When I say nothing at all

Just the other day I was in line at Chick-fil-A getting some breakfast. There were two registers open, but everyone was kind of waiting in one line, going to whichever register came open first (there were only about 5 people in line). A man came in, got in back of the line, and immediately began saying very rude things to the man in front of him, complaining that the man wasn’t picking a line. After a good bit of verbal abuse, the man in front said (in a more polite voice than I would likely have used), “Okay, I’ll just stay in this line (he pointed at the left register).” The man behind him was not satisfied but continued to berate the other, even threatening him with violence.

The young girl who had taken my order (I was waiting on my food) told the man to calm down or she would call the authorities. This did not have a positive impact. Instead the man became incensed and began cursing everyone, yelled something about getting his gun, and then started to walk out. As he got to the door, however, he was confronted by two policemen. They may have been detectives because they were not wearing uniforms, but shirts and ties. Each did have a clearly visible firearm on his belt. They took the man outside and were still talking to him when I left with my food (I took it to go).

Do you know what I said during this dramatic vignette? Nothing. I did not say a word. All of this occurred behind me. I did not even turn around. I saw some of it out of the corner of my eye, and I heard everything very clearly, but I only ever looked at the man as he was heading to the door and met the officers he did not know were present. Until that moment, however, I kept my face forward, studying the menus (even though I had already ordered and know the menu well enough by now that I never read it anyway).

Amy and the kids were waiting in the car for me and were eager to know what all the drama was about (the man and the officers were having quite a conversation still outside). I told them and Amy thought I did the right thing by ignoring it. She thought I would have only made it worse, that nothing could have helped. I’m not so sure. Maybe in this instance she is right. But I worry about the tendency we have as humans to ignore, to look the other way, to remain passive and uninvolved. How many people did this in Nazi Germany? How many did this more recently in Rwanda or in Darfur? How many are doing this now as civil discourse seems to have become a lost art? Are there only screaming voices left because too many of us refuse to speak up?

Of course, this little situation is completely insignificant compared to those. But that does not seem to make me feel better. If I can’t speak peace into a queue squabble at the local CFA, how is more than that possible?

Are there times when we make situations worse, not by what we say, but by our unwillingness to say anything at all?

5 thoughts on “When I say nothing at all

  1. Great thought provoking post, man.

    You’re absolutely right that things like this are progressive. Today, it’s ignoring threats of violence and someday later it’s not calling the police when a woman is being raped outside your apartment (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,294352,00.html).

    I know the spirit of God is in you, and He would have prompted you with the right words to say if this had been your time to be peacemaker. It shows a good, malleable heart that you are examining your actions and their implications. Thanks for being you and continue to listen to His voice.

  2. I agree with Rachel. You didn’t have anything to say because you apparently weren’t supposed to say anything. Good on you for being aware of the possibilities of peacemaking.

  3. Thanks for this reflection, Mike. I have been in many such situations and share your unease. They are always difficult. I don’t think we can conclude with the other commentators that the Holy Spirit would have prompted you specifically to be a peacemaker in this moment. The call to make peace is not some sort of special revelation for extraordinary times, but it is the basic substance of the Christian life. If I wait on the Holy Spirit to prompt me, say, to work for justice, care for the poor, or share the good news of the gospel, then I have misconstrued my calling in baptism.

    That said, I think Jesus’ statement about being “wise as serpents but harmless as doves” does merit consideration here. I have yet to succeed, however, in coming up with some sort of standardized practice from that teaching. Still, of this much I am sure: we can only make peace by entering the midst of a conflict. And that always entails risk. As Bonhoeffer suggested, “Peace is the opposite of security.” While that is not much solace to loved ones, it may be the cost of discipleship nonetheless.

    Thanks again for the post.

    1. Steven,
      Thanks for the post. I can’t even think of my little CFA experience and Bonhoeffer’s amazing example at the same time. I just finished a study working to reconcile his pacifism with his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer, and all faithful followers of Jesus in Germany at that time, were placed in an impossible position. I think we can learn a lot from their example and I’m thinking through right now how to bring this to my blog.

  4. Sharing your theological struggle in these events took great courage and I thank you for doing so. In a practical sense, you made the right choice (although opting for the drive through may have been even safer) – the gentleman in question may have been quite unpredictable and caused you and others great harm. Yet, the sense of Christian responsibility looms in the darkness, weighing heavily on your sensibilities.

    Although we do not know each other, I suspect your concern is born from a belief of Christian moral responsibility. The situation of abuse “arose”, yet you “froze” (as they say). Various sociological and psychological studies have been done on this very human phenomenon. But as Christians, are we not to do “something”?

    I recently engaged in a study of theodicy that worked to define “evil” in context. Although we generally failed as a group, one fascinating point was decided. Evil tends to mesmerize us, often moving us boldly into inaction. I call this the “stun factor”. Your reflection of the atrocities in Germany, Rowanda and Darfur are perfect examples of this mesmerization.

    Perhaps in time, our theological colleagues called to such research will make inroads to defining evil and find a means to develop a defense against. In the meantime, keep praying, remain faithful and offer comfort to the suffering who fall victim to evil in the world. That gift can do such good that no evil will prevail.

    Blessings and keep looking up!

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