One of the calls every follower of Jesus Christ receives from God is the call to speak truth to power. What does it mean to speak truth to power? At its most basic sense it means to have the courage to speak up rather than to keep silent, before powerful people who are unjust or corrupt.
I like how the website “Grammarist” defines the phrase “speak truth to power”—it says: “Speak truth to power means to confront those who hold important positions, whether in government, business or religious institutions. [It] also means to demand a moral response to a problem, rather than an expedient, easy or selfish response. The phrase speak truth to power carries a connotation of bravery, of risking either the status quo, one’s reputation or livelihood, or the wrath of the person one is confronting.
“The first use of the phrase [speak truth to power] is attributed to the American Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. The Quaker missive entitled: Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence was published in the mid-1950s.
“The work is addressed generally to the powerful who run nations, espousing the Quaker truth that love endures and overcomes.”
We heard such a message recently by one of Israel’s most popular actresses, Rotem Sela.
She spoke truth to power this past week when she publicly challenged Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who recently said that Israel is the homeland “only of the Jewish people.” Rotem Sela responded to his words by posting on Instagram:
“When will anyone in [the Israeli] government tell the public that this is a country of all its citizens, and all people are born equal. The Arabs are also human beings. And also the Druze, and the gays, and the lesbians and… gasp…[the] leftists.”
Friends, the Prime Minister of New Zealand also spoke truth to power this past week, yet not to a nation’s leader, but to people who espouse an ideology of hate and murder found in many nations—the ideology of white nationalism. In response to the white nationalist from Australia who participated in the brutal killing of 50 Muslims who were in their houses of worship, New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “Many of those Muslims who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. There is no place in New Zealand for [people who carry out] acts of extreme and unprecedented violence…”
Friends, sadly, white nationalism is not condemned by many top leaders of our nation but rather it is excused or rationalized or even promoted. On another matter, this past week U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, spoke truth to power when his office indicted 33 parents, including wealthy Hollywood stars and CEO’s, who had used bribery and fraud to gain entrance for their children to “elite” public and private universities. Lelling referred to the parents as “a catalogue of wealth and privilege.” He also indicted the college administrators and coaches who accepted bribes as part of the same scheme. I was so disappointed that UCLA’s soccer coach was involved.
Friends, as you well know, the Bible is full of men and women who spoke truth to power.
The wise woman of Tekoa spoke truth to power when she stood before King David insisting that he forgive his son and not banish him. The wise woman of Abel-Bethmaach spoke truth to power before Joab, the captain of King David’s army, and convinced him not to wipe out an entire city. David, himself, spoke truth to power when he entered a battlefield to confront the Philistine giant Goliath. Moses spoke truth to power when he stood in the court of Pharaoh of Egypt demanding that Pharaoh let God’s people go.
In the 20th Century, one of my heroes of the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke truth to power during World War II. Bonhoeffer’s story is especially important to revisit because of the rise of white nationalism in our world today. An historian writes: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who studied and preached during the years before and during World War II.
What distinguished this religious scholar [and preacher] from the rest of his contemporary intellectuals was his staunch, unremitting vocal resistance against Adolph Hitler, the Nazis, and their murderous doctrine. Bonhoeffer’s philosophy of the responsibility of the church [to stand up against injustice] gained a small [and dedicated] following in his native land--even as [most of the] German clergy kowtowed to Hitler. "
Friends, please hear that again: “Most of the German clergy—the pastors--kowtowed to Hitler. In 1934, two days after Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer, only 28 years old, [spoke truth to power] as he denounced “the [Nazi] regime in a radio broadcast—only to be cut off before he finished. [His life in danger because of his public opposition to Hitler, Bonhoeffer] left Germany for America after the Gestapo closed his radical church. But, he [returned to Germany] on the eve of World War II, saying: “I have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulations of this time with my people.”
“After the failure of an attempt on Hitler’s life Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent first to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Schoenberg Prison. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer had just finished conducting a service of worship at the prison, when two soldiers came in, saying: “‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us,’ the standard summons to a condemned man. As he was leaving Bonhoeffer turned and said to a fellow prisoner: ‘This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.’”
