Pause to think

The BBC posted an excerpt from a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday. A reporter asks Trudeau for his comments on recent actions by US President Donald Trump and if he has no comment, why this is so. Trudeau pauses before answering. You can see him stare directly into the cameras and imagine that he is thinking and choosing his words very carefully. By the clock the pause isn’t very long - about 22 seconds. We, however, are not used to silence in a video clip. A few seconds seem like an eternity. Then he speaks very slowly, very precisely and very carefully about the realities of racial injustice in Canada. Rather than point his fingers or direct his rhetoric at another country, he speaks of changes that need to occur in Canada.

I’ve watched the minute and a half clip several times. As awkward as the silence is, I am grateful for it. Politics aside, I hope that I can develop the same kind of thoughtfulness about what I say. Of course, I will never be put on the spot at a press conference. There aren’t that many people who are interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, I do have a small audience. According to Facebook, 277 people have watched the prayer I offered on Monday morning. They are probably the same people, but I routinely get over 100 views for daily prayer. Worship livestreams are running between 150 and 225 views. Certainly those people deserve carefully chosen words. I write out the prayers and read from manuscript for daily prayer. I do not write out my reflections and commentary. And I’ve made a few mistakes over the months that we have been live-streaming daily prayer. I had trouble coming up with the name of someone with whom I regularly work. I mis-spoke the date of a prayer once. I’ve made a few mistakes that made me wish I had better prepared.

It isn’t just the silence that is remarkable about Trudeau’s answer. After the silence he spoke carefully and deliberately about now being a time to listen and a time to learn about injustice and how persistent injustice can be in many different cultures and countries.

A colleague asked me in an email message yesterday about what we as clergy are doing in response to the death of George Floyd and the protests that are occurring across the nation. He quoted the oft-sed aphorism, “Silence is violence.” I have not yet responded to his message, though I definitely will. My initial reaction was to simply answer, “What are you doing? What have you organized?” I was a bit taken back that he was waiting for others to provide the leadership in a critical moment. But I didn’t send that note. I also thought about previous protests and actions that have addressed issues of injustice in our community and what role I played. I have tried to serve as a witness to the events in my community without becoming a direct participant in marches, rallies and protests. There are some who might say that my position is cowardly - that I should speak out and participate. And there is some truth to what they say. I am reluctant to take a stand that might stir division within the congregation that I serve. I don’t think, however, that it is just about playing it safe to preserve my job. I may be justifying my behavior, but times of social unrest seem to me to be times to nurture unity within the church and shift the focus from the immediate crisis to a bigger picture of the world.

The bigger picture is so hard to grasp in the chaos of the daily news cycle. Who would have thought just ten days ago that any news story would be able to dominate the headlines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? I expected that this week the headlines would be much like those of two weeks ago. I was wrong. The reporters and pundits have had their attention distracted by something else.

Some of what we are witnessing seems a bit like deja vu. The 1969 Watts riots in Los Angeles garnered national attention as frustration devolved into fires and looting and uncontrolled violence. In 1991 the beating of Rodney King sparked more protests and rioting. In both cases there were voices of calm and the majority of protesters were peaceful, but violence erupted nonetheless.

This, however, is different. It isn’t taking place somewhere else. As horrified as I am by the headlines and videos of major cities erupting in violence, it isn’t as frightening to me as watching last night as a line of sheriff’s deputies and city police officers, not in full riot gear, stood between a handful of shouting Trump supporters attempting to confront participants in a peaceful protest in Main Street Square right here in our own home town. It was pretty clear that dialogue was not possible. You can’t reason with someone who is shouting too loud to listen. I don’t think the participants or the officers were in any real danger and there were no punches thrown or property damaged that I witnessed, but the raw emotions were pretty palpable. It certainly was enough to make me sit quietly before saying or writing anything. I’m a bit speechless at the divisions that are so evident in our own community and the intensity of the words that are spoken. Frankly, I don’t use that kind of language and I’m offended by the words that get spoken, by the way that the flag is brandished as a weapon instead of honored as a sacred symbol, and by the disrespect and treatment of law enforcement officers as if they were not real people. You don’t have to ignore cops. You can talk to them.

Fortunately, it is Wednesday morning. I don’t have to preach a sermon until Sunday. I have some time to think and choose my words carefully.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!