A Call for Quiet

By Charles Marsh

In a concentration camp in 1944, where he was imprisoned for his participation in the resistance movement against the Nazis, the theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered the future of the church in Germany as it lay in the ruins of its fatal allegiance to Hitler. “The time of words is over,” he wrote. The language of the Christian faith had lost its credibility and power, and, as a result, being a Christian would now need to be limited to the quiet practices of “prayer and righteous action.” I wonder whether it is not time to give Bonhoeffer’s meditation a new hearing.

American patriotism has become a cult of self-worship consecrated by court prophets robed in pin-striped suits. Forgetting the crucial difference between discipleship to Jesus Christ and loyalty to nation, the God most Americans trust is a simulacrum of the holy and righteous God, a reification of the American way of life. The hundreds of sermons preached in support of the United States invasion of Iraq had the effect of baptizing military ambition in the shallow waters of civil piety and showing utter contempt for the global and ecumenical church.

The public debate on religion and moral values that followed last fall’s election introduced many Americans to a forgotten discourse of the Christian left. In particular, the success of Jim Wallis’s book God’s Politics has revealed a culture of progressive Christians ready to revitalize the Democratic Party and purchase books in large quantities. Yet this movement to reclaim the soul of politics, while refreshing to many of us, has not fully reckoned with the grave, systemic results of the religious saturation of the public square, with the theological meaning of this saturation, and the death-by-a-thousand-equivocations of the language of faith. The hope of a more compelling public discourse of faith may then be naïve on our part: making room at the table for both the Christian right and the left appears to be producing as much cacophony as clarity. “There is too much talk,” wrote Bonhoeffer.

What should Christians do in response to the desecration of religious language in its recent political and public rehearsals? The question is an urgent one, is it not? For we have seen Christian Coalition activists in Ohio holding high a cross with the words “Bush-Cheney” painted in red across white beams, and we have heard the chilling new catechisms of American Christendom—”Our God is pro-war,” said Jerry Falwell—and we find ourselves unable to imagine any public argument capable of restoring integrity and depth to the sacred symbols of the faith. What shall we then do? “All Christian thinking and speaking” must be born anew out of the discipline of holy silence, Bonhoeffer wrote. We must have the courage and the humility to recognize that God is most certainly tired of our talk. We must learn to be quiet in a nation of noisy believers. Only then will the day come “that people will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it.

“Holy silence is not then the same as the withdrawal of religion from the public square, the kind strongly recommended by the philosopher Richard Rorty, who dismisses religious claims as “conversation stoppers” and inherently irrational. Rather, holy silence is shaped by a passion for faith’s integrity, and it hides faith’s mysteries in acts of compassion and preserves them in prayer, liturgy, devotional life, and worship. Holy silence is a season of concentrated attention to faith’s essential affirmations, during which we bear witness to the authenticity of our faith in the practices we keep: showing hospitality to strangers and outcasts; affirming the unity of the created order; reclaiming the ideals of beauty, love, honesty, and truth, embracing the preferential option for nonviolence, and learning to live in the world in a way that is participatory rather than manipulative. The discipline of holy silence prepares us for a time when we may speak of God once more as one who comes to us from a country far from our own.

Let us then live with passionate worldliness in our anxious and violent age, and may the convictions of our faith be nurtured in the audacity of our hope and the generosity of our love. The hour is late. Let’s get busy and keep silent.

Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and director of its Project on Lived Theology. His book The Beloved Community has recently been published by Basic Books.

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