“[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and preacher] was hanged the next day, less than a week before the allies liberated the camp.” [He was 39- years-old.]
Friends, my daughter, April, just last week, was part of the crowd at Cal Poly’s Chumash Auditorium who heard Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor, speak truth to power. According to the Tribune: “Eva Schloss, [now] 89-years-old, was a childhood friend of Anne Frank and later became her stepsister when Schloss’ mother married Anne Frank’s father after the war.’
“She and her family spent two years in hiding in Amsterdam before their identities were revealed and they were arrested by the Nazi’s. [Think of that! Living two years in hiding!]
Eva was sent to Auschwitz and survived to be freed by Russian soldiers in 1945. “In her talks all over our nation [today] Eva speaks truth to power in confronting the continuing existence of white nationalism and other violent threats to humanity.”
Friends, our theme of speaking truth to power comes to us from our second lesson this morning from the gospel of Luke. In Luke 13: Jesus, as he journeys toward Jerusalem, is warned by some Pharisees to flee because, “Herod wants to kill you.” What happens next?
Does Jesus flee because he believes the church should stay out of politics or because he knows Herod will kill him if he has the opportunity?
No, Jesus speaks truth to power.
Referring directly to King Herod, the most powerful and most ruthless Jewish leader in Jerusalem—a man who will not hesitate to use deadly violence to get his way, Jesus says:
“Go and tell that fox, `Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”
Friends, Jesus is essentially saying:
“Tell that crook Herod—I’m not going anywhere—if he wants me he can come get me.”
Jesus’ response to Herod is also echoed in that great civil rights song in which people speaking truth to power, as they marched for equality sang: “Aint gonna let nobody turn me around, I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching toward freedom land.
Jesus essentially said to the Pharisees who warned him to flee: “Aint gonna let King Herod turn me around…Yes, I will leave this area but not because of Herod but because God calls me to Jerusalem.
The Rev. Eric Barreto, Associate Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary reflecting on Jesus response to King Herod writes: “Luke’s Jesus is a prophet. Prophecy is a job not for the comfortable but for the afflicted…for those burdened by suffering communities. Prophecy sets prophets against the powerful in ways most of us do not seek. In the gospels, getting King Herod’s attention is not exactly desirable. The Herodian legacy for cruelty echoes from the killing of the innocents [after Jesus’ birth] through John the Baptist’s execution.
“For the gospel writers, [including Luke of course] being on the empire’s radar is a ready recipe for suffering...Jesus hears that Herod has him in the imperial crosshairs. Luke does not narrate Herod’s specific concerns about the Galilean peasant [Jesus], only that Herod wants to extinguish Jesus and his prophetic tongue, his healing hands, his wandering feet. Apparently, [in Herod’s mind and rightly so!] Jesus’ words sizzle with danger. For the wholeness [ and healing Jesus’] hands bring is a rebuke of the empire’s feckless seizure of power. Jesus peripatetic proclamation pays no heed to the boundaries empires draw.”
Friends, King Herod cannot abide Jesus’ insistence on speaking truth to power—of Jesus’ courage in demanding changes in the world which valorize the least of these and dares to question the power of Kings and Emperors.
Returning to Professor Barreto he concludes: “We need [today] prophetic condemnations of racism, prophetic protest of walls meant to assuage fear rather than create opportunity-- [we need] prophetic calls to environmental justice, [we need] prophetic poetry that helps name justice with beauty and truth.”
Friends, one of the prophet poets of our time was Maya Angelou. She died just four years ago at the age of 86. With her poetry Maya Angelou has inspired, encouraged, loved, challenged, and, yes, with her words, she spoke truth to power. I close with a few verses from one such poem entitled: “Still I Rise.” It is her most famous poem and in it she shows the inability of hate to conquer love. It is a poem which reminds me of Jesus—for in her words I hear the theme of resurrection and new life.
The poem speaks of the triumph of black people over racism—yet we hear too the call of all humanity to confront evil in whatever form it appears. Says Ms. Angelou to the architects of white racism and nationalism: https://youtu.be/qviM_GnJbOM
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise…
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Leaving behind nights
of terror and fear
Into a daybreak
that’s wondrously clear