A Response to Samuel Sey's Article "If Silence is Violence, Jesus is a Sinner"
I read Samuel Sey's article that critiques the folks who are protesting with the phrase "Silence is Violence" and I found it an unhelpful addition to the dialogue on racism. His point is, "If silence is violence then Jesus is a sinner." The way in which he critiques the Silence if Violence folks is unhelpful for ongoing dialogue and it's just bad Biblical interpretation.
The logic of the slogan "Silence is Violence" shouldn't be read directly back to the logic of Jesus' actions of silence as if it's a one to one correlation. Sey admits that the Bible says we should speak out against injustice when he quotes Prov 31:8-9, "Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But in his argument against the SIV folks, Sey actually pits Proverbs 31:8-9 against Jesus. There are times when Jesus fails to do this passage. By Sey's logic, if Proverbs says to open your mouth for the mute, then Jesus is a sinner.
At this point in the argument, we can't even talk about the modern slogan. We have to talk about how to interpret the Bible. So let's take the two passages he uses, the one about "give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's and the one about Jesus' silence at John the Baptist's death.
Silence is Subversive
In the first, Jesus' silence is subversive. What's actually going on when Jesus says this statement? He's not being silent at all. He's being brilliantly subversive. He answers the Pharisees and puts them in their place by saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" and Sey goes on to say "he remained silent about the Roman Empire’s oppressive system against Israel." But this is absolutely not the case. Don't mistake Jesus. He is very political. We live in a world that separates politics and religion so we don't understand a lot of what Jesus does and says because he lives in a world where politics and religion are the same thing.
Jesus subtly and brilliantly subverts Roman power when he says, "and give to God what is God's." What he is saying for all those who had ears to hear, what he is saying to the poor and oppressed is, "Rome is not in charge! Caesar is not the real king--God is." Jesus does this all the time in his ministry and it's part of what gets him, "the King of the Jews," executed. Jesus didn't get executed by being silent. He got executed for being subversive. But this isn't the kind of silence the SIV folks are talking about.
Silence is Strategic
In the second example Jesus' silence is strategic. Sey uses Jesus' silence at the death of John the Baptist to prove that the SIV folks are wrong about their understanding of how to use silence but I think he's not accurately interpreting the passage. What is more, again, he is missing what the SIV folks are trying to say. Jesus is not just being silent (and he is definitely not being silent in the way SIV folks are using that word). He is being strategic with his silence. All throughout the gospels, Jesus is secretive in his announcing his Kingship and Lordship because he has a plan and he is working out that plan in his own sovereign way. Even when he is before Pilate he is silent because it is being strategic for his purposes. Jesus does a lot with his silence to demonstrate he is King. But this isn't the kind of silence the SIV folks are angry about about.
So it's Sey's hermeneutic that is the problem. He flattens the nuances of Proverbs and he flattens the nuances of Jesus' ministry and he flattens the nuances of the SIV folks. Actually, I think his hermeneutic prevents him from really engaging with the issues of our culture. When I read his article I can't help but think he's trying to be shocking when he says, "If silence is violence then Jesus is a sinner." That's unhelpful. It lacks Biblical and cultural nuance and it wreaks of click bait. It just adds to the noise and doesn't move us toward one another with patience and generosity.
These two passages aren't good examples of Jesus using silence in the same way as the SIV folks. Those passages are more nuanced just like "Silence is Violence" is more nuanced. Proverbs 31:8-9 is a good starting point for the way the SIV folks are talking about silence. They are angry that Proverbs 31:8-9 is not happening in our culture. That's where the conversation needs to start. Ecclesiastes 3:7 is another good conversation point.
Sey quotes Eccl 3:7. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. The SIV folks would agree and they are saying "This is the time to speak." Sey uses poor Biblical interpretation to insinuate that this is not the time to speak. Now, maybe the SIV folks are right. Maybe Sey is right. That's the conversation I'd like to see happen. Why does Sey think it's not the time to speak? Where in the Bible can he defend that, because it's not from the two passages that he uses. In those passages, Jesus' silence is very effective in bringing about his plan to end violence. In those passages, I can see the SIV folks cheering him on just like the poor and oppressed cheered him on. In those passages I can see all of us gathered around Jesus looking for him to make things right again, looking for him to overthrow oppressive powers and place himself on the throne as rightful King.
But here is the risk that all of us must take. When we align ourselves with Jesus we quickly realize that we are all part of the problem. We quickly realize that we would all quickly become a part of the group that says "Crucify him!" because we are all so quick to defend ourselves, so quick to look for the easiest way to power, so quick to violence. We would all become participants in Jesus becoming the brunt of ultimate violence. The quicker we can recognize our own participation in violence, the quicker we repent of those things, then the quicker we begin to participate in Jesus' resurrection, and the quicker we become people who participate in his plan to restore the world. That restoration plan is not through violence and power. It's more subversive than that. It's more strategic. It's the path of sacrificial love, generosity and mercy. Can we have a conversation on how to make this kind of thing a reality?