Of Mice and Elephants
There are few contrasts as extreme as a mouse and an elephant. The average mouse weighs in less than 0.70 ounces. An elephant can tip the scales between 5,000-10,000 pounds or more. A mouse can stealthily slip in and out of spaces we humans barely see. An elephant enjoys no such luxury. If we imagine for a moment what it would be like for an elephant to step on the tail of a mouse, we’d have greater appreciation for people in the world who struggle to live under the heavy weight of poverty, discrimination, domination, and suppression.
Does the thought make us uncomfortable? That was likely the intent of South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Of course, it’s easy to brush these words aside if we can’t begin to imagine being the elephant. But Tutu also said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Ouch. What the bold archbishop was suggesting is that there’s no easy, unbiased position in which it’s acceptable to remain silent – say, of a bird in a tree observing the elephant with its foot on the mouse’s tail. Perhaps we again dismiss the reprimand by thinking that “situations of injustice” only happen in other places in the world – say, South Africa, Ukraine, or the Middle East. Renowned American preacher William Sloane Coffin quotes renowned American president Abraham Lincoln as saying, “To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of human beings.” To these Coffin adds his own words, “To let a point pass that calls for challenge is to be politely dishonest.” [Both lines are found in Coffin’s book Credo]
So, of mice and elephants… it’s tempting to side with the powerful beast. It feels safer. But is that what’s best for our community and world? Perhaps it applies to our individual lives – say, we’re serving on a board or a leadership team and we have facts or even insights about a proposed project, but we don’t say a word because it would go against the popular position. Or we know that a member of our family is in deep, dark trouble, but we don’t speak up because no one will want to hear the truth. Maybe we think there’s no way to budge the elephant. But can we get by in life without weighing in when we know there’s harm being done or about to be done? Do we really believe we can cruise in neutral?