Let’s start with this: silence and silencing are strategies of the powerful. Those with power use opportunities to distance and silence to buffer their preferred status quo, and they rely on the silence of others (typically, the majority) to retain their power and continue their abuse.
Even more damningly, once they have used their authority to silence others, they use the silence of others to justify themselves. No one’s complaining, so there must not be anything wrong.
The witness we have to Jesus Christ in Scripture indicates he was hyper-aware of this dynamic. So he modeled for his disciples the types of speech, and forms of practice, appropriate to break through the silencing strategies of the powerful.
First of all, he called people names. I won’t offer an exhaustive list here, but we can take the 23rd chapter of Matthew as one example. In just that chapter, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees names over a dozen times.
The names are hypocrites, blind guides, fools and blind, white-washed sepulchres, serpents, and offspring of vipers.
However, we notice something important in Jesus’ practice of name-calling. He always directs this kind of speech “up.” The scribes and Pharisees would be like our modern day mid-level politicians or corporate executives.
He does not use this kind of language when speaking of or to the vulnerable or poor. When he encounters foreigners, the sick, women, children, he has a completely different manner of speech.
Jesus models not only this direct and forceful kind of speech, he also shows his anger. Multiple times. I find this reassuring as a Christian pastor, because if Jesus is our example of the full range of what it means to be truly human, then we have cause to believe that anger and the expression of it are themselves part of being human, especially righteous anger in the face of injustice.
Jesus is not the only name-caller or angry presence in Scripture, however. John in his letters calls certain people the anti-christ.
And Paul, well Paul goes so far in his letter to the Galatians of saying he hopes some of his opponents will accidentally castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12). As a pastor, I’ve done a good bit of swearing in my day, but even I haven’t yet stated something quite as starkly as that!
Okay, so you might ask: what good does such harsh speech and anger do?
I’m glad you asked.
First of all, public expression of anger at injustice and abuse of power helps those being abused truly feel they have allies, that they are not alone. Ask someone, for example a trans person in Arkansas right now, what it feels like to be abused by their own elected officials. Guaranteed, they’re going to get more comfort from knowing Christians are speaking up harshly against those awful and hateful Republicans, and guaranteed the silence of the white majority truly pains them.
Second, as I mentioned above, Christianity is about being fully human. If we imply that Jesus was exclusively peaceful, kind, and moderate, then we are portraying Jesus as not fully human, and we definitely are not portraying him in the way he is encountered in Scripture.
Third, the general drift of Scripture indicates it is far more important to be truthful than to be moderate, to speak out rather than keep a fake peace.
The examples of this are all over. You have Jeremiah 6:14: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.”
You have Matthew 5:37: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
You have even God commanding John to write to a city church: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
You have the great statement of the Reformation, in the Heidelberg disputation: “A theologian of the cross looks at all things through suffering and the cross. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
Christian tradition is far more interested in declaring how the world actually is, using the appropriate language, than it is in getting along or being gentle or remaining silent.
As Jürgen Moltmann points out: “A conflict can contain more truth than a tolerant dialogue.”
Perhaps this is one of the most important points for Christian community. Christians are called more frequently than they are sometimes willing to step out of their comfortable silence in order to suffer with those on whose behalf they speak.
Then, when there is conflict and suffering, the call is to remain, because more truth can come out in that conflict than can ever emerge when the parties walk away and find some other space where they can either return to silence or enter into supposedly tolerant dialogue.
Tolerant dialogue isn’t actually a sign of more peace. It’s just silence in the face of injustice and the comfort of sitting on the side and out of the fray while others take risks and are abused.
Finally, real dispute, anger and frustration communicated between people, after which there is a process for reconciliation, growth, rapprochement, is really a sign of healthier community and maturity.
Do you really want to belong to a community where everyone avoids conflict, walks away or leaves when there’s an argument, and no one challenges each other and no one is open to growth?
Which is more Christian? To declare peace, peace when there is no peace?
Or to give the appropriate name to white male politicians passing multiple hateful bills about trans people while failing again and again to establish basic habitability protections for renters?