Sunday, August 3, 2014

Appalling Silence

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9 
This week I received an email inviting me to “Be a Climate Extrovert.”

I confess, I regularly delete scores of emails urging protection of polar bears or protest of various kinds. But I did pause to read the email.

The Moms Clean Air Force will be joining the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21. I’m invited to add my voice to the voices of others demanding action from global leaders gathering at the UN Climate Summit.

I’m intrigued by the phrasing: “climate extrovert.”

I’m one of those people near the middle of the Myers Briggs extrovert / introvert continuum. I’m happy with quiet. Easily exhausted by crowds. But I can switch over when I need to, turn on the energy, dial up the volume.

How do I decide when it’s time to speak up?

What inner calculus do I use to weigh costs and opportunities, incentives for speaking, reasons to remain silent?

Do I just default to “don’t bother”?

Take the easy way out?

I wonder.

Looking at the Moms Clean Air Task Force email, I find myself thinking of the little boy I know who spent too many days this summer in our regional children’s hospital, hooked on a respirator, struggling to breath.

He lives in a city with remarkably dirty air, in a zone near remarkably dirty refineries.

This summer my friend Susan Carty, president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, has been tirelessly crisscrossing the state, offering testimony at EPA hearings about carbon emissions and clean air regulation. Thursday she was in Pittsburg, asking once again about plans to monitor methane release from the fracking industry, reminding the EPA, as she has before, that “
Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of having five municipal regions on the list of twenty-five of the most polluted cities.”

I’m challenged by Susan’s willingness to speak out on issues she finds compelling, and by others who put concern for the common good ahead of their own convenience or comfort.

CBS headline, April 2013, photo JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
I’m impressed by those who take time to understand the implications of policy decisions, and articulate reasons for change in ways that make a difference.

And saddened, and convicted, when I look back across time and think of the appalling silence of the church in the face of great evil and injustice.

That phrase, “appalling silence,” comes from Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail, written in August 1963 where he spent a month after being arrested for participation in a non-violent protest waited. The letter was addressed to the white clergy of Alabama who had written an open letter condemning the protest: 
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. 
After an exploration of the causes for protest, King wrote:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
. . . We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
. . . Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.
King’s letter is worth re-reading for its clarity and stern conviction.

I was seven when it was written.

Eight during the Harlem race riots of 1964.

Twelve when King was shot in Memphis.

In my early teens when smoke from fires in the Bronx was so thick I could see it from my bedroom window.

The church I attended during those years was nestled along the northern border of the Bronx, in a racially divided community disrupted by urban renewal.

I don’t remember any mention, in my church, of King, civil rights, economic inequity, or the unrest and despair sweeping through neighborhoods just blocks from where we sat.

Appalling silence.

I remember a German friend, driving us through the streets of Colmar, France, speaking softly about the weight of guilt that darkens the conscience of older German Christians, who said and did nothing while evil grew around them. "It’s hard to speak of it even now."

Appalling silence.

I wonder – will our children look back and wonder why we were silent about the issues of our day?

Minister and blogger Kathy Escovar, posting on this topic last year, wrote:  

kathy escobar. april 25.2013
my dream is that as the body of Christ, we’d be deeply dedicated to making advocates not buildings. that we’d be known in our communities for actively advocating for systemic change to heal the core roots of injustice. and most of all, that we’d use our power and privilege on behalf of the vulnerable, not to replace their voices but to pave the way for theirs to be heard.  to say what they cannot say (yet).

What does it take to be an advocate for systemic change?

To use our power and privilege on behalf of the vulnerable?

What does it take to be an extrovert for justice?

Some practical ideas:

1. Spend time in prayer and reflection about people we know impacted by injustice, and about ways we interact, daily, with systems of injustice, and begin to acknowledge, to ourselves and others, the ways we’ve benefitted from unjust systems, or practices of privilege.

2. Look for ways to speak up for individuals without confidence or position to speak for themselves, while also spending time listening, encouraging, and role-playing to help prepare them to speak for themselves.

3. Politely question voices that repeat unjust accusations, that advocate unjust positions, that dismiss or demean others. Practice staying calm, and clear, in the face of hostile response.

4. Join an organization that advocates for justice, and take time to participate in their offerings of letters, public comment, or other avenues of advocacy. Invite others to join you. 

5. Consider becoming knowledgeable in one area of systemic injustice and look for ways to share and advocate on what you know.

This is the fourth in a series exploring words that help or hinder our ability to serve our communities in love while renewing a web of compassionate engagement. Earlier posts:  
Wisdom, July 6, 2014
Liberty and Constraint, July 13, 2014
Justice for All, July 20, 2014  
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.