The Side of Silence

It is not uncommon (especially in recent days) to hear someone make a public statement that includes comments along the lines of “I just couldn’t stay silent any longer.”

One of the tactics used to encourage others to chime in and voice their support for the issue at hand is the accusation that to remain silent is to be “on the wrong side of history” . . . that silence is tacit approval of the “evil” being denounced.  There are two famous quotes to this effect, one misattributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”)1, and another misattributed to Edmund Burke (“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”)2.

Not-Bonhoeffer and Not-Burke are right that staying on the sidelines is not an option.  Silence cannot be equated with neutrality.  Declining to publicly proclaim your stance on a particular issue or conflict does not mean that you are not “helping” one side or the other.  The question is, which side is bolstered by your silence?

If you don’t make it a point to say #BlackLivesMatter, does that mean you’re okay with racism?
   or
If you don’t object to the #BLM movement, is that an indication that you’re okay with Critical Race Theory and Marxist ideology?

If you refuse to put a rainbow on your profile pic, does that mean you’re a homophobic bigot?
   or
If you don’t speak up against gay marriage, does that mean you’re on-board with allowing the sexual revolution to continue unabated?

Depending on the situation, your silence could benefit either side of these divisive issues. It requires wisdom and insight to recognize whose side will benefit the most from your silence.  The answer to that question may well depend on the context of your situation, who the audience is, what type of platform you have, etc.  However, do not mistake silence for neutrality.

On two occasions, Jesus addressed the actions and attitudes of those who were not his followers.  Despite not being his followers, neither group was neutral.  In one case he claimed them as allies (Mark 9:40 – “the one who is not against us is for us”), whereas in the other case he proclaimed them to be his adversaries (Matthew 12:30 – “whoever is not with me is against me”).

The determining factor was not based on their issuance of a public statement proclaiming their affiliation with Jesus or their opposition to Jesus.  Neither was their “side” determined by their failure to issue a public statement declaring themselves for or against Jesus.  Instead, it was their actions and attitudes that made the difference.

What actions and attitudes are you putting on display?  Are you furthering the cause of Jesus or the world?


  1. https://www.wthrockmorton.com/2016/08/25/the-popular-bonhoeffer-quote-that-isnt-in-bonhoeffers-works/ 

  2. https://checkyourfact.com/2019/06/05/fact-check-edmund-burke-triumph-evil-good-men/ 

To Mask or Not to Mask?

Lots of people have strong opinions about whether or not we should all be wearing masks right now.  The answer to that question is not as simple as some would have you believe.

There are two issues that must be resolved: 1) do health concerns warrant mask wearing, and 2) does submission to authority warrant mask wearing?

If masks provide the health benefits that are claimed, then the second question is not all that relevant.  If a mask is a low-cost, low-effort, and effective means of protecting myself and others, then it makes sense to wear one, whether it’s mandatory or not.  If I knew exactly when and where I might be exposed to a contagious virus, then I would not need to wear a mask unless I knew I was in the presence of the virus.  If I knew that I was not a carrier, I would not need to wear a mask to protect others.  However, I cannot know when and where I might be exposed, and I cannot necessarily know if I am a carrier who might inadvertently pass the virus to someone else.  So, the question becomes a matter of whether the risks of transmission and the benefits of the mask are high enough to outweigh the downsides of wearing a mask.

Some people think this is an easy question.  They argue that the risks are reasonably high (although impossible to know for sure), that a mask substantially reduces those risks (especially when worn by an infected person to reduce the spread at the source), and that the downsides are so low that it’s a no-brainer.  This is the “accepted narrative” being put forth by the majority of health experts and public leaders right now (although a few months ago it was a different story).

Others point to statistics showing that the risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19 is not all that fearsome, studies that cast doubt on the efficacy of masks in mitigating the risk, and concerns that the downsides of masks are higher than what is often acknowledged.  These concerns are typically countered by appeal to the “scientific consensus,” but scientific consensus is fickle and is sometimes influenced by things other than unbiased interpretation of the evidence (not only the interpretation, but even the generation and collection of “evidence” is subject to biases).

In light of doubts about the true health benefits of wearing masks, the second reason to wear masks is to  comply with a mandate from a governing authority.  Legal consequences notwithstanding, those who share Christian convictions recognize our obligation to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).  This obligation to obey extends even to those rulers who are unjust (1 Peter 2:18).  The only exception is when the authority demands something that is contrary to God’s law (Acts 4:18-19, 5:28-29, Ex. 1:17).

The question on this front is: what if the claim to authority is illegitimate?  Even though the person or body making the claim does have legitimate authority, their authority has bounds.  A teacher has legitimate authority in the classroom, an employer has legitimate authority in the workplace, a parent has legitimate authority in the home, elders have legitimate authority in the church, and civil governments have legitimate authority in the public sphere.  But when an authority in one sphere oversteps the bounds of their authority, one is not being disobedient to ignore their demands.  A demand by someone without the authority to make such a demand can be disregarded.  This is not disobedience; it is simply a recognition that the demand is not authoritative.  In some situations, one may choose to acquiesce to the demand for other reasons (to escape the threat of violence or other costs), but it may also be appropriate to refute the illegitimate authority claim.

