Up to the moment I got in my car Saturday morning, I was debating whether or not to go to the Women’s March. I know that for many, especially in the Midwest and South, the election of Trump was an act of speaking truth to power. Having lost jobs and seen real quality-of-life changes in their communities, the rhetoric that Trump espoused had people hopeful that change would come and maybe make a difference; only time would tell.
For me, the decision to march followed real actions that I had seen, especially with the appointment of Trump’s cabinet, where those nominated represent the political and financial elite. I also marched because the fear people have is real. To be honest, what pushed me over the edge was a post on Facebook from my brother that my niece, a U.S. citizen born in Costa Rica, thus holding dual citizenship, was in fear of being deported. As silly as her fear may seem to some, it is very real for many people living in our country. As we look at families threatened with being torn apart, fear of deportation has many people stressed and communities on edge.
For me, the march was a first step in speaking truth to power. As we marched with the numbers that turned out, as a community we boldly said that we are not going to stand for injustice.
As Christians, one of the basic roles we have is that of speaking truth to power. The fundamental problem with speaking truth to power is the question of what is true. I know that seems silly, but often we let our feelings and emotional statements stand in for truths.
Take, for instance, the statement “_______ is not my president.” Remember, this has been said for the last four presidents. That is not speaking truth to power. While you may not like the person in that position, the reality is that he is in that position, and speaking that way ends up working counter to your desire. It would be like going to an ice cream shop, telling them as you walked in that you are not going to buy any ice cream, and then proceeding to demand samples of all the flavors. The person behind the counter is probably going to write you off.
When speaking truth to power, there are two basic things that must be done. You need to name and define what truth you are speaking about. Think of how often you have heard people get so impassioned by what they are speaking against that they lose sight of the truth they are trying to expose. So it is important to be clear and focused.
Here are two examples of speaking truth to power:
The first truth is something which has only become worse as the power elite have become more powerful, and that is the truth that human trafficking is immoral and wrong. From the time of the first European settlers in the Bay Area, we have been one of the biggest markets for trafficking. By the late 1800s, the trafficking of Chinese women was so bad, the Presbyterian Church established the Occidental Mission Home for Girls. While not a legislative or political act of justice, it became a symbol in its mission. This mission took off when Donaldina Cameron joined the institution. Though her own life was threatened many times, her actions made a difference to those women, and helped our denomination understand and stand against trafficking, knowing that in no way is it ever acceptable! Her legacy continues to this day. Of course, while I am sure you have not heard of the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, most of you would know it by its current name: Cameron House.
When speaking truth to power, sometimes it requires boldly standing up to injustice; other times, it involves being honest about who you are and how policies and actions affect your lives. This is important, especially when your reality is different than that of some people.
This can be seen strongly in the fight for justice in the gay and lesbian community. Harvey Milk started the strategy of encouraging people to “come out of the closet.” He knew that non-gay people would have a hard time hearing the issues of justice if they did not know and could not relate to the people involved. This strategy allowed many in the gay community to gain acceptance because they were able to share their reality, helping others to get a glimpse into why equality is such an important issue. Though it took many more years and a horrid disease to really open the discussion, Milk’s strategy is ultimately what changed the hearts and minds of the powerful, even some you’d never suspect.
Unfortunately, human trafficking still occurs, and hate crimes against LGBT+ people still happen, but as we have seen how exposure and witness make a difference, we understand how necessary it is to speak truth to power.
The unfortunate reality is that whether you agree or disagree, at this point in our culture, many people feel as if they are being treated unjustly. Whether that is the objectification or degradation of women in speech and action, or the denying of our part in the global environmental crisis, we must speak truth to power. Though we know that we may not change the minds most in need of changing, we will change the minds of others until we get to the point where the powerful cannot ignore the truth any longer.
Back when I was serving churches in North Carolina, a couple from my congregation showed up in my driveway with a boat attached, knocked on my door and said, “You don’t have anything to do today until now!” With a big smile, they concluded, “Get in!” I did not have much of a choice¾they were right, I had nothing planned for the day, and I loved water skiing! At least looking at the boat, that is what I thought we were doing. But no, we were not going to be waterskiing. We were going fishing!
I was 27 at the time, fresh from seminary and suburban life, and the congregation took it upon themselves to teach me about the Bible. Not the theology of the Bible, but the practical living. We forget that the Bible was not set in an urban context. In fact, many of the scenes in the Bible are in rural settings, and the occupations are tied somehow to agriculture. Yes, even Jesus, the son of a carpenter, probably was somehow supporting that industry. So it was not out of step to get one of these “learnings.”
“Bryan, you know we love your sermons, but . . . ” I knew I was in for it. “You keep talking about us being called ‘fishers of men,’ and we know you’re trying, but you need to learn something about fishing.”
They pulled up to the lake, and we launched the boat. They showed me the basics, and we talked. The fish were not biting. So we moved and tried another location. After an hour or so, we started to catch some fish. Some were too small, some legally we had to throw back, but finally we called it a day. Lots of fun, but I was thinking, what was the reason for the outing?
My member then explained. “Bryan, you read the call of the disciples last Sunday.” (The sermon had been on Matthew 4:12-23.) “You made it sound like once the disciples started to follow Jesus, things got easier for them. Today, was it easy to fish?” Obviously, I said no. “First, when you fish, you have to have the right equipment. Without that, you’re sunk! Second, you have to have patience, because they don’t always come when you want them to. And third, and most importantly, the fish, they are a gift from God. God created the fish, and it is because of the skills and knowledge that we have because of God that we are able to catch them.”
