“In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Two months ago an anti-government uprising began throughout the Ukraine. The unrest has brought thousands into the streets. Amidst the burned buses, tear gas, and barricades, a large number of Orthodox priests have assembled, not to protest but to pray. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s government threatened to ban prayer services at the protest but that did not stop the priests from showing up with their robes, crosses, and holy books.
One priest spoke about the proposed ban as being “illegal and immoral.” “Nobody can forbid people to pray,” he said.
I have learned all my life and believe with all my heart that prayer is essential to Christian identity. The church must pray. In my faith tradition we believe that there is power in prayer. We anoint and pray for the sick because we are confident that God has the ability to heal. We pray for the poor and those in need because we identify God as a provider. The Church must pray.
But the Church must also speak.
The church is not only obligated to pray for the sick but also to advocate for access to better healthcare and affordable medicine. The church is not only obligated to pray for the poor but to seek redress from broken systems that lead to poverty. We must speak for a reasonable living wage. We must speak against exploitation and oppression. We must offer both bread and reproach, prayer and action.
The Church is not the church if it is not concerned with the human condition. Neither is the church fit to call itself Christian if it does not reprove the systems, paradigms, and the politics that perpetuate inhuman and immoral conditions.
In his 1967 speech, “A Time to Break the Silence,” Dr. King admittedly discovered that “…the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” Our moral conscience leaves us no other choice.
If the church’s heart becomes totally poisoned, the autopsy must identify a partial cause of death as “silence.”
Not many understand the importance and difficulty of the church speaking more than Dr. King. Many condemned King for his diatribe against the Vietnam War in his quest to connect Montgomery and Asia. They contended that he was hurting his own cause and that peace and civil rights did not mix. King explained that through conscription (military draft) we were exploiting the poor. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia. We told them that they could not solve their problems with Molotov cocktails and rifles yet America is using massive violence to solve their own.”
Over 40 years later these Ukrainian priests find themselves in scenes reminiscent of the civil rights movement. At the threat of being tossed in jail, and while staring down the barrel of guns, they show up, not to protest but to pray. Through their presence these cross-wielding, Bible-toting, robe-wearing holy men speak. Through their defiance and civil disobedience, they speak. Loudly, passionately, and poignantly, they speak. They speak because their moral conscience demands it.
The Christian Church must speak.
Whether it is against a corrupt government in the Ukraine that seeks to silence the prayers of the people or corrupt capitalists in the United States that promote profits over and apart from the human condition, the Church must speak. Be it from the steps of the state capitol or from the asylum of the pulpit, the Church must speak. We must both feed the hungry and advocate to change the structures that affect the human condition. The church’s voice is vital for both those offended and those who have committed offense.
There is no magic in the pronoun “my” that gives some people greater value than others, nor is God divided by borders and boundaries. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell herein. Or, in Dr. King’s words: “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama.