by Sarah-Leah Pimentel
A popular English proverb: “Silence is golden”, is often used to advocate for a response that can sometimes be preferable to a spoken reply.
It is better to remain silent than to add fuel to a heated argument. Listening silently without judgement is an act of compassion when someone is hurting. When we look at the political rhetoric in South Africa leading up to an election year, we might also be tempted to advise our politicians that if they have nothing constructive to say, it is better to say nothing at all!
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by noise, we speak about retreating into silence to restore our peace. Sometimes we seek to leave the bustle of a noisy city and encounter the quiet of a mountain retreat. Every human heart yearns for a measure of silence away from the busyness of everyday life.
The prophet Elijah encounters this when seeking God (Kings 19:9-18). He thinks that perhaps God might be in the power of a mighty wind, a devastating earthquake, or even in the heat of a consuming fire. But God does not reveal himself in any of these. It was only in the “sound of a low whisper” that God appeared to Elijah.
In this interior silence, we enter the true spirit of the universe. It is the space in which divinity opens before us, and we begin to see the world as it truly is. Our lived reality does not control us. When we step away from the cacophony of voices telling us what we should think, the attitudes we should have, and the products we should buy, we realise that none of it matters. However, we cannot reside permanently in our silent mountain retreat. It should be a space for discernment, an opportunity to see things more clearly and to allow the divine life to take root in us. But if we remain forever in silence, it also becomes a sterile space in which nothing grows.
In the encounter between Elijah and God’s silent “whisper”, the prophet receives an instruction: to return to the “wilderness”. He is called to return to the place of chaos and continue his prophetic mission, a mission which includes anointing kings and prophets to continue the work that God has planned.
Each of us has a mission to live in the world — temporary though it may be — and to make it a better place for all God’s creation with whom we share this “common home”, to quote Pope Francis. And our acting cannot be silent.
We cannot accept things as they are. We are not helpless, even as we look at South Africa’s institutions and infrastructure collapse. We must demand that our leaders serve the needs of the people rather than their own. And if they cannot, we must exercise our vote to replace them.
But leadership does not begin with them. It starts with us, the people. As grassroots prophets, we cannot accept the wanton destruction of livelihoods for political gain, as we saw with the recent taxi strike in Cape Town. We can choose how we respond, no matter how small the act. The true leaders in last week’s mayhem were those who drove workers home, urged their neighbours not to join the violence on the streets, and called for prayer to facilitate dialogue.
English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, in an 1867 address, stated that every citizen has the ethical responsibility to “restrain governments and nations from unjust or dishonest conduct.” He cautioned that “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
We cannot remain silent in the face of injustice and the moral decay of our society. We are the prophets who go out into the wilderness of our towns and cities and anoint a new generation of leaders with the oil of integrity, service, and trustworthiness.