I am encouraged to see more pastors and Christians step forward and speak out for racial justice (and against racial injustice). I myself realize that I previously had been too silent, or at least too hesitant, to speak on these important issues.
My hesitation did not really help anybody or anything. The Bible, meanwhile, has much to say about speaking up for the oppressed. Prov. 31:8-9 says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Prov. 3:27-28 says not to withhold good from those “who deserve it when it is in your power to act.”
We are living in an age that emboldens people to speak out. At the same time, an idea has emerged that must be pondered.
It is this: Silence is agreement. If you do not speak out—or even if you do not speak out quickly enough on any given topic—it’s viewed to be agreement or complicity with a wrong.
Is that idea right or biblical?
Let’s first look at the life of Jesus Himself. Time after time, Jesus was fearless in speaking truth to authority (Matt. 23:13; Luke 13:32; John 19:11).
At the same time, we notice a pattern in which Jesus sometimes refused to speak or comment. Prior to helping a Gentile woman’s daughter (Matt. 5:21-28), He does not speak when we expect. Jesus refused to explain by what authority He was performing miracles (Mark 11:33). In the events leading up to His crucifixion, Jesus remained silent before His accusers (Matt. 26:62-63).
It has to be stated that there were very specific underlying reasons for His silence in these examples; and what’s more, that’s Jesus. He’s God’s only Son, and we are not.
So how should everyday Christians act and speak?
The Bible has much to say about the tongue and seems repeatedly to praise holding your tongue.
Prov. 21:23 says, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” Prov. 17:28 says, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”
So on one hand, we see the need to speak, and on the other, the need to be silent. Between the extremes we see and hear on social media today—of people uttering everything that comes to mind, and others refusing to speak on the most pressing issues—is there a golden mean of which Christians should aspire?
King Solomon said, “There is a time to listen, and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). In the New Testament, James extols, not silence, but rather being “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
It appears from the Scripture that Christians must learn when to speak. During Job’s great suffering, his friends said all the wrong things at all the wrong times. Bildad and the others did great harm through the wrong words (Job 8:4).
When the topic of race comes up, I know many people who are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all.
The famous Roman historian Edward Gibbon, who served in British parliament, was once asked why he never gave a speech. He said that the examples of all of the good speeches and all of the bad speeches deterred him from ever speaking forth.
Today, there are a lot of good and bad—and ugly—examples of people commenting on race. I have come to realize we cannot let these deter us from saying anything. While silence may not always be agreement, we must better learn, like James, to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak.”
The next time news hits, take a moment to listen before you speak. Find ways to speak wisely, to speak with people not at them. In the end, God’s Kingdom and the Gospel advance will be helped by Christians learning the right time to listen and the right time to speak.