Speaking Truth to Power
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.
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen