My daughter Ruth and I recently watched “12 Years a Slave.” Over and over during it, I kept thinking: That could have been me. I could have been the one causing harm to that man or woman or child. And I cried more.
I grew up for a time near Charleston, South Carolina. I went to elementary school there. And I am pretty sure that if I had grown up there 125 years earlier that I would have been either the plantation owner’s wife or the poor white farmer’s wife.
And either way I would have been silent. Just like most of them were.
I would have felt bad. I would have inwardly thought the way the slaves were treated was unfortunate. But I almost certainly would have been quiet and gone along with the way things were.
I wouldn’t have wanted to anger my husband. I wouldn’t have wanted to cause a fuss. I would have reasoned that speaking up wouldn’t do any good anyway. “We have to make a living somehow,” I would say. “At least we’re nicer to the slaves than the Johnsons down the road.” Little justifications to ease my conscience.
In most cases, the women of the antebellum South didn’t whip and beat the slaves. But they usually didn’t intercede or stop the beatings either or demand that all the slaves on their land be set free. It was the ultimate sin of omission. In the end, they might as well have been whipping them.
And, left to myself, I am no different. Silence is my tendency. Not speaking out of fear is my sin. I crave peace even if it is false peace. I crave comfort. I crave the idyllic, people just getting along nicely.
It is so ugly, this sin of silence, so self-serving.
I don’t speak when I know I should. I let fear of sounding dumb or being thought a nuisance shut me up. I am afraid of saying the wrong thing or coming across wrong. I hesitate, thinking maybe someone else will speak up. Or I think someone else will come along who can do a better job.
With Doug, with each of my kids, there have been very real times when I should have spoken and didn’t. In each case, sadly, I loved myself more than them.
I know what is in my heart and know that apart from God miraculously intervening in the past and present, incessant sins of omission would very clearly be my lot. But because God has and does intervene, I have forgiveness and hope. For this, I am extremely grateful.
God continues to grow me in this area. He continues to strengthen my voice and release me to be His agent in the world, to speak against what is wrong and speak for what is good.
Lord, give me courage to speak and to act when I know I should. Help me to speak up for those in our city, nation, and elsewhere who need someone to advocate for them and also to those who need someone willing to speak the truth in love to them.
Julie Serven craves shalom for people and places. She enjoys editing, helping people with literacy skills, hearing people’s stories, exploring all things OKC, yoga, NPR, and spending time with her ultracool family.