“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”.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963).
No excuse for silence
By Phil Davis
From the January 17, 2005 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel
* Photo – Courtesy of allposters.com
Back when I was in my first year of college, I remember hanging around some guys who talked about African Americans, other minorities, and civil rights in general, in very negative ways. While I didn’t join in the conversations, I did very little to confront their bigotry. I certainly didn’t agree with them, but I was too timid to speak up. What I vividly remember is the bad feeling I had inside from my silence.
Years later, I was giving a talk to a large class of high school students about my religion, Christian Science. As I explained some of the concepts, the students — most of them from evangelical Christian churches — became rude and hostile toward me. The teacher had invited me because he wanted his class to appreciate the diversity of religious expression. However, during my talk he looked very uncomfortable, and just silently shrank back into a corner of the room. Remembering my own failure to stick up for what was right when people were expressing prejudice, I understood how peer pressure could make some people in that room clam up when they probably knew they should have been defending my right to express my views.
Having grown up in a small town in Massachusetts, I can remember feeling so safe in my white-bread, Protestant world, not realizing how unwittingly insensitive I was to the suffering that others were going through because of the color of their skin or their religious practice. I remember as a kid feeling that anything outside my own culture was not only alien and strange, but could even be a threat to me.
However, the tables turned when I became an adult and wound up taking on a religious practice myself that was not in the mainstream — Christian Science. And because of this choice, I sometimes experienced ignorance and insensitivity directed toward me — probably similar to what I had directed toward others when I was younger. Usually I’d pick up on people’s prejudices through either their quiet disdain or actual verbal hostility.
So because of my own lack of sensitivity to other people’s religious, political, and cultural differences in my youth, I understand how people who are basically good can be silent, even hostile, on the subject of other people’s choices and individual freedom. But understanding the reasons doesn’t mean I, or anyone, should excuse this type of conduct. In fact, the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., said it beautifully from a jail cell: “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” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963).
King is just one example of someone who dedicated his life to challenging intolerance and apathy. And he and others like him based their resistance to racism and injustice on their love for God and for all humanity. Today, those of many faiths and cultures still actively follow the path these courageous people cut out. And through the example of inspired lives, they teach us about generosity, selflessness, and how important it is to see the good in others rather than focusing on whatever is bad.
Because religious practice involves our deepest feelings, it’s easy to understand how one’s devotion to a just cause can lead to judging those who do not live or act accordingly. So often, when we think we see the way to justice so clearly, we desperately want others to walk in this direction, too. But it’s important to remember to follow Jesus’ teachings of loving our neighbors even when they don’t agree with us.
I keep learning that I can best benefit others by being loving. As I try to maintain this perspective, I keep in mind this inspiring passage from Mary Baker Eddy’s autobiography: “I am persuaded that only by the modesty and distinguishing affection illustrated in Jesus’ career, can Christian Scientists [or anyone!] aid the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on the earth” (Retrospection and Introspection, p. 94). What a glorious possibility — to see the kingdom of heaven here and now. What more inspiring goal could there be than to support and defend — and vocally and actively whenever necessary — spiritual freedom and God-given liberties that belong to everyone?