The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ allegedly originated with the Quakers, a religious sect I greatly admire for their quiet dignity, integrity, and courage. The concept though is lost in the misty recesses of time. I am sure that the necessity of someone, anyone, anyone at all, speaking ‘truth to power’ was evident to people as soon as they organized themselves into semblances of communities. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an example of a fictional story embodying the ancient truth that for the sake of the community, for the sake of sheer ‘rightness’, someone must speak the truth to the powerful. Ultimately it is for the good of the entire community painful as it might be, and disastrous as it might be for the speaker.
Within my tradition, I find the history of those ‘speaking truth to power’ most often in the Old Testament. Jeremiah was called to ‘speak truth to power’ despite his every protest. He was too young, did not speak well, did not even know the right words to say. None of his protests availed. Jeremiah was a spectacular failure in his time. Eventually he was forced out of his country. Jeremiah died a violent death in a foreign country at the hands of those he tried to help. His is a cautionary tale for those who came after him, and perhaps that was the intent of his call all along.
Amos was another unwilling, at first, to speak ‘truth to power’. At a time of ‘professional prophets’ who spoke only what those in power wished to hear, he protested that he was ‘only a dresser of sycamores’. Not only did he wish to not be mistaken for a ‘professional’ prophet, he did not wish to prophesy at all. To prophesy you see, does not mean predicting the future as we sometimes mistakenly assume. It means speaking for God when no one else will, and it means ‘speaking truth to power’. Amos did not fare so well either, prophets tend to walk alone.
The ancient prophets spoke at a time when people could not admit the truth of their shortcomings to themselves, personal shortcomings as well as communal shortcomings. The last thing the people wanted was for someone else to recognize and speak to truth. The people understood that someone was demonstrating a courage and moral fiber that they lacked in themselves. The rage at being shown this mirror is palpable in the pages handed down to us. It makes the courage of a young man from Nazareth even more remarkable. He knew the history of the prophets, and he knew how people treated those who spoke ‘truth to power’. In his story the people consistently performed just as their ancestors had, and with similar results.
I do not wish to speak ‘truth to power’ either. I understand what it is like to be disliked, mocked, verbally attacked and pushed out. I quit my previous position the morning after listening to three individuals speak lies, not truth to power. A community that cannot speak truth to each other is a doomed community and so I left for a different community. In my classroom community we speak the truth, and it is painful. I have to face the truth that I am not always the teacher I could and should be. My students have to face the truth that they have room for growth also. My fondest hope is that however short-lived our community, we understand that it functions best when truth is spoken to power.
In my local professional community I cannot open my mouth to power without causing anger and that bothers me more than the powerful will ever know or understand. I seldom come out of my room. I spend my free time walking, thinking, praying, or reading. It is a mode I have adopted to ensure survival. And yet, there are times when we gather as an educational community, and we fail to speak truth to each other, and we fail to speak truth to power. The words well out of me and I finally say something akin to “yes but the emperor is wearing no clothes.” It hurts that I am unable to pretend, and I resent that so many good individuals cannot, or will not, trust each other enough to change our community into something better for ourselves and our children. I simply do not understand.
Individuals within the community have sympathy with my thoughts, but we can only express these thoughts in quiet places with those we ‘trust not to say anything that would get us in trouble’. Why?
Individuals of great power on the regional and state levels encourage me, they say that I am right in what I see, that someone needs to be a ‘teacher leader’ but for many reasons, they cannot be with me when I most need support. Those most likely to help me within the local community are also most likely to be rejected and hurt; I do not wish to force them down a path they cannot or should not choose.
I also question just who I think I am. I am nothing special as a human being, a teacher, or a leader. Many intelligent people could point out numerous flaws in my performances in any of those roles. I do not, and will not, mind being proven wrong: there is much I do not know. But if we cannot be honest with each other, if we keep telling each other how beautiful our clothes are when we are in fact, naked to the world, what will happen then? What will happen to our children?
I am no prophet; I am not even able to ‘dress’ a sycamore. But I know I have to be true to what I think I am because, in the end, that is all anyone can do and I would not ask anyone to be less than what they are. And so, perhaps like Peter, I am taken to places I would not willingly go. Maybe that is as it should be, I am not wise enough to know.
Addendum: After writing the above words I came across the following in a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a modern prophet who died at the hands of the Nazis. The author, Eric Metaxas, describes Bonhoeffer working through a crisis in this way:
“He also knew that a word might be delivered that had come straight from heaven and be rejected just as the messages of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus had been rejected. The prophet’s role was simply and obediently to speak what God wished to say. Whether or not the message was received was between God and his people. On a much smaller scale I can draw comfort from those words.