In Hebrew, a koontz is a trick, sometimes what in English would be called a prank, sometimes a hack, and sometimes what a smart aleck says to get away with something.

I really considered using a koontz for this column, putting Bishop Larry Campbell’s words at the top – “Silence can’t be misquoted” – and leaving the rest of the page blank.

But I can think of other ways to provoke eyerolls and cheap laughs. Plus, I don’t think his observation is always right. The context of his remark is worth telling.

He and I served together on the Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of the Commonwealth of Virginia (how’s that for a title?) established after the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, that attracted violent extremists, mostly from among domestic white supremacists.

The work of the commission lasted over a year, across two administrations, and yielded very little in the way of measurable results.

If you have never worked with a large bureaucracy, you may find that more discouraging than it should be. If you have, you know that changing the course of a cargo ship from a rowboat looks impossible in the moment, but even a slight adjustment can affect the vessel’s direction significantly before it reaches port.

As part of our work, the members of the commission spent time in groups of a dozen or so to talk about our own experiences that challenged a sense of being fully enfranchised in community and society.

As you might imagine, a collection of citizens that was racially, religiously, ethnically, geographically and self-identifyingly diverse produced some very powerful personal stories.

There were tears and shivers and a whole bunch of hugs as the stories of discrimination, disadvantage and denigration were shared, mostly in quiet tones and the expected combination of sorrow and shame.

I found it very hard to wrap my mind around how the people in the room – Indigenous, gay, Black, rural and others – could find the equilibrium to contribute to our efforts enthusiastically and optimistically after the formative experiences they shared.

Only one person wasn’t talking. When I asked him why he wasn’t saying anything, he replied with a deadpan look on his face, “Silence can’t be misquoted.”

It was the perfect thing to say in that room so thick with emotion you could almost hear the hearts breaking. The room exploded in laughter (which brought people from other groups rushing in to see what happened).

The bishop wasn’t trying to pull a koontz. He correctly perceived the hazard of basing important justice work on a collection of grievances.

The notion that by addressing the particular individual or group concerns to correct a particular circumstance – tribal land claims, local teacher shortages, lack of broadband access – our Commonwealth could declare victory and move on was simply false.

It was important for us to know each other as stakeholders, but not to presume a course of action based on sympathies alone.

Our concerns needed to be systemic, not piecemeal. Our commission was formed because of a battle over a statue. Our work involved more than figuring out what happened that August day in Charlottesville.

At the same time, there are times when silence speaks volumes, and volumes can be easily misquoted, or at least read selectively.

The Talmud insists that silence implies agreement, and there are times when that agreement is morally wrong and times when that agreement is factually wrong. But that’s the subject of another discussion.

When the work of the commission ended, we sent out a note of thanks to each of the members, acknowledging that the dreams we had when we first met felt unrealized despite our best intentions.

But we also listed the initiatives that emerged out of our collective work, the individual initiatives we inspired and the forward motion to which we contributed. We were in that rowboat, alongside a ship filled with Virginia’s long history and entrenched culture, pushing hard against the bow in an open sea.

Take a look at the Commonwealth and how, in recent years, it has shifted in new and more just directions. The course correction is far from complete, but it is underway.

If you ask me if the Commission on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion had much to do with that, I will have no comment. Silence can’t be misquoted.

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