What Can’t Be Said
Rev. Fritz Ritsch
Amos 7: 7-17
Luke 10: 25-37
For a brief period of time after Margaret and I first married, I served as a pastor of a mid-sized congregation in rural Virginia while Margaret worked for the Roanoke Times & World News. This congregation was two centuries old; it was founded in the Revolutionary War. From the beginning of my ministry there, I faced an ongoing challenge from a family that had been there for generations. This family was very large and extremely insular. I’ll call them the Smiths. They comprised five brothers and sisters and their extended families. They made a point of being different. The rest of the congregation took communion by passing the plate, but the Smiths refused the plate and would only take communion by intinction using the church’s antique brass communion service. They were the largest family in the church and so Smiths controlled the Nominating Committee, where they made sure other Smiths got elected to session; and they controlled the Presbyterian Women, where they worked hard to exclude or marginalize younger women joining the church. They were very moralistic and critical of other church members and families in the church. And of course, they blocked any “new” idea the pastor tried to bring.
The most moralistic Smith was also the most enigmatic. I’ll call her Nelly. Nelly was in her fifties, the youngest of the five siblings. She had never married, but she had a daughter in her late thirties. Nelly had obviously had the child when she was still a teenager. As I said, she could be the most moralistic, but the rest of the Smiths were extremely protective of her and her daughter. Nelly could do no wrong in their eyes.
I spent a long and frustrating time trying to figure out how to create a positive relationship with them. It seemed like there was nothing I could do. At the time I was also part of a clergy group that applied the principles of family systems psychology to congregations. My supervisor kept telling me: “That family is behaving that way for a reason. They have a secret. You need to find out what that secret is.” So I started digging. It took a long time to find out what it was. You see, deep down everyone in the church knew it, but nobody talked about it. It was unspoken. One reason the Smiths had acquired so much power in the church was to make sure the secret never got spoken.
It turned out that the father of Nelly’s born out-of-wedlock daughter was none other than her own father, the father of the five siblings. The entire family had organized itself to keep this secret, and then they’d organized the church, where this was long suspected but never said out loud, in a way that made sure the secret could be kept safe.
Knowing this turned out to be not that helpful. Maybe if I’d decided, I will stay at this church twenty years, something could have been done. But the situation was just too uncomfortable and even threatening. I accepted a call to serve as an associate pastor in Wilmington, DE, and left that church for an urban congregation that was more up my alley.
Family system experts teach us that family secrets are powerful, very powerful, largely because they are secrets. By their very nature, secrets have power over everything we do, because we have to work so hard to keep them secret. Secrets can organize our whole lives; they influence our every interaction. Secrets can have power over families for generations, even long after the secret is forgotten and supposedly buried. A family can develop habits of insularity and suspicion and secret-keeping that pass from generation to generation even though the secret that started this process died along with everyone who knew it decades ago. Family system experts call secrets a black hole, a gigantic vortex of nothingness with such gravitational force that it sucks in everyone and everything in its orbit.
I recently ran across a young Indian poet named Ankita Singhai, and she has a poetic line that captures the power of secrets: “I am master of my spoken words and slave to those which remain unspoken.” That is precisely the problem. The things we don’t say have more far power over us than the things we do say. Precisely because we don’t say them our secrets can end up controlling us. They are, in a biblical way of thinking, demonic powers which have possessed us. Whereas if we have the courage to speak our secrets out loud, we have taken control of them. We have become masters of our own demons.
In our passage from the prophet Amos, Amaziah the priest and Jeroboam the King want something kept secret. Or perhaps, not so much secret as simply unsaid. The prophet Amos is prophesying doom and gloom on the nation of Israel because of their leaders’ unrighteousness. “You trample the poor and take from them levies of grain… you afflict the righteous, take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate” (Amos 5: 10-13). For awhile Amos preached this bad news in hopes that the nation would repent, but God has informed the prophet that their time is up and that “King Jeroboam shall die by the sword and Israel must go into exile” (7:11). This word has been preached in public, at the Temple and in the royal courts, and the high priest and the king have concluded that Amos must shut up, because “the land is not able to bear all his words” (7: 10).
