Trump’s most recent border policies along with subsequent ICE initiatives gathered heated debates on immigration from both sides of the aisle. Christians (myself included) too engaged in the back and forth online. However, it was not the argumentation that caught my attention on this occasion, but rather the comments in the aftermath. More than a half-dozen Christian friends piously noted their resolve to keep “silent” and “hold their tongues” in the face of much dissonance. These friends dusted off their Old Testaments and quoted heavily from Proverbs (e.g. Prov 10:19; 13:3; 15:1-2; 18:21; 21:23; 25:11), affirming their position of silence and passing it off as “wisdom.” They argued that silence becomes a conduit for peace… “If I don’t speak, I can’t offend.” However, in many cases, silence is not wisdom, but complicity with evil. Had German Christians become vocal—and even offending the sensibilities of those sitting across them in the pews—when Jews were being marched down their streets (the extreme case) or undercut with concealed slights from the pulpits and universities of Germany (the seemingly banal cases) then the outcome of Jewish history during WWII may have ended differently. Likewise, in our own time, we ought not consider ourselves immune to such depravity as if the possibilities of another great injustice do not lie behind the slightest hints of racist and xenophobic remarks. Therefore, we must speak loudly and decisively against words which provide any context for evil to peer its dark face in the daylight and the Proverbs provide us the biblical precedent to speak rather than be silent.
Misunderstanding The Proverbs
The Proverbs make much of speech: words have the ability to heal (cf. 12:18, 25; 16:24) or harm (cf. 16:27; 17:4) and separate the wise from the foolish (cf. 10:31; 15:2, 7). For the sages, words, and the power they carried, were to be fostered well. In numerous instances, we find the Proverbs remark on the foolish person’s failure to control their tongue, thus bringing great personal (and physical) pain / death (18:2, 6, 7). The sage’s response to excessive speech (along with the threat it carried) is restraint in the use of words (i.e. silence). This is, contextually, a tool to save one’s very life (cf. 13:3; 21:23). In this way, the Proverbs see excessiveness of words as dangerous and silence can avert this recklessness. For the sages, silence is a representation of one’s intellect and knowledge to avoid such pain, though it can also characterize a person with nothing of great import to contribute. The sages often preferred open rebuke to silence (27:5) or a “flattering tongue” (28:23). In this way, the Proverbs encourage the correct usage of words. Silence need not be considered when wisdom is being spoken. Therefore, the Proverbs do not support silence, except in those instances where wisdom has failed us. It is with “wise” words that we find a strong tradition of prophets speaking publicly against injustice in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, etc.). In the New Testament as well, we find Jesus using wisdom to openly rebuke the religious elite of his day (Matt 23). Silence, in many cases, has the potential to be the language of evil and not wisdom; it can forfeit justice for faux righteousness and peace for destruction. It lures us with the scents of sensibility while it’s cloaked in fear, fear of speaking against a “brother” or “sister”. We protect the “feelings” of our peers’ while the objects of our silence are battered. True wisdom operates in tandem with justice and calls evil to account with no aims at silencing it.
When Private Turns Public
After recently confronting a friend concerning what I perceived as a racist and damaging representation of immigrants on Facebook, I received numerous messages from Christian friends asking why I called this person out publicly. Some even suggested that I should have followed Matthew 18:15-17 and confronted him one to one. However, the confrontation model suggested in Matthew is between two separate parties in a private setting: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (my emphasis). The private dispute only becomes public after one party is unwilling to reconcile (“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”). Unfortunately, Facebook is never a private affair. As responsible users, it is our job to understand that we enter into a contract with the social world acknowledging the public nature of everything we post. Subsequently, as with all public information, our posts are liable to public scrutiny. This very writing, once shared, is liable to scrutiny (and it is highly encouraged!). Also, as a public declaration with multiple people viewing a given post, moving the conversation to a one on one private forum would (1) fail to call the individual to account for their post and could (2) give the impression to others that such postings are good and acceptable or representative of Christ. In understanding public rebuke, Paul’s face to face encounter with Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 (See below) might be helpful for us:
“11 But when Cephas (i.e. Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
In Paul’s eyes, Peter’s wrongdoing is a public declaration and requires a public rebuke. Peter acted publicly when he “drew back and kept himself separate,” so not to be associated with the Gentiles who Paul’s ministry had reached. Paul’s rebuke to Peter is public as he spoke to Peter “before them all.” In his other letters, Paul will use the anarthrous (i.e. lacking an article) “all” to indicate the presence of the entire church (cf. 1 Cor 14:23; 1 Tim 5:20). Paul’s audience, then, is not just the immediate Jewish believers, but rather the entire church at Antioch…this is about as “public” as you can get. For Paul, silence would have jeopardized the “truth of the gospel,” something Paul was unwilling to allow even if it meant embarrassing Peter.
In many cases, silence is not wisdom, but rather the key ingredient that allows evil to flourish and spread, and it is our duty to speak with the same prophetic voices we find in our scriptures; those voices that challenge injustice of all forms.