"Out of silence," said the Unitarian theologian Carlyle, "comes thy strength." I believe Carlyle is describing one of two kinds of silence. On one side, silence can be negative and harmful. This is the silence of oppression, a controlling force which leaves victims voiceless and the needy helpless. This is not what Carlyle means by his silence. He is invoking a different force. His silence has agency; it is the silence of resistance, of overcoming, and of strength. Today I will examine the sophisticated silence of which Carlyle writes and, contradictory to the dominant archetype, show how silence can become our strength. Many of the characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin are supported by a silence which becomes their strength. Tom, the protagonist in the novel, and several other characters use silence as a tool to firmly uphold and protect their sense of pride, dignity, and self- respect even in the face of immense oppression which tugs at their very sense of individuality. In explicating this silence, the issue of faith moves into the foreground. A Christian text through and through, Uncle Tom's Cabin resembles instances in the Bible, the theological writings of Carlyle, aspects of Buddhist and Quaker religion, and contemporary Unitarian sermons.
In search of silence we pick up Stowe's novel in chapter twelve with Mr. Haley and Tom driving southward "in their wagon, each, for a time, absorbed in his own reflections." The audience is privileged to hear what both are privately thinking. Haley ponders how much he can get for selling Tom while Tom ponders his fate, his family, and the bible. Finally, Haley, "for want of somebody else to talk to," breaks into convers...
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... this balance when he writes,
The next time I speak on life and faith I will probably remount my great white horse and go charging forward under the banner of life strong and mighty, life mighty in battle. But don't be fooled: I also know how to revere the smaller, gutsy battles life fights on barren terrain, where victory is simple endurance.
In pointing out these silences, holding them up to scrutiny, and inevitably welcoming them and accepting them, we have welcomed a resource that aids us and places us in defiance of our sharpest oppressors. Indeed, we might do well to remember that "shepherd place where out of silence may again come our strength."
Through paradoxical silences, some artists convey their anguish over heaven's unresponsiveness in the face of evil. But in religion silence often conveys God's presence and sorrow. -Mark L. Staker
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