“The land is not able to bear his words.” That’s the excuse that repressive governments use whenever they want to curtail or control freedom of speech. In liberal democracies like our own, we supposedly believe that freedom of speech is the panacea to all ills—that if we allow everyone the freedom to say what they think, whether we like it or not, that good ideas will ultimately win out against bad ideas. Our founders believed that when ideas are repressed, they gain subversive power; whereas when ideas are freely expressed, and people are freely allowed to gather in support of them, then you take away their power to subvert and undermine. Now having said that, we can all probably think of ways we feel certain ideas either are maliciously repressed; or on the other hand are better left unsaid. Very few of us, for instance, have much tolerance for racist or White nationalist rhetoric or for neo-Nazi propaganda. We certainly don’t like it when we hear or see people hurling abusive language at other people of different races, cultures, or creeds. And it does seem like there need to be ways to limit or restrain certain types of speech. But in the final analysis, the founders were right and we need to contend with it: bad ideas expressed are better than bad ideas repressed and hidden, where they only fester and grow and become even more powerful.
Now in Amos’ case he is speaking the truth, and it is God’s truth, but the powers that be don’t want to hear it and they don’t want anyone else to hear it, either, so they attempt to repress it. That’s certainly something we still see a whole lot of even today. Recently, for instance, I heard of an important report submitted to a local government. Those who wrote the report were at first asked, by prominent leaders, not to make the report public, because the subject of the report was embarrassing and any attempt to solve the problem would result in drastic, across the board changes. The report was released anyway, and government leaders have grudgingly acknowledged its importance. And it’s important to note that releasing such “secret” information is no more a guarantee that something will be done about it than not releasing the report would have been. Largely the question now is, will the public believe this is important enough that we will put pressure on our leaders to do it? As Amos, and any biblical prophet could tell you, just the fact that people hear the truth may not change anything.
But it may. And we see that happen in our Gospel lesson, in which Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a Jewish man is attacked by bandits and left to die. Two religious leaders see him wounded and lying in a ditch, but they pass him by. Then another man, a Samaritan, comes to his rescue. The reason this is significant is because Jews viewed themselves as having significant racial, religious, and cultural differences with Samaritans. There was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. A bright light shines on this problem when Jesus turns to the Jewish lawyer to whom he is speaking and says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds: “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer so despises Samaritans that he cannot even say the word “Samaritan!”
Jesus has told a story that forces his listeners to contend with something unsaid but that had deep power over their lives: Their deep-seated prejudice against their literal neighbors, the Samaritans. Those who cannot be named, because if you say their name, you have to contend with them as real human beings, not simply as caricatures or demonic, inhuman figures. We don’t know if this story changed the heart of the lawyer to whom it was first told, but we know for a fact that it has changed the hearts and lives untold numbers of people in the two thousand years since Jesus first challenged us with it.
If keeping secrets has dangerous hidden power, telling the truth can have transformative open power. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this in our own lifetimes than the complete transformation our society has experienced in how we relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It was not that long ago that we as a society viewed LGBT people as shameful, self-indulgent, dangerous and condemned to hell; that no one dared come out as gay for fear of ostracism, loss of friends and family and job and often even imprisonment, injury, and death. Churches were often the most virulent in their criticism.
But the AIDS Crisis of the 80s forced LGBT folks into the public consciousness as we realized that our friends, our children and our grandchildren, our parents and aunts and uncles, our teachers and doctors and many admirable public figures were dealing with this debilitating and at the time deadly disease. It was no longer a viable option to keep this a secret; it was no longer possible for this to remain unspoken in families, churches, the workplace, or in the seats of power.
All of this ultimately led to a sea change in how we talk about gender and sexuality, and how we relate to our fellow human beings who don’t fit into the dominant paradigm. Today in most parts of the US people can be completely open about whom they love. The law protects LGBT folks from discrimination in most, if not all, situations. Openly LGBT people are hired for good jobs, serve in the armed forces, are elected to public office, and are pastors and officers of churches. They are our neighbors and friends and relatives. We welcome their same-sex partners to our family tables and attend their weddings and support them as they create families together. The HIV/AIDS crisis is under control: largely the reason it was such a crisis in the first place was because of the secrecy and shame associated with being gay. That secrecy allowed HIV/AIDS to thrive because it was hidden in darkness; but its power has diminished mightily now that it is in the light. Do we still have a long way to go? Sure. But look how far we have come.
It is most definitely true that what is left unsaid, what we keep secret, what we bury in our unconscious as individuals and as a society will end up having great negative power in our lives. But the power of truth, while it is often risky and dangerous, can be transformative. We Presbyterians have as a foundational principle, “that truth is in order to goodness, and the great touchstone of truth its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’” In other words, it matters to tell the truth because it gets results. Good things happen. We become better people. The world becomes a better place, a more just, merciful, and godly place.