It’s been a busy few weeks on my side of the border. Last week I watched the aftermath of a senseless murder. Corporal Nathan Cirillo, standing guard unarmed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, was shot and killed.
The next week, Toronto, Canada’s largest city, underwent an important mayoral election that saw the removal of controversial leader (and butt of many late-night talk show jokes) Rob Ford from mayoral power and prevented his candidate brother, Doug, from suceeding him.
Finally, scandal arose with the unexpected termination of one Canada’s most prominent radio voices, Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused of sexual violence and misconduct.
In all of the aforementioned cases, the Internet exploded with rants and raves, inspiring me to wonder about the state of our free and accessible means of discourse. Proverbs bids us to “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” but, in the age of social media, are we speaking too much and too freely? As Christians, in particular, are we harmed by being in a constant state of needing to speak up? Is grace lost in the whirlpool of overlapping voices, personal projections, and agendas?
I first correlated the Proverbs verse with the Cirillo case on the night of his murder. Like many Canadians, glued to the news that day, I fell asleep with the images branded on my mind and subsequently woke up in the middle of the night, still severely disturbed. I reached for my iPhone to read more about the terrifying event.
Stumbling upon the comments section of an article on the CNN website, I wondered how a senselessly violent act had turned into a soapbox for many unrelated rants and harsh opinions. Scrolling down, I was of course met with words of sympathy, surprise, and distress but simultaneously assaulted with political rants, harsh statements, and perversely descriptive spews. My mind was baffled: How did we get from point A to point B so quickly? How had a senseless and tragic murder just hours before provided fodder for rants on the state of gun control, racial slurs, the defamation of the entire Muslim faith, and a platform on what was wrong with the world? Cirillo was silenced forever here on earth, and those who were left chose these words to replace the voice taken from him?
I went back to sleep still unsettled, still thinking of Proverbs 31:8.
A kind of grey cloud hung over Toronto the next day as I set about my daily routine, but something had changed. The media focused on Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, who had shot down Cirillo’s murderer before he could continue his rampage into Parliament, and his humility in the face of the standing ovation that met him as he walked ceremonially to parliamentary session the next day. Pictures of Cirillo with his young son and with the dogs he loved flooded Twitter and Facebook, and friends and fellow officers remembered him as an upstanding young man with leadership quality and a love for life. Canadians, and the world, stood together, focused on an ideal of duty, patriotism, and all-around good citizenship. And suddenly the vitriol of the chat boards was replaced with acts of silence resounding more loudly.
On Friday, on the Highway of Heroes, Cirillo’s body was transported from Ottawa back to his home in Hamilton, and thousands of Canadians stood honoring the processional as it passed. Not saying anything, reflecting in silence.
When vandals marred the Cold Lake Mosque in Edmonton, calling for its attendants to “GO HOME,” other members of the community silenced prejudice by cleaning up the mess and replacing words of hate with encouragement and love, transposing vandalism into solidarity.
On Election Day, while the mayoral candidates made their last efforts to garner support, a record-breaking number of Torontonians spoke, silently, at the polling stations.
Meanwhile, as reverent silence hovered over the funeral of Cirillo, a perverse scandal flooded the airwaves and the message boards. CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi used a Facebook status to warn readers that people would try to paint him in a negative light regarding the termination of his employment. He was right about that. As his lawsuit was made public, women anonymous and heretofore silenced asserted that what Ghomeshi thought of as consensual sexual acts were actual instances of assault and abuse.
While Ghomeshi and his followers used a celebrity platform to assert his victim status and garner the support of his many, many fans, the eight women who have not offered their names, who do not possess the same platform, are assumed to be silent out of fear of engaging themselves in a heinous public scandal. Again, the chat boards take to arms to speak for them and for Ghomeshi, whose public presence has been more sporadic of late.
It is not enough, in our day and age, to be innocent until proven guilty. Not when there is a slew of willing jury members with ready access to a keyboard. If there is a silence we find suspicious, how often do we fill it with strong rhetoric, uninformed opinions, and hatred rather than grace?
Make no mistake, we need to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. We need to have a voice. Just as we are Christ’s hands and His presence on earth, so can our words resound with His greater purpose. But sometimes, so can our refusal to use them. Proverbs 31 is right, but so is St Francis of Assisi, who pleaded with us, “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”
Our deeds and our actions—going to a poll, standing by a road in an act of salute—can be just as powerful as what we say. In the cases I’ve talked about, silence was often more telling than all the ignorant, hateful rants.
Christians, use the Internet for discourse. It can be a wonderful platform. But make sure that what you’re putting into the world does not add to its already malicious and marred state. Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. But the world has a lot of buzzing, senseless noise; beware of adding to it. A few grace-filled, love-saturated, and truth-inspired words can make a more profound difference than thousands of harsh and judgmental ones.
Screenshot taken from YouTube video posted by The Globe & Mail.
Rachel McMillan is a novelist in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.