(Modified 2021-07-11: Added audio recording)
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Trinity 6, July 11, 2021, Canon Claude Schroeder
“Speak the Truth to Power.”
It 1942, the African American Civil Rights Activist, Bayard Rustin, wrote in a letter that “the primary social function of a religious society is to ‘speak the truth to power’.”
So it was in 1955 that the Quakers, a pacifist religious society, published a pamphlet entitled, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.
This really marked the beginning of the wide-spread adoption and co-option of the phrase ”speak truth to power” in North America, not only by various religious societies, but by journalists, social activists, educators, and all manner of whistle-blowers.
“Anita: Speaking Truth to Power” was the title of the 1998 memoir of the African American lawyer and academic, Anita Hill, who appeared before the United States Senate with allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Judge Nominee, Clarence Thomas.
Speak Truth to Power was the title of Global Human Rights initiative launched by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Organization, and it seems there isn’t a day that goes by when we hear of somebody somewhere attempting to speak truth to power.
The concept and the practice of speaking truth to power is something with which anybody who makes a habit of coming to church on Sunday morning for the public reading and exposition of the Holy Scriptures, should be well familiar with. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth…Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible as they are, have been understood through the things that he made. So they are without excuse; for they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1.18-20). And later Paul will write, “ “Let God alone be true, but every man a liar.” (Romans 3.4)
Here Paul highlights for some important differences from contemporary accounts of speaking truth to power. The ‘power’ to whom ‘the truth’ is being spoken is not some human perpetrator of unjustice. “The power” is God, this is not something that comes naturally to any of us, who are chronic liars. We lie to ourselves, we lie to each other, and we lie to God, and end up living a lie. And so speaking truth to power is a virtue that has to be acquired and cultivated by means of certain practices, the principle of which is worship. One of the main reasons we come to church is in order to acquire the habit of truthful speech. It is by means of the unchanging words of the liturgy, that the Church teaches us to speak ‘truth to power’, that is to worship, glorify, adore, and give thanks to God, to intercede for the church and the world, and to repent and confess our sins.
But when Jesus Christ was called upon to speak truth to power before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he declared, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18. 37) To which Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 12.38).
This highlights for us another important difference from contemporary accounts of ‘speaking truth to power’, which holds that there is no such thing as truth with a capital ”T” but only the truth of my experience. Then we have the popular idea that claims to truth are just assertions of power, and that the acquisition of power is the motivating force in human relationships. I am trying to get power over you, and you are trying to get power over me. If that’s the way things are, there is going to be a lot of blood on the floor.
But the Scriptures teach us a rather different account of truth, which is to be found in the Word of God embodied in Jesus Christ, the aim of which is not the acquisition of power, but love, that springs from “a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.”(1 Timothy 1.5)
And so we hear in our first lesson this morning how the Lord said to Amos, “ See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7. 8). A plumb line is a weight suspended from a string which serves a vertical reference line to ensure a building’s walls are properly centered. Because of the force of gravity, the plumb line always finds the vertical axis and ensures everything is right, justified and centered.
What is the plumb line against which we ensure our lives and our society is properly centered?
It is the law and commandments of God, such as we have in the ten commandments, and the commandments of Jesus Christ.
Having established the plumb-line, the Lord calls Amos, who had no formal education and training in the art of public speaking and biblical prophecy. Amos was a simple, uneducated farmer – “a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees,” and the Lord took him from following the flock, and brought him to Bethel, to the very centre of the house of Israel, to the kings’ sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom, to speak truth to power: “Hear the word of the Lord, The high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, King Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will be taken into exile!” ( Amos 7.9)
Well, that did not go down very well, did it. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, came and told Amos, to go down to Judah, earn his bread and do his preaching there.
IN our Gospel lesson today from St. Mark we hear the story of John the Baptist who preached against King Herod, and applied the plumb line:“ It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6.18). That is adultery and incest.
Well, that did not go down very well, either. Nothing like calling the sexual practices of those in positions of power to land you in hot water. But it is precisely in the realm of sexual practice where man’s rebellion against the reign and rule of God is most clearly and obviously manifest, which spreads like a cancer to corrupt the entire social and political environment. Herod throws a lavish birthday party to which the social and political elites are invited, and exposes his step-daughter to degradation and sexual harassment by having her dance in front of everyone. And when in a moment of drunken lust and pride, Herod promises to give her anything she wants, the stage is set for John’s execution. The social and politics elites at the party were strangely silent.
