There’s ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

* A time for silence

Without doubt, in today’s hurly-burly of noise and ‘hectivity’ it is desirable to schedule an occasional ‘spiritual retreat’ in the silence of a convent, monastery or retreat centre. However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s opening thesis in his book ‘Silence: A Christian History’. is that silence was actually treated in the Hebrew scriptures with great suspicion! ‘Peace and rest are associated with busy, regulated activity, especially liturgical activity(as indeed in many of the Psalms). Above all, Yahweh himself … in normal and desirable circumstances expresses himself in noise, usually emphatic noise!

[] When God is silent

On looking up all Bible references to silence I noticed how often the writers complained when God was silent, assuming that he had withdrawn in disapproving anger; that provoked the worshipper’s ‘protest and anguished supplication’. ‘O Lord, be not silent’ is their frequent prayer; see Psalms 22:1-21a; 28:1; 35:22-34; 50:1-3; 83:1-3; and 94:17.

[] Jesus’ dramatic moments of silence

MacCulloch comments on Jesus’ dramatic use of silence. The normally tough-as-nails Pontius Pilate was fazed by Jesus’ silence at his trial! ‘He who is prudent will keep silence in … an evil time’ (Amos 5:13). MacCulloch reckons Jesus’ looking at Peter after his three sworn protests that he knew nothing of this famous prisoner as ‘one of the most eloquent silent stares in human history’. 

* A time to speak …

[] Silencing opponents by the Word

How effectively Jesus silences his religious opponents by his insights into the scriptures, as when he corrected the Sadducees’ heresy by teaching them about bodily resurrection on Judgement Day in Matthew 22:23-33. Then, Matthew adds: ‘But when the Pharisees [who did believe in a literal resurrection] heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together’ with a different trick question which, using Scripture, he refuted so convincingly that ‘no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions’ (Matthew 22:34-46). The crude word ‘gobsmacked’ springs to mind – or, in this case, God-smacked!

[] Silencing opponents by lifestyle

We are called to just such a ministry ourselves:

‘For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people’ (1 Peter 2:15).

[] Speak out

MacCulloch ends by reviewing times in history when Christians failed to protest against evil. Currently the news media are inundated with backdated scandals of child sex abuse by priests and celebrities; these and Hitler’s atrocities against Jewish people in the 1940s are gross examples of guilty silence. ‘The opposite of love is not hate but indifference,’ so may God raise up courageous, prophetic whistleblowers whenever the need arises. 

* … and a time to listen – in silence

A major concept in conflict resolution is the bringing of antagonists together to listen to each other’s speaking out their viewpoint, as taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20.

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