Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize both haunts and inspires me. In the speech, Wiesel remembers a young Jewish boy from his time in Auschwitz. “Can this be true?” the bewildered boy asked his father. “This is the 20th century, not the Middle Ages. Who could allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?” Wiesel responds to this boy’s question in his speech, swearing never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. “We must always take sides,” Wiesel said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Wiesel’s speech is reprinted in his book Night.)
Wiesel’s quote haunts me as I recall times I have sat silently, knowing I should speak but unable to find the words or the courage to say them. Wiesel’s quote also lights a fire in me, inspiring me to speak, to take a side, to stand firmly with the oppressed and against the oppressor, even if I am included in the latter.
Preachers might decide the fire-stoking, divisive Jesus of Luke 12:49-56 is too hot to handle this Sunday. Jesus routinely preaches peace and reconciliation in Luke’s gospel. So how are we to take our gentle shepherd when he says, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In her Feasting on the Word commentary on this text, Audrey West writes that this passage in Luke is best understood in light of the whole gospel story, that “the passage is descriptive rather than prescriptive.” Jesus does not intend to destroy relationships, West says, but “this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes engendered by Christ’s work.”
The rupturing of relationships is a familiar reality for all of us. Today, political parties, communities, churches and even families are polarized to the extreme. It’s tempting to choose the safe path amid this divisiveness, to stay silent so as to avoid harsh critique; to stay neutral for the sake of our relationships, our personal sanity, our job security.
But Jesus calls us to act in ways where rupture and division is inevitable. And Wiesel helps us understand why. There is no neutrality in the face of injustice. Staying silent, or not taking a side in the face of oppression is not neutral. It is not non-action. Doing nothing to disrupt oppression supports the oppression. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called White moderates to recognize in his prophetic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this letter, King insisted that the status quo of a segregationist system must be spoken against and actively disrupted if it is to change. To do nothing, to stay silent, to prefer, as King wrote, “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” meant siding with segregationists. The White moderates, according to King, were a greater stumbling block in the fight for freedom than the Ku Klux Klan, in the ways “moderates” derailed direct action through their paternalistic critiques and calls to wait for a “more convenient time.” King loved the church, but he bemoaned the ways Christians have scarred the beloved community “through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.”
Our society’s problems are far from simple. The “right” side is rarely clear-cut. The “right” people make us uncomfortable and create division. But following Jesus brings clarity of vision. Jesus does not sit back in silence or fear. He does not spin his wheels in neutral. He takes the painful and costly path of the cross, standing against powers that oppress, standing with the least and the last. By the grace of God, so shall we.
Questions for reflection:
- What thoughts, feelings, memories arise as you read this passage?
- When have you found yourself in a situation where doing the right thing risked pain and division?
- How can faith communities support their members in acting justly?