How To Know When to Speak (and When to Be Silent)

How To Know When to Speak (and When to Be Silent) October 2, 2018

Recently I posted this on Facebook:

In response, a reader made this comment:

Carl, it took time, but about 10 years ago I finally fell In love with silence and the heart of God I find there. This past week though, as so many people on the national stage are trying to speak truth and being told to stay silent or being told their voices don’t matter, I find the idea and the word silence – even in a contemplative sense – to be hurtful. Can you please write something about the connection between silence and speaking out? My soul knows he connection is there, but I can’t put it together well right now. What are your thoughts?

This reminds me of the powerful exhortation from the Grey Panthers activist, Maggie Kuhn:

Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.

The call to contemplative silence and the call to speaking the truth are not contradictory calls. Rather, they are like breathing in and breathing out. Each needs the other.

Interrupting Toxic Silence

Interrupting Silence

On the Encountering Silence podcast we have come to recognize that not all silence is the same. When the prophet Habakkuk proclaims “God is in God’s holy temple, let all the earth keep silent!” he is not trying to erase the voice of truth. On the contrary — there is a fairly robust Biblical tradition of what Walter Brueggemann calls “Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out.”

Brueggemann writes,

Silence is a complex matter. It can refer to awe before unutterable holiness, but it can also refer to coercion where some voices are silenced in the interest of control by the dominant voices.

On the podcast, we have begun to refer to this silence of coercion — this silencing by those in power — as toxic silence. The silence which Brueggemann describes as “awe before unutterable holiness” is what we call contemplative silence.

Just as we are called into contemplative silence (“Be still and know that I am God,” “For God alone my soul in silence waits”), we are simultaneously called out of toxic silence: when something needs to be said, particularly if it makes our voice shake, then God commands us to speak.

I’m not wild about the “command” language because the last thing that someone who is oppressed needs is one more burden to bear. This is a liberating mandate — God not only “commands” us to speak, but God promises to be with us as we speak out for justice, and against oppression.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

The Cold War Letters

If we do not breathe out, our lungs are incapable of taking new oxygen in. If we do not breathe in, well, we asphyxiate. We need both.

I believe that even someone under the most stringent rule of silence must speak out against injustice and oppression. This is not optional. The “patron saint” of this, of course, is Thomas Merton — who, the deeper he entered into the silent life not only of his vocation as a Trappist monk but also his exploration of hesychasm and zen, the more vocally he spoke out, writing prophetic books like The Cold War Letters and Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

Thea Bowman, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr., Simone Weil, Kenneth Leech, James Martin, Mary Margaret Funk — just a few other names of contemplatives from the past century who have written or spoken fearlessly for social justice or against oppression, arising out of their experience as contemplatives.

I would be so bold as to say that if someone wants to be truly effective and Christ-like in the struggle against the “principalities and powers” of our so-called fallen world order, then it behooves him or her to find their voice through a disciplined and sustained immersion into silence.

In the most recent episode of our podcast, Parker Palmer tells a moving story of how Quakers, when faced with a controversial or divisive issue, begin their business meetings with lengthy periods of communal silence. He points out that the Religious Society of Friends was the first Christian community in North America to proclaim that slavery is incompatible with the Christian faith — a conviction that arose out of their dual commitment to silence and to speaking the truth.

How To Know When to Speak (and When to Be Silent)

So if both silence and speaking out are essential elements of a fully-rounded life of Christian discipleship, how do we know when to speak, and when to keep silent?

Most of us probably naturally prefer one or the other. I will admit, I love to write but I’m not very good at writing “when my voice shakes.” The hotter the topic is, the more I tend to retreat into silence. So I have to be on guard that I do not use silence as an escape, a way of avoiding the command to speak out.

So my first thought is, know yourself. Whichever one you feel more comfortable with (silence, or speaking out), chances are you need to be intentional about cultivating the other one in your life.

We know that Jesus retreated often into the desert or other desolate places to pray. I don’t think it’s asking too much to say that everyone, even the busiest activist, needs 20 – 40 minutes of silence every day.

There’s an old saying among contemplatives: “Sit for 30 minutes a day. If you’re too busy for that, sit for 20 minutes. If you’re too busy for that, you need to sit for an hour!”

So that’s how I know when to be silent. I make a commitment to it, and by God’s grace I stick to it. Sometimes, of course, emergencies happen or someone needs us immediately. But my agreement with myself in those circumstances is to return to the silence as soon as possible — don’t wait for another day to go by!

Enough for when to be silent. But when to speak?

I think if we are intentional and committed to a daily practice of silence, and we are paying attention to the “signs of the times” — what’s going on in our world — then most of us will be able to intuitively grasp when it is time to speak.

We speak whenever there is something that needs to be said. We speak whenever we encounter toxic silence: the kind of silence that God wants us to interrupt.

Granted, not everyone is a writer, or a blogger, or a social media activist with 100,000 followers. The command to speak out is scalable. Sometimes we only have to speak out to our family and friends and loved ones.

But often, that’s the hardest audience of all.

We might need the help of a spiritual companion, prayer parter, or accountability group to assist us in discerning when — and how — we are called to speak out. It’s different for everyone. Not everyone is called to be a Trappist monk, or to write dozens of book like Thomas Merton did.

Our job is to discern our call. And then to follow that. But whatever the unique circumstances of our vocation as followers of Christ might be, I am sure that it involves both the “breathing in” of contemplative silence and the “breathing out” of interrupting toxic silence and speaking out when and where we are called to do so.


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