I’ve never been a proponent of silence. In my classroom, I like loud, brash, full-contact learning. For me, silence is rarely golden. My students are aware of this fact too, as they are allowed to participate when appropriate. And when it is not appropriate, I will let them know, so that they can correct themselves. Being teenagers, this happens often, and I have no problem calling them out on it, and similarly, they have no problem correcting themselves. In my experience, I’ve found that it is the way in which they are sharing or the language used that is inappropriate, not necessarily the message. So, when a student of mine made a particularly ignorant statement, I wondered how I should handle it with respect to her and the other students. Unfortunately, I choose silence.
As she spoke out about our current political climate, her comments were tinged with obvious misinformation and a somewhat racist slant. When others tried to correct her and argue, she flat our refused to listen to them, as I silently observed. When the conversation finally died down, I moved on to the next part of the lesson, never commenting on her statements. However, that night I found myself troubled by the situation, not so much for her statements, but that I didn’t take a stance against them. So, I formulated a plan, and the next day I started the class by referring to the past conversation. I felt that the whole class needed to hear that I was opposed to her comments, feeling that they were uninformed. I made sure to refer to the statements and not the student, suggesting that they were not acceptable, and that those who stood idly by (myself included) should have said something. It was a tough decision to make, as I knew I would get blow-back from both the student and her parents, but I knew I was right to label the statements as such, because if I didn’t, it was the same as agreeing with them.
That I didn’t speak out against her words indicated that I allowed them, and silence makes us complicit with actions that surround us if we don’t speak out against them. For example, if we hear a racist joke, and we laugh along with the joke teller, it is assumed that we have the same values as the one who told the joke. If we don’t protest, we are lumped in with the offender. Our true character is seen not only in the actions we take but in the actions we allow, and by not speaking out against someone else’s wrong or insensitive actions, we are complicit and just as wrong as those committing the action.
From a historical standpoint, the Holocaust is filled with such examples of individuals who knew what was happening but did not speak out against it. If we see evil, it is our obligation to name it as such and work towards its elimination, yet many stood silently by as atrocities accumulated over the years. Tremendous harm can be done by not speaking out when initially necessary, as evil spreads quickly. Prolific writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech from 1986, felt that saying or doing something when faced with wrongdoing was our obligation:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
By not taking a stance, we give evildoers permission to continue, giving them strength through our lack of stance. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul took such a stance. In his ministry, he encountered two Christians spreading ignorant statements about the faith. Paul decided to label the behavior and call out those who were wrong for doing it: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth…Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (1Timothy 2.15-18). The teachings of these two were apparently such an infection, that Paul needed to identify them by name. Evil and ignorance are like a disease, and if we don’t stop them right away, they can spread quickly. If we take a stand, we can stop them from perpetuating, and like my uninformed student who refrained from ignorance for the remainder of the year, we can halt the spread of wrongdoing through our actions.
So, should we be calling out everything we see and self-righteously point out people’s ignorance? I’m not sure how popular we would become if we handled it in that fashion. Even the Bible suggests that when we rebuke, we do so gently, as our goal is to stop the behavior, not stomp the sinner. We need to pray for wisdom when it comes to how to take a stance and speak out. Through careful consideration and an ear aimed Heavenward, God will make known to us the correct way in which to do so. Whether a gentle, kind word be needed or a harsh, steadfast stance, through prayer and meditation, He will reveal the answer to us, but If you see something, you should say something. The only incorrect path is to do nothing at all and allow wrong and evil to persevere. Despite how hard it may be, or what costs it may incur, we need to speak out when there is cause to, as by doing nothing, we passively give a knowing nod of silent approval. Amen.