It was weird, getting this “learning,” because it so changed my understanding of the passage. When Christ was calling the disciples, it was not like getting a promotion or getting an offer for a better job. Jesus called so many fishermen because they had the skills and knowledge to understand what it would take to connect with people and bring them into the fold.
The disciples knew that they would need to have the right tools for faith. But they also knew that all their tools would need to be cared for, so when their faith was shaky, they would need to tend to it like James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John mending their nets.
Jesus also knew that being disciples is not easy and that people would most likely not flock to them. So he needed a group that would have the patience to put out the net of faith and wait. And if nothing was there, to have the confidence to move on, knowing that there are fish that are to be caught, just as there are always people who have faith to be nurtured.
Lastly, something that us urban dwellers often miss¾and to be honest, I think it has a lot to do with the mess our society is in¾we must have faith in God, understanding that whatever labels or stamps of ownership we put on something, no matter how much we want to take credit or claim that things are ours, they are God’s. So when we think of membership or evangelism or anything like that, we must always remember that we are merely vessels for God to do His work.
One of my views on how to live a life in faith is demonstrated by a granny knot. A granny knot is a poorly tied knot, usually done in haste, that ends up being very difficult to untie. Now, to get the knot untied, there are three truths:
This is like faith and life. First, you’re not going to go anywhere in your faith if you do not start with a basic belief in God. It may take time to get there, but without that starting point, nothing else will fully make sense, and you will get frustrated and quit. This belief passes all other issues that come up, and means that in the end, you will experience God’s grace.
Second, you need to live your life; don’t get too far ahead, don’t dwell in the past, but live. Sometimes you get to places that are harder than others, and you have to be more vigilant; and sometimes you can fly through because everything is working “as it should.”
Third, you need to let things play out. When we try to force a situation, bad things can, and often do, happen. Many years ago, when I taught beginning swimming, many kids were terrified of the water because of the way they had been forced to learn how to swim. Some were just thrown in, and others were under so much pressure, they could not get used to the water. Getting those kids with bad experiences to learn to swim was hard! But taking the time on land to let them move closer on their own made them more comfortable in the water.
In life and our struggles in faith, giving ourselves the grace that we need to work through a difficult time, not forcing things to be good right now, but letting them play out can help us to see things much clearer and end up working out much better. This is especially true when a bad time may give a glimpse into something much deeper.
This has proven true through various times and struggles in my life. Through the medical problems of my youth to the many struggles of adult life, where I have given myself grace and patience, things have often worked out as they ought. This is not about being passive. It is about being in the moment and working through the series of events. As with the granny knot, where you may have to work the strings back and forth to loosen the string, in life you may need to experiment to find what works. However, in time, if you have faith and patience, and continue to move forward, eventually you get through it.
Maybe the best way to sum all of this up is have faith in God, have faith in yourself, because God has faith in you.
The beginning of the year always makes me feel ready for change. I remember building earthquake-proof bridges in high school physics class, one of the more enjoyable tasks. Now the materials were all the same, popsicle sticks and glue. Those who did well made their bridge both flexible and strong. There was always a bit of give¾well, not always. The very first one in our class to become compromised was the bridge that had layers of sticks piled on so it was still and tough. That person did not read the chapter, and within seconds, crash!
The summer after I graduated from high school was the time when I learned I really needed to change. I was sent by my congregation to spend the summer on the Sisseton reservation in Northeast South Dakota. This was my first of many cultural immersions and was challenging for many reasons. Naperville, where I grew up, was diverse racially, but economically, we were all middle to upper middle class. So while we had differences in the languages at home or the background of our families, we all shared the benefits and stresses of middle class America. Going to South Dakota was a completely new reality.
It was a reality that made me question a lot about what I thought I knew and what truth was. My church did not send me alone. Another teen was there who helped with the work we were doing, and most importantly, the church gave us the gift of a mentor, Sid Byrd. Sid was a retired Presbyterian Dakota pastor who grew up in the Lakota Tribe.
At 18, I was most focused on college and what I would be able to expect. Faith-wise, I had my answers. Things were black-and-white, for the most part. We had been drilled both against cults, which were big in the ’80s and early ’90s, or so my church told us, and things that were not Christian, making sure that we only worshipped God, not things. The first part was clear and easy to follow. The second was harder, if only in definitions. For most of us, that fear of things “non-Christian” created in us a very narrow understanding of faith. I know this was not what they were going for, but we were kids, and I knew that I just wanted to do the right thing.
Sid was a fascinating balance between Christianity and Native American religion. Sid did something very important for me, and that was to get me to think about why I believed what I did. In doing so, he opened Christianity up for me. Sid was a devout Christian, but like me, it was not something that he sought out. Born into a Christian family, his parents were ministers; that was where he started and fully believed. However, as he began to explore during his life, he became connected to his cultural tradition, finding ways to integrate the Dakota faith with his Christian faith. However, belief in Christ was the dominating thing. This meant that where the two were not compatible, he went the Christian way. His statement was basically that our way is the way for us, while their way is equally legitimate.
I think, more than anything, I have been enlightened by Micah 4:3-5:
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. 5 For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.
Thus, here is my basic credo: my way is the Christian way, and that is where God has called me. Your way is yours, and you need to follow it the best you can. But together, we need to know and grow in the understanding of each and where they converge. Being Calvinistic, I celebrate the sovereignty of God and realize that God’s ways are not ours, and that God can do whatever, so why would he not have created other traditions and celebrations of God’s self? Therefore, I am a pluralist; but I am also an exclusivist, because I think that my way is the Christian way and when various traditions converge, I am unapologetically Christian.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen