Speaking the Truth to Power

My niece came up recently with a very intriguing question, in the context of the current US political climate: “So is there or is there not a Biblical mandate to speak truth to power at this time? “

The immediate answer would appear to be to appeal to the example of the OT prophets. But the classical Hebrew prophets’ responsibility to speak the Word of God, the Dabar YHWH, was predicated on the special relationship between the Hebrew Monarchy with YHWH, to which there is no analogy in any modern state. No theocracies here! Yet we all now rightly condemn the ‘official’ church of Nazi Germany for assenting to its crimes and praise the stance of the Confessing Church in resisting Nazism.

That seems to me to offer a model for the Christian citizens of any country when they see a conflict arising between their obligations as Christians, eg, their duty to God and their neighbours, and their obligations as citizens of that country, eg, to obey the laws of the land. When that rubber hits the road, we are obliged to chose the higher citizenship, that we hold in the heavenly Jerusalem, over the lesser, that we hold in any earthly country. That perspective puts the responsibility of speaking the truth to power not upon prophets only, but on all Christians, as frightening as that may be.

The first step would be to resist in every possible way the imposition of laws that seemed to violate the Gospel imperatives of love of God and love of neighbour and to say clearly and openly why, as Christians, they opposed those laws. And the second would be civil disobedience. Either could be personally dangerous; it isn’t necessary to look at as extreme an example as that of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany to know that. When the Freedom Riders and others in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s worked for civil rights and voting rights for black Americans, they were threatened, attacked, and in some cases murdered by racist organisations like the Klan and racist individuals. I very well remember how my own mother, who felt very strongly about civil rights and voting rights, had to choose between her desire to go to Mississippi and her family obligations, because my father was so ill and I was too young to take over that responsibility. So she found less dangerous but equally necessary work to be done with the League of Women Voters right at home in San Antonio. That kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes work for Gospel imperatives is itself a form of speaking the truth to power. Actions are themselves a form of speech when injustice is at issue.

At this point in the US, the group which has triggered these fears has not yet taken office, passed any laws, or made any regulations or policies. So now is an opportunity for Christian groups and individuals to speak about the statements or potential appointments that have raised fears, explain why they seem to point in a direction that is contrary to Christian values, that is, contrary to the love of God and neighbour. Ideally such interventions would suggest alternatives that are in keeping with the two great Commandments.

But there can be no doubt that, as Christians, we have an obligation to speak the truth to power in whatever way comes to hand (or mouth) in our own time and circumstances.


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