Does a government official or body have the legitimate authority to require healthy (or presumed healthy) individuals to wear masks everywhere they might go?  Does their authority extend to private enterprises (businesses, schools, churches, etc.)?  Some say yes, some say no.  What is the basis of their authority?  Is it simply because they have the power to enforce their demand (might makes right)?  Is the authority vested in them by the law?  What if the demand exceeds the authority granted by the law?  What if a law is crafted that exceeds or violates the authority granted by the constitution?  Does the authority rest in the individual(s) representing the government, or in the legal code that established the government?  If a state constitution does not give a governor the authority to mandate the wearing of masks, and if one remains unconvinced of the health benefits, then is it still necessary to “submit” to the illegitimate authority claim?  Is it better to stand up against the illegitimate authority claim?  What if, instead of a mask, the government mandated that certain elements of the population wear an armband with a yellow star?  Do Christians have an obligation to obey such a command, or would compliance only be recommended under duress to avoid the threat of penalty?

Given that there are doubts about the medical necessity of mass mask-wearing, and doubts about the legitimacy of governmental mandates to wear masks, I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should all be wearing masks, and I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should not all be wearing masks.

The Necessity of Debate

Many (most?) people will accept the following two principles:

  1. The truth matters.
  2. No one (except God) has a corner on the truth.

Therefore, debate is necessary.

Because of principle #2, humility is necessary, and continual engagement with others is necessary. We should not think, “I have obtained the truth, so there is no need for debate.”

Some people put so much emphasis on principle #2 that they are unwilling or uninterested in debating the truth. But this has the effect of negating principle #1. If we stop short of finding the truth, or declare that the truth is unobtainable, then we are essentially saying that the truth is not necessary. To believe that the truth matters, is also to believe that the truth is something that can be grasped (not exhaustively, or in every situation, but in general; see principle #2), and is worth fighting for.

Strange Hair

What follows is an undated writing assignment I found in my collection of school papers. I’m guessing junior high.

I enjoy watching people. You sometimes see crazy people or see normal people doing things that seem crazy. I remember going into a supermarket and seeing a woman apparently talking to the dairy section of the store. I wasn’t sure if I was mistaken about her talking to the cheese, or if she was really crazy. Then a hand appeared from behind the cheese. At first this seemed very strange, but it didn’t take long to realize that there was a person behind the cheese display who was talking to the woman.

A mall is a good place to watch people, especially if you like seeing crazy people with weird hairstyles. I like to go to the mall. It is amazing the kind of hair you will see–it is often straight up, straight out, or so strange that it cannot be described.

Order From Disorder

“When will I ever use _________ in real life?”  Students (and sometimes their parents) ask this question about algebra, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, grammatical parts of speech, literature, history, or other subjects that they find difficult to learn.

As human beings created in the image of God, one of the ways we reflect God’s image is by creating order from disorder.  Although God created ex nihilo (which we as humans cannot do), part of his creative effort was to create order from disorder.  Genesis 1:2 tells us that the initial state of the earth was “formless.”  The first thing God did was to separate light (day) from darkness (night).  Next he separated the waters above (sky) from the waters below, and finally he separated the waters below (sea) from the dry ground (land).

When humans “create,” we use our God-given faculties to put things in a meaningful order or structure.  Scientific and mathematical discoveries are all about discovering the order that God has instilled in the universe, and utilizing that order to discover yet more and harnessing that order in ways that benefit us.  Learning about, and helping to define the order of our world isn’t just useful for those considering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers (although this is certainly a very good reason for learning these subjects).  It is also an exercise in understanding and reflecting our Creator.

It’s fairly easy to see how science is a means of discovering and utilizing the order that exists in the physical world around us, while mathematics may be described as a logical structure explaining and predicting what we observe in the physical world.  But this exercise in observing and creating order is not limited to just the fields of math and science.  Language and art is also about creating order and meaning.

Without organizing thoughts and meanings into words and language, our communication would be limited to pointing and grunting.  Assembling words with no regard for their order and structure is what we call “gibberish.”  This is why all students should welcome the opportunity to learn sentence structure, parts of speech, and how different ways of organizing words can enhance meaning.  A sonnet, a haiku, a pun, a limerick, etc., are different ways of organizing and structuring words and thoughts that may elicit a different response than if they were organized differently.  So, even if the language arts are not “your bag,” there is value in understanding how words are ordered and structured.  Again, putting random words into a meaningful order is a creative process that reflects our Creator and it gives Him glory when we follow Him in creating order from disorder.

It should be clear by now that the visual arts and musical arts are also creative outlets for producing order and structure in a way that reflects and glorifies our Creator.  A piece of artwork keeps colors and lines separated and ordered in a way that creates meaning.  A musical composition arranges notes and sounds in a certain order.  Whether someone finds that order “pleasing” or not, it’s still a creative effort that can be distinguished from random, unordered sounds (aka “noise”).

Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”  Even those of us who are not kings can partake in the glory of kings and the glory of God by seeking to find and create order in the world around us.  Keep this in mind the next time you are struggling to solve a quadratic equation or remember what a dangling gerund is.