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Peace is not to be found in silence

by
31 July 2020

Before protesting, do your homework, says Marilyn McEntyre

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Martin Luther King Jr delivering speech at Girard College, Philadelphia, in August 1965

Martin Luther King Jr delivering speech at Girard College, Philadelphia, in August 1965

CHRIS HEDGES, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and witness to more sorrows than most of us will see in a lifetime, has reported from war zones all over the world and placed himself many times in harm’s way.

The justifiable outrage that fuels much of his writing comes from a calling that has cost him dearly in personal anguish. He has earned the right to outrage — or some might say righteous anger — by risking his own life for the sake of reporting stories of suffering and reflecting on its causes, speaking forcefully against the principalities and powers that perpetuate harm. He begins a 2018 essay on the American media in this way:

“The press . . . chatters endlessly like 18th-century courtiers at the court of Versailles about the foibles of the monarch while the peasants lack bread. . . It refuses to critique or investigate the abuses by corporate power, which has destroyed our democracy and economy and orchestrated the largest transfer of wealth upward in American history. The corporate press is a decayed relic that, in exchange for money and access, committed cultural suicide.”

It might seem to some that these forthright accusations come at the cost of civility. Reading Hedges and others who write and speak on matters of public urgency that need more of a hearing than they’re getting makes me wonder if there aren’t times to re-examine and perhaps redefine civility. If the facts have been checked, and if they deserve urgent attention, an outcry may be called for.

Hedges writes about the world he inhabits with the weight of experience few of us would envy, and an unflinching view of institutions won at great cost. If we haven’t done the homework, we have little right to accuse and call to account. If we have, we may find ourselves called to do exactly that.

 

ALAMYGhandi during a protest c.1935IT IS a call that demands careful discernment; it is perilously easy to persuade ourselves that our own anger is righteous. Hedges’s reference to the “corporate press” as a “decayed relic” that “chatters” and “drones” is not an invitation to academic reflection about the nature of news. Rather, it is a call to intelligent action; it is a call to dissent and disobedience as a way of protecting an institution we all depend on for accurate information upon which we can stake our health and safety, our investments and votes and daily decisions.

Some public crises in our time, he believes, have reached a threat level beyond the possibility of meaningful compromise. He has the facts to focus his anger. He invites us, as Paul puts it, to be angry with a kind of anger that is not sin, but energized compassion — compassion on fire.

Hedges has counterparts in every arena of public life: Cornel West takes on white supremacy with similar force when he speaks of the “degradation of black bodies in order to control them”, and of institutionalized ways to terrorize people that begin simply by convincing them that they are stupid, ugly, and uncivilized.

Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, writes in a similar vein: “We use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.

“Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

It is still neither easy nor entirely safe for a person of color in this country to speak truth to, or about, those who wield power and often abuse it. Many who do are caught in a double bind: if they do not speak, they betray suffering people; if they do, they may forfeit hard-won access to those in a position to bring about change.

 

PUBLIC outrage is costly. You lose some of your audience: you offend some; you scare some away; you’re labeled, often inaccurately, and pigeonholed; you find yourself with strange bedfellows whose positions or purposes may be only tangentially related to your own. And yet we need the energy of outrage on occasion, and of those who are willing to articulate it — not the spluttering of well-paid pundits, but the focused force of clear, accurate naming of what is happening.

We see this kind of articulation in the prophet Jeremiah, who, delivering God’s warnings to Israel, cries, “I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in” (Jeremiah 6.11). The verb is significant: we speak of “holding our peace”, meaning refraining from speaking out unless and until the time is right. But what we hold when we do that — what we hold in, in order to hold peace — may become too weighty or too pressing to contain.

When children are being slaughtered or wrenched away from their families, when girls are being sold into sex slavery, when the wealthy are being enriched by exploitation of the laboring poor, when noncombatants are wantonly killed, when people are mocked or marginalized or shamed or harmed — we need to be sure we don’t mistake timidity for civility.

Civility is a public virtue. Its root, civitas — city — reminds us that we exercise that virtue for the common good. When the common good is served by holding our peace while someone with whom we disagree has a chance to be heard, the civil hold their peace. When the common good is served by speaking out with vigor, candor, directness, and urgency, the civil speak out. They speak for. And they know whereof they speak.

Civility and outrage are no strangers to each other. Consider, for example, the long list of serious grievances leveled at the king of England in the Declaration of Independence. The colonists were fed up with a system of taxation without representation, of obstructions of justice, delays and deferrals, invasive and unequal treatment of English citizens in America, and a host of other inequities.

The document begins courteously, pointing out that it sometimes “becomes necessary” for one people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”, invoking the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” as the authorizing power that underwrites their complaints.

The long list of outrages following that famously measured prologue is no rant: it is a list of 27 specific facts “summoned to a candid world” to prove their case against the king.

As the facts accumulate, the injustice of British policies becomes more starkly apparent. The writers appeal to common sense in a common cause: “repeated injuries and usurpations” need to be named, challenged, and resisted. Those challenges need to be made, often, on behalf of those who have no access to the public forum.

The men who met in Philadelphia in 1776 were landowners — not all wealthy, but all men of privilege — who had an eye, no doubt, on their own long-term interests, though they were risking their lives to put their names on that document. But they also levied their complaints on behalf of small farmers and indentured servants and children born to immigrants and those fleeing persecution.

Although they were imperfect and prejudiced, their outrage rested on concern for the public and for posterity. And that seems one of several important litmus tests for legitimate outrage: that one’s concern must extend beyond personal affront. As we determine whether to take our anger on the road, it’s good to ask ourselves a few test questions:
 

  1. What am I hoping to protect?

  2. What principle is at stake?

  3. Am I the most appropriate person to step into this ring?

  4. What am I risking?

  5. What makes it worth the risk?

  6. Is this the moment?

  7. What would be the consequences of holding my peace?
     

Sometimes, as many a courageous leader has pointed out, silence is cowardly complicity or worse. Gandhi, for instance, put it fairly simply: “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” And Martin Luther King’s eloquent echo reinforces that indictment: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Both men spent long periods of their public lives in silence, waiting for the moment to speak. Both spoke when they determined that those moments had come. Both died for it. The cost of articulating our outrage may be high. It may be required of us.

 

This is an edited extract from Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict by Marilyn McEntyre, published by Eerdmans at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £17.99). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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