The protester at the Black Lives Matter demonstration held a placard which read, “Silence is Violence.”
The meaning, given the context, is clear. In the case of injustice against black people those who stay silent concur with the violence shown against them.
For Quakers the suggestion that ‘silence is violence’ is a fundamental challenge. We have to wrestle with the truth of that statement and also act to show that it is not always so.
The Quaker ‘Peace Testimony’ is rooted in a declaration made to King Charles II, promising that Friends would never take up arms to fight, but would always stand for peace. It further stated that once such a truth is declared it will not be taken back again, ever. So Friends have not always been silent about their commitment to peace, and non-violence. Nor are Quakers in Britain silent now about injustice. A quick look at the Britain Yearly Meeting website will show that there is still a strong stance taken against injustice of any kind.
Yet, Quakers I spoke to were quick to draw attention to the power of silence when challenged by this statement. And in some ways they were right to do so. We recognise the limitations of words, and stress the importance of faith in action. Silent presence alongside those who are mistreated, silent protest against exploitation, resistance to calls for violence, non-cooperation with powers that abuse, refusal to pay taxes for weapons-making, these are all ways in which silence can be used in speaking truth to power. But if we are not present in the situation, but absent. And if we are not only absent but silent. Then we have become co-opted, compromised and collaborators in injustice.
Sometimes it is hard to find the right words, and silence is tempting. And yes, sometimes silence is perhaps the only way to stand alongside grief and loss. Then again it can be almost impossible to maintain neutrality when caught between opposing camps. Finding words that promote peace is much harder than offering speech that ferments war.
In another context I have been learning about safeguarding. Here is another example when silence can be violence. When abuse is happening and we do not say anything, we allow the evil to continue. We must speak, though with care and thoughtfulness. The well-being of others demands that we speak out and also take action. We may not be in a position to investigate or to become directly involved, but we can shield those who are vulnerable and alert others to prevent further harm.
We may have to wrestle with lessons we learned in our childhood that speech is silver but silence is golden, or that we should not speak evil of others. But we now have to acknowledge that at times silence is violence.