Have you ever considered the weight of silence? Put another way, have you ever suffered for the secrets that you have kept? Recently, I finished a book by Philip Roth entitled, The Human Stain (2000). An award-winning book at the time of its creation, it is a disturbing book: disturbing because of the complexity of the characters, their choices, and the various ways in which they suffer and are misunderstood. The main character, Coleman Silk, is an African-American living as a white, Jewish man. Given his fair complexion, he makes an early choice in his life to leave his original birth family and form a new family, and does not tell his future wife, or his children, of his racial identity, or even of their own shared identity.
It is a complex book with complex themes, but the main character suffers for his decision, though more tellingly of accusations made against him as an esteemed professor of a New England college. Whether his suffering from “passing” is more or less than what he would suffer from societal forces and the brutality of living as a black man 50 years ago, I leave for others to decide.
I read this book at the same time that I read a speech by the womanist poet Audre Lourde concerning “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” This speech was originally delivered at the Lesbian and Literature panel of the Modern Language Association’s meeting in late 1977. The speech contains the poem that you heard earlier as our Contemporary Reading today, a poem that was dedicated to Winnie Mandala, the second wife of Nelson Mandela, who was a freedom fighter and who spoke out against the jailing of black school children who dared to sing freedom songs and who were charged with public violence.
In her speech, Audre Lourde spoke frankly as a black lesbian who had just had her first surgery due to suspected cancer, an illness of which she would later succumb in life. That day, she shared:
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences…
“Of what had ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed I would have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end.
“Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.
“And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.”
Friends, what secrets have you carried? What silences have you kept? It seems to me that we all have secrets and those secrets and our silence regarding them carries weight. The weight of missed opportunities. The weight of sorrow. The weight of being misunderstood and mistaken. The weight of regret and living in terror. The weight of indecision and the burden of being known only in part—even to our own selves.
One might say that there is a cost involved to our secrets and our silence. Sometimes we are fully aware of those costs and sometimes those costs are only revealed to us in time and through our spiritual maturation process. Sometimes we choose to maintain a secret or silence out of fear of a very real persecution or out of the likely disruption to our original family, our friends, or colleagues, or even our very selves. And sometimes we break that silence at great cost, but with a greater reward – a better understanding of ourselves and, as Lourde says, the great strength that comes when we are able to put our fears and the fears of others into perspective.
Today, our scripture passage touches on the fracturing of blood relationships that can happen when people follow Jesus. One could say that a relationship with Jesus and his teaching will reorder and rearrange our primary relationships. This will happen not because of Jesus himself. Rather, in following, we re-priortize what is important to us and what is not. We scrutinize our motives, our reasoning, and our unexamined lives using Jesus as a kind of lens, a sharper perspective. Our secrets, the small silences that we have kept, the regrets that we have born, and the concessions we have made are all re-evaluated and reconsidered. What may have seemed safe before may suddenly appear dangerous, and what is dangerous may appear to be the safer course. Secrets that appeared to protect and preserve may prove deadly to the soul in the warmth of Christ. And so, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake will find it.”
But then we hear those difficult lines from Matthew, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” What does that mean? Following Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus, will reorder relationships as one discovers that following the love of such a radical Savior can indeed bring one into conflict with the norms of one’s family or one’s society. It is a hard passage because, of course, there are exceptions and of course, no one wants to think of our Savior of Peace telling us that following him might mean, a lack of peace, for a time. Yet he reminds us in the same passage, that in losing the life we thought we had, we actually find ourselves, our life.
And so, we study these words from Matthew, today, as they coincide with our celebration of Pride at our church. However we identify, —whether lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, gender-fluid, heterosexual, or some other identity—we are gathered as God’s diverse creation and in God’s diverse image. While many of us have had secrets and/or silences that we have kept for one reason or another, the question for us to ask ourselves today is whether those silences have lead to deeper, more authentic living, or have they led to our shutting down or shutting out life, the kind of life that our Creator intends for us?
We might also ask ourselves how our own private silences have affected the stories we tell God in the quiet of the night, as well as the stories we tell about the lives of others. And communally, what collective silence do we need to break to bring others into a fuller understanding of the love of God?
Too often, the silence of the Church has been destructive. Too often, the relationship of parent and child have been held over and above the son or daughter’s need to individuate, to claim their own identity, and to transform their own silence into word and action. Too often, the life-giving Word has been corrupted to horrifying ends—and the result has been more isolation, fear, and death in the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized communities. And often when the progressive Church has spoken a life-giving Word, it has forgotten that change is often a slow, slow thing, and doors that initially opened wide can swing shut by indifference or political whim.
Audre Lourde asks,
“What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours [your work]?”
What is our holy work on this Pride Sunday? What is our work if we are not a member of the LGBTQ+ communities but have committed ourselves as Christians and to God’s holy Word for the LGBTQ+ communities? What is our work if we are still trapped by our silences and secrets? What is our work if we are, in Lourde’s words, still betraying ourselves in small silences and unsure if we can trust this God-Man, Jesus, with our life and with our church?
In this same chapter, Matthew’s Jesus reminds the disciples, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Matthew 10:26). I think of our Jesus whispering into the ear of every person who has been told that they are somehow “wrong” for claiming their own God-given gender identity or orientation, even if that differs from public perception or public laws or what someone declares in opposition. I imagine Jesus whispering love where the church has too often shouted sin, whispering pride where the community has shouted shame, and whispering life where secrets have shouted death.
In 1977, in her speech, Lourde admitted, “…of course, I am afraid– you can hear it in my voice– because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger.” But then Lourde tells a great story of a conversation that she had with her daughter when she was planning her speech.
Lourde’s daughter said, “tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside of you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth.”
Friends, speak your silence, live your truth, and lose your life for Jesus’s sake, so that you may know life and the fullness thereof. And may we pray that the Church, God’s church, does the same.