What's Said in the Dark Will Be Heard in the Light

October 14, 2016
Stephanie Paulsell at Memorial Church
Professor Stephanie Paulsell during Morning Prayers. Image courtesy Memorial Church

Stephanie Paullsell is the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies. On October 14, she spoke at the Morning Prayers service in Holden Chapel in Harvard Yard. Below are her remarks.


The first time an adult man grabbed a part of my body that I regarded as private, I was in the sixth grade. The man was the father of a friend of mine who had come to pick us up from school. I had gotten to the car first, and as we waited for his daughter to arrive, he grabbed a part of my body that no one had ever touched. He grinned at me as if I were in on the joke, and then his daughter came out of the school, and they drove me home.

I never told anyone, not because I wasn’t close to my parents, but because it was confusing and I felt ashamed, as if I had brought it on myself somehow. And gradually the memory of what had happened faded, leaving in its wake the constant low drone of danger that is part of the soundtrack of every woman’s life. I don’t remember thinking a lot about it; I don’t think I wanted to think about it. But I do remember making sure that I was never alone with that man again.

Every woman I know has stories like this. My mother does, my sister does, my daughter does. Most of these stories involve complete strangers:  men on trains, on sidewalks, in libraries, on buses, the policeman writing the traffic ticket. In every case, the unwelcome crossing of the boundary of the body seems to come out of nowhere—as if whatever was holding the agreements of civilization in place had suddenly slipped, and a hand had shot through from the other side.

Last Friday, we all heard the things Donald Trump said about women: how he grabs them, how he kisses them, how they let him, because he’s a star. He attempted to play it down as locker room banter. But it is, of course, much more than that. Speech like Trump’s shapes a culture in which sexual assault seems normal. It functions the way racist speech functions, the way ridicule of LGBT people functions, the way disparagement of immigrants functions:  it creates an environment in which it is easier to harm or violate or kill the people who are being objectified and diminished. 

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says that what we have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what we have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. Access Hollywood’s hot mic and our 24-hour news cycle fulfilled that prophecy this week. We all got to hear what Donald Trump said when he thought we weren’t listening. 

“It’s just talk,” he said in the last debate. But Jesus seems to care a lot about talk:  it reflects what’s in our heart—“for it is out of the abundance of the heart,” Jesus says, “that the mouth speaks.” It’s not what goes into us that defiles us, he insisted; it’s what comes out of us. Like the Buddha, who taught that “right speech” was an integral part of the path to enlightenment, Jesus teaches us that what we say when we think we are not being overheard matters. What we say in the dark is who we are.

I keep thinking:  once this election is finally over, we can begin mending our broken country. And certainly it going to take all of us, lifting our voices in protest again violence and hatred in all its forms. It’s going to take an uncompromising determination to reclaim the promise of our democracy and to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to providing the best possible education for everyone. It’s going to require the hard work of finding one another across the seemingly insurmountable divides that rend this country and the even harder work of listening to one another. I read that when a crowd of supporters gathered outside of Trump Tower last Friday, a woman walked by and shouted at one such supporter that she should go back to her trailer. We are going to have to do better than that.

We can’t wait until the election is over to begin to mend this country. But how are we going to do it?  This morning, maybe we can commit ourselves to doing something today. What can we do on this Friday in October that would be healing? What can we do as we move around in our ordinary lives?

We know that the pinched, hateful language—about women, about Muslims, about African Americans, about immigrants—that we have heard from Donald Trump since this campaign began contributes to a culture of violence. We know that. We can see it. We can feel it in our lives and in the lives of others. 

But are we equally convinced that language that is spacious and creative and full of possibility, language that is compassionate and honest and loving, language that respects and cherishes what is other than ourselves contributes to a culture marked by justice and peace? For today at least, let’s talk to each other as if we are convinced, even when we think we are not being overheard.