Speaking Truth to Those in Power

sculpture on capitol building

Herb Montgomery | July 9, 2021


Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them . . . Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity . . . Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philips wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have your brothers wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, Ask me for anything you want, and Ill give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring Johns head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, Johns disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6.14-29)

The parts of this story corroborated by extrabiblical sources are that John the Baptist was arrested and ultimately executed by Herod the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great). One reason could very well have been John’s outspoken criticism of Herod’s second marriage to Herodias. Herod was first married to a Nabatean princess. Herod threw that marriage away to marry Herodias, who was the wife of another Herod. We now know from historical records that the gospel of Mark records the detail about Herodias’ first husband incorrect, though. Herodias was never married to Herod’s brother Philip. Regardless, John may have been criticizing the way in which Herod took Herodias as his second wife.

In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus doesn’t mention Herod’s marriage as the reason for John’s death, but focuses instead on John’s popularity with the crowd and thus his power over the masses:

“Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death.” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.118-119)

This story is an example of a familiar theme in the Hebrew prophets: the call to speak truth to unjust powers. The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has its origins in the American Friends Service Committee in 1955 (see Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence). Yet the idea is ancient. Here are just a few examples of Hebrew prophets speaking truth to power in the Hebrew scriptures:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go.’” (Exodus 5:1)

“Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your masters house to you, and your masters wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.” (2 Samuel 12:7-10)

“When [Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. But you and your fathers family have. You have abandoned the LORDS commands and have followed the Baals.” (1 Kings 18:17-18)

“The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me . . .Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1-17)

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sit on Davids throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” (Jeremiah 22:1-3)

“When Jonahs warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 3:6)

“And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty said: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:8-10)

“Then I said, ‘Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice?’” (Micah 3:1)

“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:10-12)

What about us? What does it mean for us to speak truth to power today?

What are some ways in which we, even if our sphere of influence is limited, can speak truth to those in power?

Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them. John the Baptist’s story illustrates those consequences: he was executed. As the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone used to say, “The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.” Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity.

Maybe we can start smaller than speaking truth to someone like Herod. Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period. Then, if and when the opportunity arises to speak to power, we will already be in the habit of speaking the truth. In this spirit, I have always cherished this statement by Leo Tolstoy at the end of his book The Kingdom of God is Within You:

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself. There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, p. 433)

Truth telling will always carry consequences, some beneficial and others difficult to bear. We may not always have the courage or power to change unjust conditions ourselves, but maybe we can do the bare minimum of speaking the truth about them.

May we at least have the courage to speak truth. Because that truth will enable and empower us to choose to change things after all.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does the phrase “speaking truth to power” mean to you in your sphere of influence? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

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