Lection Connection

July 26, 2020: Subversive Silence

From Sandra Rooney


In these turbulent times of the Corona virus pandemic, political unrest, and the Black Lives Matter movement – with, it seems, everyone speaking out, especially with the many vehicles offered by social media – the notion of “subversive silence” may seem almost irresponsible. But is it? There are those who are going about their business without fanfare, with an eye on the future.


Take Lonnie G. Bunch III. In 2005, he was named the director of a museum that didn’t even exist, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He had seemingly nothing to work with, no collection, no funding, no site. Ten years later, the museum opened on the National Mall in Washington, to rave reviews. Last year, Mr. Bunch became the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which includes not only the museum he founded, but many other museums and libraries and even the National Zoo.


Then came the pandemic, effectively shutting down all of those institutions. However, under Bunch’s leadership the Smithsonian is quietly developing digital tools intended to encourage dialogue about race, including the question of the removal of controversial statues and monuments.


In an interview with David Gelles for the New York Times, Bunch talked about the careful planning being done to prepare for the safe opening of the museums, but much more than that. “Cultural institutions,” he said, “regardless of the subject matter, have to be as much about today and tomorrow as they are about yesterday.” As for the Museum of African American History, this means he has people out collecting during the protests, sending in videos. And, with the creation of that museum, “It’s an opportunity,” he says, “to help stimulate local conversations about race.”


Bunch is hopeful that the current situation will lead to real change, but he also worries about the direction response might take. He suggests that in some ways “Americans want to romanticize history”; they want “selective history.” An alternative would be to see African American history as a corrective, “to help people understand the fullness, the complexity, the nuance of their history.” Americans tend to want simple answers to complex questions, he says, adding that, “History often teaches us to embrace ambiguity, to understand there aren’t simple answers to complex questions.”


Bunch also says he strongly believes that museums have a social justice role to play. They have an opportunity to help their community grapple with the changes they face, to use history, science, and education to give the public tools to grapple with the issues of the day. “I want museums to be a place that gives the public not just what it wants, but what it needs.” In the end, he says, “I would rather the museum be a place that takes a little risk to make the country better than a place where history and science go to die.” So Bunch is quietly working to prepare for the day when the museums, and the Museum of African American History in particular, can open again.


Explore…Genesis 29:15–28

  • Describe how the women in today’s scripture passage were preparing for the future.
  • Where do you see people or institutions quietly going about their work to make their communities better places?
  • When have you had to just bide your time waiting for the right moment to make a decision, take an action, or speak up about something?



Spirit of our yesterdays, today, and tomorrow, guide us as we seek to respond to the many challenges that fill our lives and our world. Comfort us in our despair and open our eyes to new possibilities for building a world of peace and justice. Amen.


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