“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” This is a haunting quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that tears at our very nature. How often have I stood silent while a friend was being bullied or made the scapegoat? How often have I remained aloof as a group or an individual was being slandered? How often have I allowed inflammatory remarks to go by because I did not want to cause a scene or have someone think badly of me? Dr. King nailed an all too familiar human failing.
How often have I allowed my passion to be heard, drown out the voices of those with weaker voices or with no voice at all? My friend Bennett Murray once said to me, “Those of us who speak so easily intimidate those who do not.” Our ability to speak is a gift. With it we can contribute to the well being of others or we can use it to diminish others.
In public speaking a properly placed pause often is the most powerful statement. The same thing is true in conversation. Sometimes a well placed pause screams loudest. The silence of our friends can cause us to feel betrayed or abandoned. Great injustices are often permitted when good people remain silent. Our folk language puts it best, silence gives consent.
I have more than a little remorse for words that I have spoken in anger, frustration, jealously or fear, but I have more remorse for the words that I have not spoken. We often sooth ourselves by saying, he knows how I feel or she knows how much I care. How are they to know unless we tell them? Most of us are not very skilled at mind reading.
Last Sunday I sat silently as gays were maligned. I told myself that if I spoke up it would only make the situation worse. Twice this past week well educated friends called the president of these United States either a Muslin or a Muslin sympathizer. On one of those times I spoke up and said that there might be many things to criticize the president about, but to question his religion was out of bounds; however on the second occurrence I remained silent. In both cases of my silence, I was put on trial by the words of Dr. King. I tried to convince myself that I had done the right thing and that nothing I said would change any minds and might possibly cost me some friendships. Deep down I know that I failed my responsibility.
Denise George’s has written a disturbing book, While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement (Tyndale House, 2011). Her book describes in horrifying detail the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. It recalls a time of great silence by white churches some black churches and the Christian community at large. Many prestigious church leaders encouraged Dr. King to soft peddle his rhetoric and call off or delay the demonstrations. Dr. King courageously decided not to heed their advice.
Speaking up is often very costly, but not speaking up may be even more costly. I recently sat quietly while Christian leaders involved in a laudable mission project talked about the very people they were helping in the most derogatory terms. They are doing the right things, but their attitude contradicts their actions. Why did I remain silent?
Too often I am content to stay on the sidelines and not become involved in the great and small issues of the day. Where is the boldness I demand from others?