There are times when Christians feel forced to join in with a “cause” in the world.
Most often we are presented with a claim for justice in this “cause.” We are told that to be silent amid this injustice is to already make a choice to join in with the sustaining of that injustice.
And so we rush to Twitter, Facebook and other means to launch our own voices in the protest. We know very little about what is actually going on.
I argue there are times (although not always!) when Christians best serve the in-breaking Kingdom of God by not joining with the cause in the terms as set down by the prevailing ideology.
My argument is that many times the discourse sets down the terms of entry violently.
To agree or disagree with the issue in the terms set down for us sets us up to participate in violence and antagonism; indeed, it further inflames the antagonism and violence.
By entering in on these terms, we do not change the status quo. Instead violence and antagonism work to harden the status quo further and deeper.
And God, I believe, in Christ, has shown us the way of justice is not through violence but presence.
God, I suggest, does not work for redemption (although he can work for preservation) via the world’s terms of violence.
He shall change the world through his presence, reconciliation and the relational socioeconomic sharing that comes through presence.
It is, therefore, inevitable that there will be times when the Christian will not enter into the world on the terms set down by the given ideology because that ideology runs on violence.
Instead, we will choose to enter that place and be present to the other, listen for long periods of time, discern the justice of God and then, provoke, proclaim the gospel and work for justice in that local place.
This kind of presence could be interpreted as silence. But I don’t think it is. I think it is presence.
Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and others all said something like “to be silent is to be complicit” with evil and injustice.
I suggest King was able to say this because he could assume monolithic cultural conditions where American racism in post-World-War-II America was ubiquitous across the U.S. He had spent much time in the south and the north.
There was enough of a singular culture (say post-WWII American culture) that we in Chicago (he assumed) had the wherewithal to discern the justice from afar even when we had no stake or involvement or participation in the south.
King had shown the racism of the whites in the north was complicit and even more insidious than the racism in the south.
It made sense to call for the joining together of the voices from the north and the south to work for a nationwide racial justice.
And yet King recognized that there were also times when we do not enter the fray on the terms set down by the wider discourse. His stance of nonviolence was driven by this recognition.
His refusal the first time to carry out the Selma march to Birmingham can be seen as such a refusal because he saw the march as playing right into the terms as laid down by the racists powers of the south.
They would be bludgeoned and become part of the violent narrative discrediting what God would do in this movement.
From the Birmingham prison he wrote of the need to be bodily present when some white elites had accused him of agitating in coming from Georgia to Alabama. Presence was important to King.
Jesus, it appears, in Mark 11:27-12:12 refuses to enter the debate of the Temple powers (described quite broadly as “chief priests, scribes and elders”). Instead, he is present, asking questions, revealing the contradictions.
He refuses to enter the ideology of Israeli nationalism on its own terms. He refuses to define authority within the Temple/Talmudic structures of the Pharisees. He does all this as he gets ready to enter Jerusalem.
There he becomes present to the powers and principalities and refuses the way of violence even unto death.
And God, of course, used that presence not only to reveal the evil of the world but also to upend it and reverse it.
There are times, therefore, to not enter the fray, but, in fact, to gather into a space to be present to what God is doing in this place, refusing the terms of the debate as set down by the antagonism at work in society.
Be present, be with the marginalized, ask questions, listen intently, resist the evil and push for reconciliation.
Even a just cause can be used by devious forces to rally a people against another people, create a war of destruction and just maintain a status quo, which almost always favors the forces in power.
Presence is the ultimate pathway toward resisting evil and can often be perceived as “silence.” But it’s not.
Presence is more powerful. It sits, asks questions to reveal the forces at work, to make way for another way.
This is not a blanket rejection of vocalism in activism. There are times when Twitter and Facebook posts do the much needed job of awakening a wider populace to injustice. There are times when gathered voices move a society to preserve a people from further victimization.
But there are times as well when all this chatter creates more violence from afar hindering the local work of justice. It creates conditions for “slactivism.”
It takes the focus off local communal engagement of presence by communities of the King.
So I’m pushing for more of this kind of discernment. What say you?
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his website, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.