Interesting thing here is that in the power of politics of the court of King Herod, who was it that was calling the shots? It wasn’t Herod. It was Herodias, King Herod’s wife, who had nursed a grudge against John the Baptist, and involved her daughter in sick plan a plan to have the head of John the Baptist served up on a platter. Herod turns out is just a tool in the hands of his so-called wife. When it comes to sin, men and women are on an equal footing.
And the moral of the story is?
Speaking truth to power is dangerous business. When as disciples of Jesus Christ, you dare to apply the plumb line of the Word of God, there is a price to be paid. You had better be prepared to lose your job, your friends, and maybe even your head.
But why does ST. Mark, who in his Gospel is in such a hurry to give us the Good News of Jesus Christ, giving us this fast paced story, where he moves quickly from one thing to the next, all of a sudden slows the narrative right down, and gives us this lengthy, incredibly detailed, and frankly sordid account of the circumstances surrounding the death of John the Baptist? Was it simply a matter of injecting a little sex and violence into the story to spice things up from what been a PG story to 14A?
Here is another example of Mark’s signature ‘sandwich technique’ of story-telling, where Mark starts a story, only to interrupt it with another story, before going to finish the story he started with. The story which Mark started telling, which we heard in church last week, saw Jesus commissioning his disciples to go on mission, to call all people everywhere to repent, and turn to God, to cast out demons, and to anoint with oil those who are sick, and to heal them. How wonderful and exciting that the disciples should get in on what Jesus is doing! But before finishing that story about how that mission went Mark tells us this story of the murder of St. John the Baptist, showing us that the manner of John’s death is intimately tied to the mission of Jesus and the disciples. Just as John’s message met with political obstacles, so would the message of Jesus and his followers. John’s declaration of the unlawfulness of Herod’s marriage to Herodias mirrors Jesus’ insistence on God’s purpose for marriage in creation: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife. (Mark 10. 7). Try telling that to the powers that be, and see what happens. Just as John dies a violent and shameful death at the hands of sympathetic, but cowardly political figure, so too, will Jesus. Just as John’s disciples took the risky move of taking the body of John for burial, so too Jesus’ disciples will take the risky move of taking the body of Jesus for burial. John, in other words prepares the way of the Lord, and for us, not only by his preaching, but by his death.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings stories wrote, “Actually I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters, 255).
If that isn’t speaking truth to power I don’t know what is.
Here Tolkien is blowing the whistle on the idea that modern idea that by means of science, technology, education, social policy, political reform , and proper investments, we can make the world a better place, that we could build the kingdom of God here on earth. This is what is called “the myth of progress,” and it colours how we see absolutely everything these days.
Looking back on the history of the 2oth century, and the horrors which were unleashed, not by the church, but by atheistic ideologies, can we really say we have made the world a better place?
If, so, I would like to know what you are smoking.
What Tolkien wrote is of a piece with the teaching of St. Paul in his Letter to Timothy concerning the unfolding of human history, “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:1-13)
Which raises the question, where is the Good News in all of this? How was it possible that in response to this story of the beheading of John the Baptist, you should cry out with joy in your hearts, “Praise be to thee, O Christ!” What is there here to cheer about?
What did Tolkien write? “Within the long defeat, there are glimpses of final victory.” This is what is being given to us to see today.
What is the victory? It is the victory of the Cross, in which the truth concerning God and man was manifested and made present in the world as suffering-love for the sake of the truth, that takes the form of a defeat.
Like millions of people around the world, I think I will be tuning this afternoon to watch the championship soccer match between England and Italy. As those of you who watch soccer will know, the English finally beat the Germans, and it’s been 55 years since they last played in any cup final this. Victory is in sight! Can you believe it? The English are out of their minds with joy.
But how does God work his salvation, his victory over sin, death, and the devil in us and through us?
It is not through the winning of an argument much less a soccer game, and it is not a work in progress, as so many suppose. It is rather a participation “the doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, and persecutions” of Jesus Christ as His Apostles. These experiences are not signs that we are doing something wrong. They are signs that we are doing something right, and that God has come to save us. That is the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel.
Can you believe it?
It would fill us with a deep and abiding joy.