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A Chorus of Thunderous Silence

A Chorus of Thunderous Silence

Sarah Adegbite reflects on the power of silence this Remembrance Day. 10/11/2023

At 11 am this Saturday, 11 November, for approximately two minutes, an unusual event will take place. It has happened every year since 1918, reverberating with new meaning in each new context it inhabits. Across the country and Commonwealth, in classrooms and in boardrooms, in churches and in homes, we will be silent.  

The silence, we are told, is a moment of solemnity, to reflect on the sacrifice of those who have given their lives so that we might live. We sit with the silence, the Last Post still ringing in our ears, and try to make some meaning from the mess. Remembering past wars is an act inextricably linked to sifting through the debris of current crises. For some of us, the silence becomes an open palm, or a closed fist. Fingers clasped in prayer; one hand holding the weight of war but unable to balance the scales. We might deliberately try to remember those whom history determined would remain nameless. In the absence of their names, we step into the gap of the unknown soldier. We might cry, protest, be still, or pray. This is the possibility which silence creates, buried deep into our national consciousness. 

But I contend that silence is not just for public commemoration. Silence holds profound theological, political and personal power, and it retains deep value in a world that pounds with noise. Many religious communities are already mindful of the power of “a chorus of thunderous silence”.  Quaker meetings for worship, for example, often consist of long periods of silence. Members are invited to sit in the stillness to discern what God might be speaking to them. Carthusian religious orders attribute deep significance to times of silence and solitude. In Silence in political theory and practice, Mónica Brito Vieira notes that in logocentric Western discourse, speech is golden. Democratic and authoritarian regimes both rely on the power of words – whether as manifesto or propaganda. But she considers that in defying the monopoly of speech, silence becomes an exercise in agency.  

Of course, there is a danger here. In exuding the benefits of silence, let us not forget about those who are already silenced, through no free choice of their own but rather society’s devaluation. Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, also recognises this possibility, commenting in his essay Silence in the face of mystery that “a lot of this is about power and the loss of power, and this is quite a double–edged matter […] We must think of people who are silenced, that is, people who lose their power because somebody else shuts them up.”  

The point of silence therefore is not the silence itself, but what becomes heard when we listen in the quiet. If those who have the power of speech surrendered their platform to those without megaphones, how would our conversations change? Around climate change, or child hunger, or unequal access to healthcare?  

Suggesting that silence become a part of our political discourse is not an attempt to force everyone into reticence. Rather, it commands a renegotiation of power, urging us not just to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, but challenge the structures that may be silencing them in the first place. As Vieira notes, our political landscape is predicated on the spoken and written word, on the strength of debate – who speaks first and who has the final word. We see it in the oppositional architecture of the House of Commons, as government and opposition are squared off against each other, in a circus–like wrestling ring. We see it in our news and media commentary, where everyone has opinions which are backed up more often by amplification than justification.  

But what would introducing regular, deliberate silences into these crowded spaces look like? How might Cabinet meetings change if they began with consistent times of silence and reflection? Or if political debates showcased in the media forsook interruptions and heckling for measured turns of speech? This is not naïve idealism, but a vision of a society where silence is inculcated into conversation just as much as our natural inclination to speak. How might we hear, in the silence, the voices of those who are drowned out in the usual noise? This kind of thinking can work because it is precisely in the absence of things that we are drawn to the thing itself. We already know this. Counterintuitively, we find, removing an entity from its usual space highlights its existence and significance in a way its usual presence never could.  

For theologians, this is true even of God himself. In the seeming absence of God – in times of war, suffering, poverty – questions about Him reach their peak. He arises prominently in the thought that He might not be there at all. The empty space left behind becomes a place and possibility in which to encounter Him. This is perhaps taking to theological extremes the pithy saying that ‘you don’t know what you have ‘til it’s gone’. But the general principle still stands. As a student of theology, I am always on the lookout for theological resonances in the quotidian material of our lives. The public sphere has something to learn from silence. Will it take up the lesson? 

Steadily, the silence of 11 November approaches. Remembrance Day becomes a touchstone over which age–old debates about the nature of war are reignited. Should we wear red poppies or white poppies? In our efforts to remember, whom might we have forgotten? And where is the line between commemoration and glorification? Have we crossed it? How would we even know if we had? These questions do not stop in the silence. If anything, they get louder. But perhaps without the clamour of countless competing comments, the voices offering new insights, and wisdom, might be heard a little clearer – their cries for peace and justice echoing over and over, through the generations.


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Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

Sarah Adegbite

Sarah Adegbite

Sarah is a recent graduate from the University of Cambridge, where she studied Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion. She is interested in questions of decolonisation, Christian mission and the intersection between theology, literature, and the arts. She currently works as an intern at Art + Christianity, a charity that seeks to foster and explore the dialogue between art, Christianity and other religious faiths. Sarah recently did work experience at Theos

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Posted 10 November 2023

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