On Passive and Active Silence and Liberation (Exodus 3)

This is a message I shared last week at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC.

Is Anyone Listening?

Today I wanted to talk with you about the tension between silence and liberation, and how we might envision a Quaker community where this tension gets resolved.

When you think about all of the terrible things that are happening in this world and in our country as of late, I am thinking specifically of Harvey and Charlottesville, but there are so much more we could name, what comes to mind for you? And where does God factor into your thoughts on these tragedies we face?

If you’re anything like me, these come with their own fears, anxieties and a lot of questions; not just about why these things happen, but are there ways that I can help or be of use?

I wonder if things will ever come to a resolution.

I wonder why things seem so tilted against those who are already hurting, disenfranchised and vulnerable.

I wonder if God really is listening.

I want stability and certainty. And if I can’t get it, I am tempted to shut down, bury my head. I confess that this temptation is very strong, especially right now.

Passive and Active Silence

There’s a Quaker story my Friend Peggy once told me that illustrates this She said that in the 1800s the:

15th Street Meeting in New York used to go out and put straw down on the cobblestone so that the horses going by, so that the clip-clop noise, would not disrupt the beautiful silence of the meeting.

When the world tilts out of balance, silence can be used as a kind of coping-mechanism and a crutch. But as my friend Peggy says, “Attempting to put straw down on the cobblestone of the world won’t work.”

What I love about this little story is that it illustrates one of the key tensions in the Quaker tradition.

The tension between passive and active silence.

Passive silence is really a silence that allows me to hide. To become more and more detached, detached from my body, detached from my meeting and my community, detached from the problems and discomforts of the world.

  • Is is the temptation to have a spiritual life in isolation from the needs of the world around me.
  • It is the temptation to prayer without knowing the news headlines or needs of my neighbors.
  • It is a temptation to live in as though I already have it all figured out.

I think that passive silence is actually pretty hard to maintain because the centrifugal force of the spiritual life is one that is constantly trying to pull us into being co-laborers with God.

I believe these two things are mutually exclusive; I am either isolating myself or I am moving towards participation in a larger and unfolding story.

The other piece about Passive silence is that it is a manifestation of our desire for certainty.

As humans, we crave certainty and yet it seems, at least to me, that the journey of the spiritual life and faith is one that calls us into uncertainty.

The Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said,

“Belief is security, faith is insecurity.”

We want things to remain certain. We’d like our understanding of faith, our assumptions about ourselves and others, our biases, etc. to go unchallenged. However, predictability is endemic to authentic faith.

And yet, if we can’t make things certain, maybe we can at least lay down some straw on the cobblestone so we won’t be distracted by the uncertainty out there.

Active silence moves in the other direction.

Active silence – especially in a community like a Quaker meeting where our main goal is to listen to Jesus who is present to lead us as a body – lays the groundwork for uncertainty because together we become subject to the possibility that God might actually speak to us and ask us to do something other than what we could have imagined on our own.

This to me might be the very definition of uncertainty. To sit in silence and wait for a leading, be unsure whether that leading will come, whether you will hear it properly, whether you will be brave enough to respond to it, how it will be received by others, and where it may take you as a community is a very scary and uncertain thing to do. To embrace this kind of ongoing practice really is “faith as insecurity.”

To practice this kind of active silence – one that does not draw in but rather pulls us out, one that says, “I trust God” and “I trust God’s people,” is the beginning movements toward liberation. Toward truly being free.

The Burning Bush as a Shockwave

And so when we come to this story about the burning bush this is exactly what I think we are seeing.

The burning bush for Moses and the people is a shockwave. It is a powerful gust of wind that sweeps across the cobblestone and blows away all of the straw. It is the first nudge towards full liberation.

[This fiery bush as a sign to wake up the people and lead them into liberation is not to be understated. This really is, as far as our faith tradition is concerned, the very pivot point for all of salvation history. The moment God reveals Godself to the people as a one who is counter to empire and who will liberate the enslaved.]

Before we can move from passive silence to active silence, we need to wake up to the reality of where we are, who we are, and what we are being called out of.

The burning bush is the call towards awareness and acceptance of our condition.

And by awareness, I don’t mean having a steady diet of news, social media or frenetic activity trying to manage the flow of input fighting for our attention.

Awareness means becoming centered. Going down into who we are, going deeper into our faith traditions, working at this practice of active silence.

Awareness is coming to a place where we stand in the midst of a rushing stream of water and are not moved until we choose or are led to move.

Until the Hebrew people become aware of their situation and are able to find the resources within themselves and their tradition, they are not going to be able to lead themselves out of empire.

So the burning bush is a shock into this system. It is an interruption, not just in Moses afternoon, but in the people’s whole framework and narrative about who they are.

The burning bush as a shock stimulates a new, profound, and much-needed uncertainty, only this kind of uncertainty can open the door to liberation.

One final piece I want you to notice in is that it is not just you and I who choose between passive & active silence. We see here in something about the silence of God.

In this text, we learn that up until this point there has been silence from God. And it seemed a lot like a passive silence. A silence that allowed for suffering. They to are wondering why their own oppression keeps happening and if the reality of that oppression is, in fact, a sign that God either does not exist, is somehow causing it, or is totally withdrawn in his own meeting of silence with cobblestone streets covered.

But what we learn from this story is something else altogether.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey...The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of [Egypt/Empire].”

So I want you now to imagine yourself inside this story – you are the one crying out to God. You are the one hit by tragedy, exploited, harmed…and there is no response. In the midst of crying out you are sure that God is just not listening.

But then a shockwave happens, something like a burning bush grabs you and calls you into a deeper sense of awareness and in that sacred and holy space you come to find out that God has been listening all along, and is not just listening in a passive silence, but is actively responding out of that silence to move you and your people into liberation.

Maybe we can see now why Audre Lorde once said, “Silence will not keep you safe.” To engage in active silence is disruptive and will lead to a liberation out of a religion and life informed by empire. That is a dangerous undertaking.

So then, I pose this in our closing:

Of the two ways to engage silence where the one (passive) embraces an idolatry of silence, paves the cobblestone streets and remains peacefully, comfortably in Heaven, and the other (Active) lays a terrain where we can face into our fears and pain, admit our uncertainty and then use that to explore forward movement out of that place, which will Friends strive towards?

Flickr photo Credit Jarle.