In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most people can recall a time when this statement was true for them. They are the kinds of moments that stand out in our imagination. It is not news, after all, when our enemies speak against us. That happens all the time. But when a friend remains silent, someone you thought was a true friend… that stings.
In 2014 Ed West wrote a short book called The Silence of Our Friends about the persecution and religious cleansing of ancient Christian sects, followers of John the Baptist, Marionites, and others in the Middle East.
In the book, West says:
“In this land, where early Christianity is preserved in amber, one could visit a fourth-century Orthodox convent of St Sergius and St Bacchus, and hear the Lord’s Prayer spoken in Jesus Christ’s own tongue…”
Then he said that at an event in London,
“…historian Tom Holland declared sadly that we are now seeing the extinction of Christianity and other minority faiths in the Middle East… Afterwards audience members asked questions and the saddest came from a young Egyptian-British man, who asked: “Where was world Christianity when this happened?’
Our own people — fellow Christians for whom we won’t lift a finger — are not the only ones being hunted to extinction. The Rohingya of Burma remain the most persecuted people in the world. In our own United States aboriginal people are treated more like a conquered enemy than fellow Americans. It is open season on black men. If you think I’m being overly political talk with Philando Castile’s mother and then decide.
Indeed, Christianity is ready to speak out about many issues, and the shinier objects in the public imagination get the most attention. We are so pleased when our leaders speak out about climate change and health care, as well they should. But, there are other issues for which it seems more prudent to remain silent. They are complicated, after all, and not quite so popular. A statement might not be career enhancing.
On those less popular issues we have a solid tradition of silence to fall back on. Christians love silence, after all. We have our stylites, revered hermits, and others who live in a mysterious silent world. Everybody’s favorite modern saint, Thomas Merton said, “It seems to me that what I am made for is not speculation but silence and emptiness…” And following in the tradition of silence has its place, to be sure. But, let me remind you of another modern Christian saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
You might wonder what this has to do with the readings for this week. Well, there’s a connection. The readings are mainly about Ishmael. The readings begin with “The child [Ishmael] grew…” and ends with him getting an Egyptian wife. But the rabbis add color to this scene in Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinic midrash on the Torah. Their gloss focuses more on Sarah and Hager.
You may recall that some conflict arose between Hagar and Sarah, Who is most to blame and what really went down in their tent has been blown away with the sands, but what we do know is that there was trouble. Legally, Sarah had the right to dismiss Hagar, to kick her out. She didn’t do it, though. What she did was take her case to Abraham. Abraham didn’t want to get involved, though. Both women were his wives and he had a son with each of them. It was just too complicated, so he remained silent. Eventually, Abraham did what Sarah wanted and sent Hagar and Ishmael away. They went into the desert, met some angels, had big adventures and their story turned out alright. It’s all good, as the kids would say.
What is interesting is what the rabbis tell us took place between Sarah and Abraham. Sarah’s complaint to Abraham was that even though he had prayed for other barren women, he had not prayed for her. She said, “When you prayed to The Holy One [for children] you prayed only on behalf of yourself. And Sarah went on, “Besides this, you deprive me of your words, since you hear how I am despised yet you keep silent.”
This was one of Abraham’s big failings. He remained silent.
Thinking about your own life, what big issues have you been silent about? Can you raise awareness, or raise money, or just make some noise on behalf of those who suffer under the empires of the world? And closer to home is there somebody who is outcast, someone whom you could lift up with just a word?
Who has been deprived of your words?
Between contemplation and action, silence and shouting, we each have to discern the way to proceed. This vignette into the life of Abraham and Sarah is instructive, though, because it tells us that when others are hurting we can not remain silent. One wonders, then, how there could be any silence left.
Linda McMillan is writing from the Pacific shores of Cannon Beach, Oregon.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The Silence of Our Friends is available as a Kindle Single. It is free. You can also download the audiobook version for $1.99 US. The material is dated, but I think it will still be surprising to those who don’t yet know. It’s a good place to start.
You can read more about the Rohingya here. This material is pretty dated, but it is still be best place to begin to understand their situation. Contact me privately if you want more information.
I don’t know much about the situation of the aboriginal people of the USA, but I found this interesting.
If you don’t know who Philando Castile is you can do a quick Google search and find a lot of articles.
Sari and Abram both had a hey added to their names. Sari was changed to Sarah and Abram was changed to Abraham. When God says, “I will make your name great,” what he means is that he will make their names holy, God will insert divinity into their names. That is how they both came to have a hey in their names. God also has a hey in his name: vav, hey, yud, hey. Hager’s name wasn’t changed because her name already has a hey in it.
Genesis Rabbah is a rabbinic midrash on the book of Genesis. There is also an Exodus Rabbah, a Leviticus Rabbah, etc… Often you will hear them referred to by their Hebrew names. Beresheit Rabbah for the text we call Genesis, etc. It is from about 300-500 BCE.
It was the Code of Hammaburi which would have allowed Sarah to cast out Hagar.
I have borrowed heavily from the work of Judith Antionelli who wrote In The Image of God, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, and The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. And, always, my friends who jolly me along every week.
One should not construe a bias against silence or the contemplative life. The practice of silence is an important component of our tradition, but it is sometimes used as a cover, or an excuse, for not speaking out when we should.
Genesis 15:2… But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”