I can easily be accused of being passive. I don’t move quickly. I take my time making decisions. I tend to be quiet – taking in more than I express. I don’t get very excited very often. I prefer peace and calm. I don’t show much variation of facial expression. I can watch grass grow or paint dry, and be perfectly content.
But, I wouldn’t say that I am mentally passive. In fact, my mind is so active that I have trouble shutting my thoughts down. But, externally, I realize that’s a different story.
During Lent, I’ve been reflecting on that line from a familiar prayer of confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done…” We not only need to confess our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission – in other words, our sins of passivity. While I may not be guilty of this or that particular action (though I likely am), I am very likely guilty of inaction.
It recently occurred to me that Adam was standing next to Eve – passively – while the snake tempted the two of them to eat the forbidden fruit. Then Adam blamed God for making Eve.
When the angels told Lot’s family to leave Sodom, they dragged their feet.
When Dinah was raped (Genesis 34), her father, Jacob, did nothing.
Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
That’s action. That’s what it means to God’s people.
But, by verse 23, Isaiah says that, “our rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.” Their actions were evil – bribery, corruption, theft. But, equally evil was their inaction – including the distinctive call to God’s people to love justice and do kindness – “they do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Oppression is not only the result of sinful action. Oppression is also the result of passive inaction – MY passive inaction. YOUR passive inaction?
Though I read and speak and write about justice, acting on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized is another matter. I cannot – we cannot – passively watch the injustice in our communities and broader world, and do nothing. We are called to be people of action – to be a hand of mercy and a voice of prophecy. We are called to act. To do less, is nothing less than sin.
I confess that sometimes my passivity is selfish – I just don’t want to do anything.
I confess that sometimes my passivity is selective blindness – if I don’t see it, it must not be happening (ostrich syndrome).
I confess that sometimes my passivity is rooted in busyness – I am so busy doing church work that I don’t have time to do Kingdom work (there is a difference).
I confess that sometimes my passivity is a result of cowardice – will I be criticized for this, and am I willing to pay the price?
I confess that sometimes I am passive because I don’t know what to do – ignorance becoming a convenient crutch.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther king wrote the following words from a Birmingham jail cell, largely to white passive pastors, who were discouraging his actions, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
“The time is always ripe to do what is right.”
This week, chemical weapons were deployed in Syria, Isis killed over 50 people in Syria and Iraq, and – as is true every other week – multitudes of people are suffering and dying in countless ways, while I passively do nothing.
Forgive me, Lord, for what I have left undone, and those things which I ought to have done.
What will we do? What will I do?