It was a beautiful mid-August day. The Doctors Burke, brothers who shared a dental practice, returned to their office after lunch in midtown Manhattan. The word on the street was that the war with Japan might be over. Their assistant offered to walk to Times Square to get the news on her lunch break. Like every other day, Greta Zimmer was dressed in her white nursing uniform — white dress, white stockings, white shoes — she removed her white nursing cap, and quickly walked the couple blocks from the Lexington Avenue office to investigate. The news ticker that wrapped around the Times Building at One Times Square exclaimed V-J DAY! V-J DAY! V-J DAY!!! Greta, who was 21 at the time, said she barely had time to register the cacophony around her when she was grabbed hard by a sailor — “a very strong man” is how she described him — bent backwards and kissed full on the mouth. Unbeknownst to both Greta and the sailor, this moment was preserved for all time by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. In a 1980 interview for the Library of Congress’s Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans’ History Project, Greta Zimmer Friedman described it as a silent act. She said, “And the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded.”
A young woman, all alone in a big city, was grabbed and kissed by a random man who thought that forcing himself on her was a good way to thank all the nurses who cared for the wounded in World War II. It was a silent act in the middle of a celebration in crowded Midtown Manhattan.
It’s the sentence, “It was a silent act” that gave me pause. With all the noise of New York City, plus the noise of the celebration of V-J Day, where did that silence come from? How did it happen? Why is it that silence is a character in stories of abuse? How is it that so many women and girls are assaulted in silence?
It’s not that silence is inherently bad — it’s absolutely not. Silence, when it is used well, can create space for growth. It can stand in for the many things that need to remain unspoken. Silence can be meditative, it can accompany rest; silence can bring healing. Silence has power. John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, the First Baron Acton, was an English Catholic historian and writer, and is best known for giving us the quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Saying that silence has absolute power is going a bit far, but I believe that silence has enough power to at least accompany corruption.
Last week the story broke about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct. I’m not going to get into the heartwrenching details — I’m certain you all know how to consult the Googles for all the news that’s been deemed fit to print — but a common element in many of the stories I’ve read is the use of silence to reinforce power. People were encouraged to not speak up or complain about Weinstein’s crimes for fear of losing their jobs or being blackballed completely from the movie industry. In addition to enforced silence, many victims were dismissed with comments that suggested this behaviour was the sort of thing one should expect from such a powerful, wealthy man, which calls to mind a phrase that’s absolutely forbidden in my home and around my sons: Boys will be boys.
Boys will be boys in the movie industry; boys will be boys on Wall Street; boys will be boys in the locker room, boys will be boys outside the locker room; boys will be boys in academia; boys will be boys in the church.
Judges 19-21 tells the story of a Levite and his concubine who were traveling through Israel. They arrived in a town late one night and none of the townspeople took them in. This was a major violation of the code of hospitality that everyone was expected to adhere to. Finally a local man arrived home very late, and offered hospitality because he was embarrassed by his neighbors. You’d think that this would be a happy ending, but this is where the nightmare started. The rest of the men of the town demanded that their neighbor turn out the traveling man, but the neighbor would not. Instead he offered the crowd his daughter and the traveler’s concubine. The crowd was displeased, and the situation deteriorated. The story says that the traveller opened the door and gave his concubine to the crowd. There were no words spoken. It was a silent act. The crowd destroyed the concubine and left her on the doorstep. The next morning, the traveller speaks. Did he ask her if she needed water? If she needed help? Did he apologize for throwing her to the pack of human wolves? No. He told her to get up. The traveler was completely silent about the woman’s obvious suffering and about what had happened the night before. She was unable to even move, so he threw her over the back of his donkey, took her home, and cut her into twelve pieces, which ultimately started a very enormous intertribal war. Did he kill her? Was she already dead? It’s unclear who caused her death, but it is very clear who was responsible. The traveler used silence as a shield for himself, to preserve his own life and to assert his power over the concubine.
The last verse of Judges 21 says: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. In second Samuel 11, we read the story of King David, who did what was right in his own eyes when he forced Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite to have sex with him, and he did what was right in his own eyes when he created the perfect scenario in which Uriah lost his life. Silence and power worked together to allow Bathsheba to be raped and become pregnant. Nobody spoke up for Bathsheba. Nobody said to David, “This is wrong.” David did what was right in his own eyes, and it wasn’t until after the whole mess had played out and Uriah was dead, did Nathan the prophet call King David out.
My friends, I hope you know these things still happen. We have a President who has been named more than 13 times as perpetrating sexual assault, and was voted into office (many thanks to my fellow white women) even after a widely circulated video clip where he proudly claims to have assaulted women by grabbing them. You know the one. This kind of power harms, and silence intimidates, and when someone does have the courage or enough frustration to speak out, they are forced to repeat their stories again and again and again until the people with the power are satisfied that, yeah, they are probably telling the truth. But what were you wearing, and what did you have to drink, and why didn’t you say no and why didn’t you file a complaint with HR and why didn’t you call the police and why didn’t you behave differently and why do you hate men and why do you expect me to do something about this so long after it happened… why, why, why.
There was some big drama on Twitter last week. Actress Rose McGowan was put in Twitter Jail after a series of tweets condemning Weinstein’s actions, and one of the responses to this drama was the suggestion by a women’s rights non-profit to tweet #metoo if you experienced sexual assault or abuse. Perhaps you saw statuses and comments on your social media feeds that said “me, too.” The oft-quoted statistic is that one in three women are sexually assaulted in the United States. And maybe it’s true, maybe it was only a third of my Facebook friends and a third of the people I follow on Twitter and Instagram, who said “me, too;” I was too horrified to count and do the math. But I know two things: 1) Silence is powerful, and I know there are people who are not interested in sharing their pain and their shame in a public forum. And 2) NOT ONE WOMAN SAID, “This has never happened to me.”
Isaiah 61 says: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
This is the scripture on the scroll Jesus read to introduce himself at the synagogue. This is the scripture that Jesus declared fulfilled after it was read. As the Body of Christ, we need to acknowledge that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we need to lean into the power of the Spirit and reclaim the power that oppressive silence steals from us. It is our mandate to bring good news to the oppressed. Good news like “I believe you,” and “You didn’t deserve this,” and “There wasn’t anything you could have done to change the situation.” It is our mandate to bind up the broken-hearted, to share the oil of gladness, to wrap the broken-hearted in a mantle of praise. This means providing health care that does not consider rape a pre-existing condition. This means providing emotional and mental health support, recognizing that assault victims experience PTSD, and destigmatizing depression and mental illness. It is our mandate to love, and that love will create space for the healing and restoration of the broken and vulnerable among us.
And finally, to those of us who are broken-hearted, who are mourning, who feel faint in spirit, who have said “me, too,” whether it be in an act of silence or an act of defiant solidarity: The Spirit of the Lord is also upon us. There is healing and restoration available to us, and it is us who will be called oaks of righteousness and who will continue to display his glory. And for THAT, I say thanks be to God.