The Silence of the Lamb
501 years ago, Martin Luther challenged his religious authorities to reconsider their beliefs and practices. This week, Dr Katie Edwards, director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies has issued a challenge to contemporary religious authorities. What follows is an extract from Edwards’ essay, The Silence of the Lamb.
As a child I was taught that silence was golden. On our way to assembly the teachers would make us press our fingers over our lips so only the sound of us padding to the hall could be heard. The local vicar stood at the front of the class every year at Lent to tell us that Jesus was silent in the face of his accusers. He would tell us that silence “can be more eloquent than a speech and louder than a shout”.
He would draw on the passage from St Matthew’s Gospel in which, after his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus is brought before Pilate, and refuses to answer his questions. I was confused by the silence of Jesus – why didn’t he speak out? Of course, various interpretations have read this silence as a way of wresting power back from Pilate. But as a child the message was clear to me: silence was strength; and in the face of adversity or abuse, it was dignified.
I wasn’t the only one among the pupils of that school in South Yorkshire for whom silence became a kind of default behaviour.
It didn’t even occur to us to tell an adult what had happened. We knew we would be blamed (“What did you think would happen if you hang around with men?”) Silence felt safe. In the end, I think, it turns out my instincts were spot on. How many girls and women did speak out about their abuse and weren’t believed – or were (half) believed, and then blamed and punished?
I thought of the vicar’s words a lot in that time. I found it comforting because even Jesus, my childhood model of virtue, had no words in the face of impending violence. But disquieting too – what kind of model is a silent Jesus for those experiencing abuse and receiving scant support from authority figures?
In our post-Rotherham, post-Weinstein, #MeToo era it seems we have finally understood the dangers of silence and the power of speaking out. Yet victims of sexual violence are still being condemned for their silence. During the Weinstein scandal, women who had spoken up about their abuse were heavily criticised, as if their earlier silence made them complicit in their own or others’ abuse. We still have so far to go.
The vicar never told us about the other Jesus in the Gospel of St John – the one who speaks out, who speaks up about speaking out. Arrested and questioned by the high priest, he says: “I have always spoken openly to the world.” Likewise before Pilate, Jesus engages in feisty debate. He questions, he answers: “I came into the world to testify to the truth.”
As Holy Week approaches, many Christians are reflecting on Christ’s Passion. Of course, speaking out didn’t stop the authorities torturing and killing him. But what if I’d been told that there’s strength and dignity in not staying silent? What if I had been taught to be confident in my own voice? It might have changed things for me – and some of the other kids in my old school.
Hear the essay in full (broadcast on Tuesday 21 March as part of BBC Radio 4’s Lent Talks): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09w12jh
Read a longer extract in The Guardian.
See more about the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies.
Feature image: Detail from Munkácsy’s painting, Christ before Pilate, courtesy of Wikimedia.