I wish I had taken a vow of silence. I wish I had been writing and speaking frequently elsewhere. I wish I had read dozens of books, essays, and posts by others. But I haven’t. No. Far from any overtly noble rationale, I simply went quiet. For the past 11 months, I’ve hardly done any writing, I’ve only read two books, and I’ve been abnormally disengaged from the urgent crises and conversations of the past year. And I don’t have a good justification for doing so.
A simple explanation, I suppose, is that I went through a stretch of pretty intense writer’s block. I set aside time to write. I went to libraries, coffee shops, outcroppings on the Bruce Trail, and even spent part of a day just staring at the Niagara Falls. But changing the scenery around me proved to be of little value when I was unwilling to attend to my interior landscape. And writing anything beyond cliche-filled drivel or tabloid rants is next to impossible without that ongoing introspective work.
More recently – and more substantively – however, I’ve started to recognize three different themes that have impacted my lack of writing this past year.
Privilege to Disengage
Perhaps the thing I’ve come to see the most over the past 11 months or so is that I have the privilege to disengage. I’ve recognized again and in a new way that my location (social, economic, racial, religious, gender, educational, etc) allows me the freedom to walk away from conversations that impact the well-being and daily survival of others.
I do not face racial profiling or discrimination when shopping. I am not distrusted in coffee shops, public parks, or university campuses because of the color of my skin. I am not viewed as a threat when talking on a phone in my backyard. Though I am an immigrant, I don’t worry about immigration raids. I don’t have to wonder if people will understand my language or I am not required to learn someone else’s language. And I certainly don’t need to worry about interactions with police officers or about whether judges and sentencing guidelines would be fair for me. And because these worries and experiences are absent from my daily routines, I have the privilege to personally disengage from the urgency, trauma, and other forms of suffering being experienced by so many others in North America and elsewhere.
Recognizing that not only do I have this privilege but that I also like being able to disengage has been deeply disturbing. I’ve come to realize that it’s been easier and more comfortable for me to embrace this part of my white/male/educated/etc. privileges here in Canada than it ever was for me when I was living in the States.
Part of my silence this past year has been an odd mixture of enjoying my privilege not to engage and of becoming uncomfortable in my growing realization of how sinful it was for me to disengage – to know what others are experiencing and then do or say nothing in response. Jesus’ parable about the sheep and goats – and especially the “When did we see you…and not help you?” line – has left me speechless. I’ve had to face the reality that the social capital and trust I enjoy has been afforded to me at the expense of others. My ability to disengage from others and, particularly from their suffering, perpetuates the trauma they experience.
Tyranny to Comment
Another aspect of my silence has come from a conviction that the complexity of our times needs greater thoughtfulness than what most social media venues tend to facilitate. In this context, a new litmus test has emerged: If you’re not tweeting your opposition or frustration to an unjust situation, you are part of the problem. That litmus test has extended into ultimatums, including “if your preacher doesn’t talk about _______ this Sunday, it’s time to find a new church.”
The tyranny of commenting on every unjust situation and incident eroded my desire to comment on anything at all. How could I possibly understand enough about situations halfway across the continent to express anything beyond a surface moral outrage? What could I substantively say or do about injustices that were repeatedly co-opted (often in a matter of minutes) in order to reinforce one side or another of the partisan dynamics in the States or here in Canada?
Faithful preaching and faithful living have little to do with prolific tweeting or with profile frames declaring my support for one cause or another. Perhaps better stated: the content of my social media feed is an incredibly anemic way to measure whether I am committed to resisting injustice and reforming my participation in systemic privileges afforded to white men like me.
When I audited my time and my finances earlier this year, I came to the troubling realization that I was doing little of substance to live into the interethnic, intercultural vision of Jesus Christ’s gospel. “Thoughts and prayers” are simply not enough. As James writes:
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)
Too often the impulse to comment on every crisis, nurtured and mediated through our omnipresent social media networks, interferes with and distorts long term, tangible, and transformative discipleship in a local community. While people have expressed their surprise that I have not posted or written about certain topics in the past year, only one person has asked me how my personal relationships and patterns are changing, and how I am influencing the way these privileges play out in my local church. Silence is better than hypocrisy. And somewhere along the way, I realized that my calendar needs more attention than simply time to update my blog, twitter feed, and other writing outlets.
Confronting My Messy Silence
Perhaps the most convicting realization about my silence came through a conversation with my friend, Kate, during the Festival of Faith and Writing (absolutely brilliant festival, btw). As we talked about the toll that justice advocacy takes on so many people, especially those who are suffering injustice, I had to face again the reality of my messy silence. What struck me hard at that festival – not only through Kate, but also through many of the speakers and panelists – is that my silence in the face of others’ suffering (particularly as a well educated white man with ridiculous amounts of unmerited privilege) is a form of violence.
So how do I keep confronting my silence?
Obviously, as this post indicates, I’m writing again, both personally and publicly. I recently posted another article (at The Banner) that reflects some more of my internal work on confronting my “sins of stagnation.” Among the many things I’ve learned this past year is that meaningful public writing emerges from the hard, diligent interior work that most will never see.
To facilitate that internal work, I’m reading again, too. I’m keenly aware of the temptation for man-splaining and white-splaining and all sorts of other ways in which I can control and sit in judgment (whether with approval or condemnation) of other people’s stories. So rather than write reviews of what I am reading, as if I am the expert, my hope is to simply share a few thoughts on what I am learning through my engagement with these other writers and authors.
I have a few other steps I’m taking as well. They are much more tangible and personal steps. In time, I imagine some of how I am being shaped through those practices will make their way into my writings, sermons, and other speaking engagements. But for now, those steps need time out of the spotlight to do their work in transforming me.
Thanks for reading this far. I look forward to connecting again soon.