“When Silence Is Betrayal”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
February 9, 2020
“He was trying to see who Jesus was…” — Luke 19:3ai
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:6i
While the war in Vietnam was raging, Dr. King was waging a battle of his own here in America. The old order was giving way to a breath of freedom and the cause King championed was bearing fruit. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was seen as morally reprehensible and Jim Crow was on the run. But Vietnam was awash in blood. American dead would come to stand at 58,220, 1and civilian casualties for both sides is placed at 2 million. At some point, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, came to realize that the war was unwinnable but continued to tell the American people that the tide was turning, and more young men were sent to a conflict he knew was futile.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke out against the war for the first time. Many within the Civil Rights movement wanted King to keep silent. They feared that the war would become a distraction and a source of division, that King and the movement he had come to represent would be seen as unpatriotic. But King, have devoted his life to nonviolence, would not be deterred and declared that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Such a time may be before us. We are living in the midst of moral chaos. Lies are pronounced as truth and facts are ignored lest they become burdensome to those in power. We live in a time when seeking foreign intervention in our elections is pronounced “okay,” and the words of Isaiah ring in our ears: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bods of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah may have been written long ago, but it speaks to our present condition.
I need not cite the corruption that is before us — the 34 people indicted by the Mueller investigation, the avoidance of accountability, the countless lies told, the conspiracies spun to advance unproven narratives. We live in a time when the ideals of our nation have become secondary to the advancement of political careers. Unless the truth be told, unless the principles of decency and fairness come once again to the fore, no nation has survived such a time as this.
It was Archibald MacLeish, who writing at the time of our national centennial, captured our current condition in his poem, Conversation in a Belfry
Centennial bell that will not ring,
tell me why your iron tongue
rusts in the rain, your mouth is dumb.
Why are you silent, bell?
You are not shamed.
Not I but you.
We? With all we’ve done and do?
We’ve ruled ourselves two hundred years.
No name on earth is proud as ours.
It was your fathers’ pride that ruled:
their sons are tricked and lied to, fooled
as Lincoln thought no people could be,
all of them – always – for their good!
But still we’re free. Ring out! O ring!
What man is free when fraud is king?
Our souls are ours: our minds our own.
Your master listens on the telephone.
We govern. It is we decide.
You to whom your government has lied!
Ring out and all will understand
This is John Adams’ well-loved land …
John Adams would have seen you damned.
… where Jefferson’s immortal word …
Jefferson’s immortal word
is yet to hear. It will be heard
but not by those who sell his soul.
You ring now, bell.
I toll. I toll.
What is needed, however, is not a cataloguing of our illness, but the kindling of hope. I am convinced that this great nation and the ideals of freedom, liberty, justice and equality are waiting for a rebirth.
This is not the first crises our nation has passed through. Conolly Gamble reminds us of another time when the future of our nation hung in the balance. Gamble writes:
“In the darkest hour of the American Revolution, when the British were winning everywhere, a general with hands wringing and near to tears came to the tent of George Washington. ‘We are lost! Everything is lost!’ he quivered. With flashing eye General Washington drew himself to his full height and replied, ‘Sir, you do not know the resources and genius of liberty.'”2
Great trials have faced our nation. There have been times when our future was in doubt, our ideals tested. We may be a fractured and divided nation but did we not pass through the horror of the Civil War and come out a united people? We faced the challenge of Communist aggression and, yes, we succumbed to fear and watched as Senator Joseph McCarthy put on trial those who dared to cast doubt on America’s virtue. But we survived him and came once again to embrace the very liberty of thought that helped form our Union. The time before us is dire, but it is not doomed. The Spirit of God will, if we but let it, guide us into a new day when King’s dream will be revived. We will not ever be a perfect nation, but we can yet light the way to a better nation if we will but remember the power of forgiveness and the need for personal humility.
My friends, there comes a time when silence is betrayal, but there are also moments when to speak is not enough. It is time to embrace the better angles of our character and to find in our neighbor the face of God. The future may be difficult, but we enter it with God at our side. Let us pray….
1 Internet: Accessed February 4, 2020, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics
2 Gamble, Conolly, Baptist Leader, Dec, 1981, p. 45.
i Isaiah 58:1-12
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.