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The Problem with Silence

I’m another of those good, middle class white folks who hasn’t taken seriously the extent to which I’m embedded in and part of a society that is shaped by racism.

When it comes to social and political issues, I confess that my own impulse is toward public silence. Even in the face of the ongoing, widespread protests against anti-Black racism, part of me preferred silence. Not because I am unconcerned about the reality of racism in our culture (as I have told myself). Rather, a significant part of me has felt I should just get on with faithfully relating to students and colleagues and friends who are people of colour. We should simply seek to embody the compassion and justice of Christ together.

In the back of my mind have also been the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:1. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” I’ve thought about this text particularly in relation to white brothers and sisters who have made public statements and comments in opposition to racism (on social media or otherwise) over recent weeks. My sense is that it is often much easier to perform our anti-racism than to actually live it or embody it. Hence Jesus’ comment: “Never mind parading your goodness; just get on with living well.”

But I’ve realized there is a serious problem here. The problem is that my public silence means complicity with systemic racism. Even more honestly: I’m another of those good, middle class white folks who hasn’t taken seriously the extent to which I’m embedded in and part of a society that is shaped by racism. This is to say nothing of prejudicial attitudes that may lie not too far below the surface of my own self. In other words, silence means a refusal to acknowledge the full extent of racism, and a refusal to do what I might in confronting it.

It has become clear to me (far too belatedly) that not speaking publicly is complicity because it entails a failure to speak against the racism that leads to disproportional arrest and incarceration rates for Black and Indigenous peoples, lower rates of post-secondary completion, restricted employment opportunities and lack of representation among elected officials (among many other issues). I may be doing my best to live well in relation to Black sisters and brothers but that does little to address these wide and systemic issues. 

Two tensions

I land here with two tensions. The first is the tension between silence and speaking out. If I speak out, there is every possibility that it will be a mere performance of anti-racism (I’m enough of a Calvinist to know that my best works are touched by sin). But if I don’t speak out then I express continuing complicity with systemic racism. Which means there is no choice but to speak – I must learn to say what needs to be said, though this is a task I am only beginning to learn.

And there is a second tension, between my personal life and the life I live as a member of a wider community. I am doing my best to love and serve my friends and colleagues and students – all of them, inclusive of persons of colour. I want to be faithful in love, embodying the unity to which Christ points us and which is our reality in him. But that love must also be expressed in a less personal, more systematic way – in the sense of advocating for public and institutional policies that advance justice and equality. A failure of such participation is nothing more than a failure of love.

It’s obvious for me to say this, but I will still do so: I don’t have anything to teach anyone here. Rather, I have much to learn. I pray for grace to continue learning and speaking.

  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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