When we hear rally cries of “silence is violence,” it’s easy for people with well-meaning intent to want to jump to speak up. We empathize with those who suffer injustice; surely we should raise a hand and say we are on their side. Yet I’m concerned by the proliferation of social media posts and self-promoting emails telling me we think our presentation of ourselves equals who we are. Promoting your brand through words of justice, whether you are an influencer or corporation, changes nothing. So how do we navigate this tricky conversation that requires no longer remaining silent yet also not claiming sides? We abolish silence against injustice not through word but deed.
The core of our humanity? Storytelling
Watch or read many stories, and you become attuned to an essential rule for understanding character in narrative: what characters say about themselves is rarely trustworthy. Self-promotion equals self-protection. Lip service without action reveals an uncommitted heart. One of J.K. Rowling’s antagonists, Lucius Malfoy, ensnares himself in just this sort of contradiction when Lord Voldemort shows up and demands a branding check: “My Lord, I was constantly on the alert,” came Lucius Malfoy’s voice swiftly from beneath the hood. “Had there been any sign from you, any whisper of your whereabouts, I would have been at your side immediately, nothing could have prevented me—”“And yet you ran from my Mark, when a faithful Death Eater sent it into the sky last summer?” said Voldemort lazily, and Mr. Malfoy stopped talking abruptly. “Yes, I know all about that, Lucius…. You have disappointed me…. I expect more faithful service in the future."
Storytelling is core to being human. But we forget that the rules that apply to characters also apply to us. In story, authors reveal a character’s nature through a sliding scale of reliable and unreliable information. They recognize that the most unreliable source for truth is what characters say on behalf of or about themselves. Indeed, what we say in self-defense almost always has the opposite effect, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets (Matt 23:29–31). We say what we would like to be true about ourselves, but our words rarely tell the whole story.
Speak truth about yourself and others
It’s good, too, in this era of online slander and cancel culture, to realize that what others say or think about us lacks nearly as much credibility as what we say about ourselves. Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his home in Luke 7:36–39 calls the woman with the alabaster jar “a sinner” and the “sort of woman” everyone should revile, yet the story reveals that his assessment is wrong. Instead, Simon’s statement tells us far more about his own heart than the woman’s. What I say about another person reveals more truth about my nature than anything I say about myself or another person says about me.
But the divine author of Luke 7 also calls the woman “a sinner.” In stories, we believe the author’s words at face value. Was Simon, then, right after all? Yes, but not in the way Simon meant it. The storyteller still has one more card to play that trumps what he says outright about a character: what the character does. The author who calls the woman a sinner also shows her wetting Jesus’s feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with precious oil. The woman is a sinner — as are we all — but her repentant and humble heart is one we should emulate rather than revile.
New patterns of behavior
Following in Jesus’s footsteps means more than saying the right words or posting the right memes, emails, and profile pictures. It means regularly modeling unnatural, society-bucking behavior that moves us closer to the Father’s will. Many in our churches — pastors and congregations both — want to act but need new models for meaningful action, such as
- Elevating minority and oppressed voices, modeling how to center them in our majority venues rather than parade them as tokens;
- Creating new pathways for congregations to open doors of opportunity for others;
- And expanding our committees and networking relationships to include diverse voices, and by effect, expanding the networks of our congregations and communities.
Now more than ever, we need to spread the vision to “take the gospel in all its fullness to all dimensions of human reality” so that we can equip the church with more credible ways than social media to abolish our silence. As we pastor and serve and work, let’s not be platform heavy and action light. In this great story, we remember that, like Lucius, we have all, at times, answered the call of the villain. We are sinners whom the Author calls redeemed and without blemish. But at this breath-taking moment, when it comes to revealing our character, what we actually do matters most.