Thoughts on Silence

I know these long theological screeds aren't winning me either fans or brownie points with the world in general, so if you're just here for the fantasy and science fiction, move on and skip this post. Trust me, I understand.

However, thoughts simmer in my brain and won't let me go until I put them down in some form. Given that none of these thoughts are pertinent to my stories, I'm going to use my long-neglected blog to hold forth on opinions that are mine and mine alone.

On a road that I drive on everyday is a church with a sign, and on this sign the members of this church post phrases designed to inspire their members and anyone else who happens to be passing along. Often the words on this sign are misspelled, which worries me because it denotes a lack of care in their message.

Since Easter is coming--that annual religious holiday when Christians all over the state make an annual pilgrimage to the beach--I suppose the members of the church wanted an Easter theme. This week's sign states that people's sins drove Jesus to the cross, a theological point that intimates Jesus had no choice in his sacrifice, which in turn robs the Crucifixion of meaning by implying that his death was not an offering but instead a murder. This, likewise, worries me, because it is probably an unintentional but very strange twist on Christianity's theme of sacrifice and redemption.

Then, in a completely unrelated event, an individual, who I personally know identifies as a Christian, made a racist comment around me as casually as if she were commenting on the weather. Just a wee hate-filled bon mot thrown out there for the world to see.

Something in my gut clenched and I thought immediately of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis during World War II. Everyone remembers Bonhoeffer for his famous "First they came for the ..." speech, which reflected his belief system of putting Christian principles into action. He wrote extensively about Christianity's role in the secular world, and in doing so produced an essay entitled "Cheap Grace vs. Costly Grace."

For those of you who don't know me, I was raised in Evangelical churches and I talk a little about that here. So I know that along with the prosperity gospel, the Evangelicals are also big on cheap grace. I simply never had a name for it until I read Bonhoeffer's works, but once I saw it I couldn't unsee it, so here we all are again.

Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace thus:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. --Dietrich Bonhoeffer

That was what I was taught. If you sin, just ask for forgiveness and everything will be just hunky-dory. Boom. I did it, I'm sorry, it's over, bygones. Finis.

As I grew older, I found the Evangelical's philosophy of cheap grace to be highly empty--both from a theological and spiritual point of view. I received nothing from the experience of repentance, because no action was demanded from me.

The more I read, the more I found that there is much more to repentance than simply expressing remorse and moving on. Which brings me to Bonhoeffer's flip side of cheap grace. He believed that costly grace "is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'ye were bought at a price,' and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."

Silence.jpg

All of these thoughts were tumbling through my mind as I read Shūsaku Endō's novel Silence. Written in 1966, the story follows the 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues to Japan, roughly fifty years after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637.

Rodrigues is searching for his mentor Cristóvão Ferreira, who has renounced his faith while on a mission in the country. When Rodrigues and his fellow priest Francisco Garrpe arrive, they find that the country's Christian population are being systematically exterminated. No matter how the Christians suffered, "... like the sea God was silent."

Of course, Rodrigues is eventually captured by the Japanese and is expected to renounce his religion. He meditates on the meaning of martyrdom and his faith in general. Quite a few lines of Endō's prose have stood out for me, but it is his clear definition of sin that remains closest to my heart. In Silence Endō has Rodrigues reflect that "Sin ... is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind."

I thought of the way people I know have suddenly decided that it is okay to walk brutally over other people's lives with their words and their actions. They seem to feel their belief shields them from the ramifications of their deeds. Maybe they interpret God's silence as an endorsement to their beliefs, but I have hard time believing that is true.

"... but our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent,
my life until this day would have spoken of Him."

With this quote, Bonhoeffer and Endō merge. Both of them speak very strongly regarding action, a duty to respond to injustice. Speech is a conscious act and words are important. In both of the examples I presented at the top of this post, neither the church nor the individual seem to put much stock into either their theology or their how their actions affect others.

Usually no one would say anything about these things, because both the church and the individual are simply voicing opinions ... right? 

Maybe. But should I respect opinions that are morally wrong? No. There is nothing that demands I remain silent in the face of such a case. As a matter of fact, I'm more inclined than ever to call them down, because my silence can be misinterpreted as tolerance.

In Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, the atheist Albert Camus admonished Christians in 1948 to "speak out loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and pay up personally. When a Spanish bishop blesses public executions, he ceases to be a bishop, or a Christian, or even a man; he is a dog, just like the one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself."

So I'm here to say loudly and clearly so that even the simplest person can understand: when you trample brutally on other people's lives with your words or your deeds, I'll be here to point out that what you're doing is wrong. You may wave Jesus in my face, or you can wave my admonishments off as "not a big deal." However, I will not be silent.

Furthermore, I do not want an apology. I want to see your restitution reflected in the way in which you live your life. To change one's behavior requires understanding costly grace, which avoids judgmental fear and is predicated on the hardest Christian principle of all to work in our lives: love for others.