Thursday, December 15, 2016

Holy Silence in the Wake of the US Election

Count me among those who don't know what to say after the recent US presidential election.

Despite my best efforts, I've been consistently unable to put thought and word together on this blog for the past month.

I don't think I'm alone. Participation in the social media platforms I manage has changed dramatically since the election. Drop-offs in likes, comments and overall views has been extraordinary, especially for any post that is even remotely political. Posts that would have predictably gotten hundreds of "likes" a month ago are now getting responses in the single-digits. (By contrast, I shared an article about the Peanuts cartoon and got a tremendous 72 shares, without any marketing effort expended.) It's too early to tell if this reflects a need for rest, a pause out of uncertainty or simply shock. The entire election cycle rocked this nation to the core--even those with diverse political views can probably agree on this.

Activist and pundit websites still seem pretty active, but something has changed for the rest of us. It's like a hush has fallen over the land. A pregnant pause, perhaps, but a pause nonetheless.

I participated in countless discussions online over the course of the election. I've seen articles and internet memes shared of every tone and timbre. I wrote my fair share. It's easy to wonder if all that effort was wasted. One outcome certainly doesn't mean all effort was wasted--those of us who work for social change know that the struggle requires ongoing, consistent effort--but I would be remiss not to wonder if all the internet chatter were more part of the problem than solution. We may need something else.

Maybe a chain of events is simply unfolding, following a predictable trajectory, of something put in motion a long time ago. The state of the union may be the inevitable result of  years of big money in politics, disenfranchisement of the people, a media that is more propaganda than news and a lack of any reliable checks and balances in government. It is like all norms and standards have been chucked out the proverbial window.

History has shown time and again that in prolonged periods of economic distress, people are vulnerable to the lure of an authoritarian demagogue who promises to make everything great again.  As if it were so easy. The alternative of "business as usual" doesn't capture the imagination of the people, either, but the system is all too resistant to substantial change. Like an addict out of control, the system may have to regrettably hit rock before it realizes it has a problem and has the will to do anything about it.

We've all heard the Trump/Clinton/Sanders debates ad nauseam. There's no need to rehash them here. When a system is vulnerable, it doesn't take very long for people to come along to exploit those vulnerabilities. People are often surprised by what they see in Trump and his behavior, because almost daily he makes statements any one of which would predictably end the political career of anyone else in normal times. But these are not normal times. Despite that, a very good case can be made that it's simply an extension--and exaggeration--of what has already been going on for years. The tree which has been nurtured is simply bearing its fruit.

It is dismal--but in some ways reassuring--to realize we may be entering a dark time. But this "dark night of the soul" can be at time of cleansing and renewal, as some writers have pointed out.  That is encouraging, even though "cleansing and renewal" on the stage of world politics usually mean death and destruction for multitudes before the ship rights itself again.  All shall be well.  Eventually. We are reminded of this Holy Good News. But tell that to the people of Aleppo today, if you can find any still alive, to share the news with. Finding hope in the dark night is definitely a long-range proposal.


Perhaps the reason it has been difficult to write is because silence is the only coherent response. By no means do I mean to suggest that silence equals inaction. The central Christian call to love one another requires bold, stark action--eventually. But almost all religious traditions of the world affirm a fundamental need to tune into silence, to take a pause and stop the chatter of the mind. We all instinctively know this.

Silence is the proper stance to take in the early moments of December 25th, when the long-awaited Emmanuel comes to us. That holy night is, after all, a silent night.

It is in that silence that God speaks best. God speaks his Word out of silence and all Creation unfolds. God speaks on that Silent Night when human and divine are birthed together. 

When I drive through the majestic mountains of western North Carolina, I just know in my bones to be quiet. I don't just fall silent--I shut the hell up. It's not a conscious decision. As the mountains get bigger as I journey deeper into the Smokies, it becomes abundantly clear to just be quiet. Whether I'm listening to music or engaged in conversation, there comes a point when it all stops as a matter of course. It doesn't feel like a request as much of a command. The mountains simply demand that kind of respect. Anyone who has ever been in the mountains knows this. If you absolutely must speak, you instinctively know to do it in a hushed whisper.

When confronting unspeakable horrors, like visiting a former Concentration camp, many people find there are no words. In the face of either awesome majesty or incomprehensible tragedy, there is something in us that knows that silence is the only appropriate stance.

When things fall apart, we get a clear message: Something is wrong. Perhaps we ignored the warning signs and best practices or were simply caught off guard. The house was either built with faulty materials or on a foundation of sand. We know this by the simple truth that is no longer stands. We then retreat back to the space where we know everything still makes sense. It's a system reboot to the last point in time when everything was okay. In extreme times, that requires us to go as far back as we can possibly go. That point--the alpha and the omega (or at least as close as we can get to it)--is silence.

Silence is the place of transformation. It is the place of ultimate humility. It is the place of admission that we simply do no have the answers and need to go to the ultimate Source, the Wellspring of all that is Good. We realize we need to listen, and listen deeply, before we dare start speaking again.

I don't despise the human condition. Human chatter is as much a part of the unfolding of Creation as birds singing in nature or the peaceful splatter of a waterfall. But we all know the propensity of humans to fantasize that we are somehow separate or superior to what God has created. In order to grow into the people we are built to be, we have to learn how to set aside this pride--this ego--this idolatry--whatever you want to call it, and find our deeper calling and participation in this harmony. We've got work to do to reclaim this. Christian tradition refers to this as our "fallen" condition.

Leonard Cohen tells us that King David had a "secret chord that pleased the Lord." Musicians will spare no expense of energy searching for it. But what if that secret chord was the music of silence? But whatever it is, it is no small wonder it came from the "baffled King," as no human could truly compose it out of his own genius.

Silence doesn't change the world--at least not at first. I'm reminded of another songSilence is golden, but my eyes still see. In fact, silence actually helps us see better, as we step away from our self-made distractions and face the scariest word of all: Is. Not our fantasy, but what actually is. Reality. That is the risk of silence. That's why we avoid it--I know that's true for me.  But sometimes things happen that force us kicking and screaming to simply shut up. A hush has fallen over the land. Things will happen. Words will be said. But for now, the task is ours to listen and be still and know that God is Lord. And we ought not step out of this silence until we have damn well learned what we need to learn and centered ourselves where we need to be centered.


Another great song that has been going through my mind in writing this post:
Holy Darkness, by Dan Schutte and performed by John Michael Talbot.

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