Although I don’t study religion as much as I used to, my days in Bible study left me with an important lesson from Matthew chapter six:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (NIV)
I understand that many of you might not be religious, and I must admit: I don’t consider myself a Bible-thumper either, but this idea, the one of virtue in good deeds done in secret, is not unique to Christianity. Before that, though, I want to point out a certain hypocrisy that has been eating at me for a while. Many use their religious background or lack thereof as a tool to assert their moral authority, and a common refrain is: “If someone only does good as a way to seek the approval of a God, that deed is only done selfishly.” I agree with this sentiment, of course, but many of those who use that singular piece of logic then choose to shout their heroics from the rooftops–on social media, in everyday conversations, in posed photos. If a good deed is leveraged to gain the approval of one’s peers, how is this different from a Christian’s utilization of deeds to gain entry to Heaven? There is no difference, and so I assert that the only good deeds are the ones done quietly. The teachings of Buddhist master Xuyun (or “Empty Cloud”) touch on this as well, and while I cannot include all of his beautiful prose here, I will include a short excerpt that gets his point across. I recommend you read pages seven and eight of this document if you wish for more exposition.
Perform a good deed in silence and anonymity! Forget about rejoicing. A
good deed should have a very short life, and once dead, should be quickly buried.
Let it rest in peace. Don’t keep trying to resuscitate it. Too often, we try to turn
a good deed into a ghost that haunts people, that keeps reminding them of our
wonderful service – just in case they start to forget.
Given recent events, I have struggled with my tendency to stay silent. So deeply-rooted is my fear of virtue signaling that I have failed to speak up when maybe I should be, but at what point do I, a white ruralite teaching in a title one school, become performative in my trumpeting of good morals? At what point do I stop amplifying the voices of the people unheard and begin to sing loudly over them? It is not my place to say, and I suspect most folks, folks who are well-intentioned, as I am, have different answers for me. I have settled, for now, in continuing to work behind the scenes, chirping up with a “remember to listen to supressed voices!” when relevant, but I understand why many would see this as not enough. I agree, and I ask for forgiveness–I’m still trying to learn.
As a fairly opinionated person, I have, on many occasions, began to type something to share my thoughts on the protests, on the history of oppression that people of color face, on the intersectionality of issues of race and climate and class, but in recent weeks, I have stopped myself. My opinions don’t matter, and if you, the reader, are white, I’m afraid yours don’t either: We are not the affected group. We are not entitled to tell black folks how to best share their experiences, how to demand reform, how to protest: Ultimately, we don’t know anything. We don’t know what has been tried. We don’t know what it feels like to go unheard for generations. The male-presenting among us don’t know what it feels like to be targeted as victims of violent crime simply because of the way we look.
So, this is part of my compromise with myself: This is my way of saying “Yes, I support you.” to whoever needs supporting. Right now, that is the black community. Today I lay down my own opinions and instead choose to direct attention to the many valid voices speaking; I feel my own voice will only serve as a sweet song, luring other white folks to the waters of guiltless complacency, a tide of “I earned my allyship today.”
If this is inadequate, I apologize. Know that I will continue to do my best–you just won’t hear about it.
All lives can’t matter until black ones do.