterday, was anything more than a giant dog whistle to his KKK and White supremacist buddies? Was it an accident that he planned it on Juneteenth, June 19—the largest celebration of emancipation in our nation—and then said awe shucks, I’ll move it to the 20th because I’m such a good guy? Was it any accident that he planned his rally in the city of one of the worst massacres in American history? All of the Greenwood section of Tulsa came crumbling down. From May 31 to June 1, 1921, a White mob killed hundreds of Black people, burned down what was then the most affluent Black community in America and left thousands of people homeless. Silence is consent. This was not an instance of tone deafness. Every bit of Trump’s rally was a systematic calculated act of hate and racism.
On Tuesday Pastor Jon and I will be leading a Zoom class discussing the book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by the esteemed Professor James Cone. In chapter 2, Cone extols the amazing teachings and writings of Reinhold Neibuhr, who was one of the—if not the—preeminent theologian of the 20th century. But then Cone lamented Neibuhr’s passionless response to White supremacy. “Rather than challenging racial prejudice, he believed it must slowly erode…. Like most whites he did not realize the depths of black despair.” He was deeply disappointed in Neibuhr. He said that although Neibuhr was a prophet, he was not prophet on race. This is a key theme in Cone’s writings from 1968 to 2018. White progressives, White liberals, have too often stayed silent or supported the go slow method of progress. We see what happens, when people like members of Ark and Dove don’t speak out enough, the President feels emboldened to glorify the worst massacre of African Americans, in our countries history. As Paul writes in Romans 6: Should we continue in sin or order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin in our baptisms go on living in it? And back to Jesus in Matthew 10: Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worth of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Silence is consent. We cannot remain silent in the face of ongoing organized and institutionalized evil. Every day we are called to speak the words of the Gospel of love into the chaos of hate; every day.