Speaking Truth to Power Susan M. Flanders
St. George’s Chapel, August 5, 2018
Speak truth to power! We hear this imperative a lot these days. It is the rallying cry at marches and protests; it is the lament of so many outraged commentators and op ed writers. When a person or a group in power is seen to be abusing it, we long for someone to stand up to them, call them to account, convict them with the truth. Who will do this? What is stopping us? Why do we stand by when norms and customs and laws are flouted – we must speak truth to power!
Given this, today’s reading from Second Samuel is a dizzying breath of fresh air, the denouement of a great Biblical scandal, the calling out of King David by the prophet Nathan. In case the details of the story do not leap immediately to mind – here it is. Uriah is married to the very beautiful Bathsheba. While he is away fighting in David’s army, the king comes upon Bathsheba bathing and is so entranced, he has her brought to the palace where he sleeps with her, resulting in a pregnancy – looks like adulterous rape in our own fraught “me too” days.
The story gets worse; now comes the coverup – so often the undoing of a guilty leader. David has Uriah brought back from the front and encourages him to take a couple of days’ leave and spend time with his wife – two nights running he urges this, but Uriah remains with the king’s servants and doesn’t go near Bathsheba. So now, with no way to explain Bathsheba’s pregnancy, David goes for the nuclear option – he has Uriah killed. He tells his general to put Uriah on the very front lines where the fighting is fiercest, and so Uriah is indeed killed – out of David’s way, and the king sends for Bathsheba, takes her as wife, and she bears his son.
This whole sordid tale comes to the attention of the court prophet, Nathan, and here’s where our reading began – with Nathan’s confrontation of the king, one of the great speaking truth to power scenes in all of literature. Nathan appeals to the king’s emotions and sympathy by telling a tale of how a rich man with many flocks steals the one small lamb of a poor man in order to feed a traveler rather than giving up one of his own. David falls for it, and he is outraged at this man who had no pity and who took advantage of the poor man.
At this Nathan pounces! We can imagine him drawing himself up before the king, pointing to him with outstretched arm “You are the man!” His critique is scathing – after all the power and riches God has bestowed on David, he has done this evil, sinful deed, in secret and in cruelty, and God will punish him accordingly. Here, in our story, the confrontation works. David responds, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And most of the rest of the court history of David is concerned with all the ways his kingship, his family and his own status are impaired by his entitled, profligate behavior.
It’s a great story, and given today’s morass of entitled, profligate behavior in high places, I’m of course tempted to draw specific parallels and name names and call out lying and cheating; I’m wondering who are the Nathan’s in our day who will stand up and indeed speak truth to power.
I suspect that some of the rest of you have this same wondering about what anyone, including ourselves, can do, to bring irresponsible leadership to account. I actually had an opportunity to do this a couple of months ago back in Washington, DC where I live.
A young lawyer, a friend of one of my son’s, called me on the phone, knowing I was an Episcopal priest and assuming I would be interested in what he was proposing. He and some of his colleagues had assiduously researched the law concerning alcoholic beverage licensing in the District of Columbia. They had discovered that one of the criteria for granting a liquor license to anyone was that the person be “of good character.” They had also ascertained that the President was the owner of the license for the Trump Hotel in DC. And so they came up with this idea of trying to get a whole group of local clergy to file a complaint, not a lawsuit, but a complaint to the beverage control board, claiming that this license should be revoked due to the demonstrable lack of character of its owner. They felt that clergy were respected as good judges of moral character and their joining together in this complaint might prove effective, if only to generate negative publicity if not to actually get the license revoked.
At first, I thought this was very exciting! As I said to the lawyer, “I’m someone who is always ranting about how no one stands up to all the outrages inflicted by this administration, all the obvious character flaws demonstrated regularly by this president. I’m always criticizing Congress for its passivity, wondering when someone will actually do anything.” So – here’s my chance, I thought, in a small way, to be sure, to be part of at least one attempt to call the person to account, to publicly denounce a lack of good character. I was pretty excited, and even though misgivings began to surface right away, I told the lawyer I’d think about it and talk to some other clergy.
I told Bill about it, and he thought it was a totally bad idea, always a good sign that something really is – a totally bad idea. My reservations began to take shape. This complaint was not actually germane to the many huge objections I have about the way things are going in our country – whether or not the liquor license exists doesn’t really make any difference. The lawyers would just be using this one little clause in a 300+ page licensing law to try to cause trouble. They would not be standing up to the president on the issues that really matter. Further, leaning on clergy as moral arbiters immediately reeks of hypocrisy, given clergy sexual abuse, financial chicanery and often collaboration in the unjust wielding of political power. It would be better if such a complaint were brought by a cross section of well respected upstanding citizens of various walks of life – specific people who are considered above moral reproach. And then there was the whole problem of mixing politics and religion. I work part-time for a church, and to involve myself in a legal matter, clearly based mostly on my political views would seem to be overstepping my role. I also talked to some lawyers, all of whom thought it was an interesting idea that would go nowhere and shared the reservations I’ve just mentioned. So I bowed out, told the lawyer I wouldn’t support him, and why, and felt relieved. He meanwhile went ahead and did find a group of respected citizens, clergy and judges mostly, and filed his complaint a couple of months ago. I’ve heard nothing further.
So much for my so-called opportunity to speak truth to power. But whatever the flaws of that venture, speaking truth to power is still important, necessary and, I believe, totally compatible with Christian faith.
For one thing, speaking truth to power is Biblical. For those who say no, I remind them of the huge tradition of prophets, in the Hebrew Scriptures – not just Nathan, but the harangues about justice from Amos and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Micah, and on into the New Testament including John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Whether these men were court insiders or somewhat eccentric outsiders, they took risks and spoke out and addressed both rulers and citizenry. The truths they spoke were always about fairness and justice and a God whose love encompassed both judgement and mercy. They were all about accountability; they insisted that those who mistreated others would somehow pay for their cruelty. They held the sins of leaders up to the light for all to see. Their witness is to that arc of history that bends towards justice, however glacially. They will not rest with things as they are, but urge us to envision things as they might be, even as they ought to be.
So, we have the entire heritage of Biblical prophecy as our context for speaking truth to power today. But how? Those long ago prophets seem so different, so far from us. What can we do that feels better than sitting by passively, and worse, watching those who ARE in position to speak out and make a difference and take action towards accountability do next to nothing?
Just as I was stuck with this question a couple of weeks ago, right after the arguably treasonous comments of the president after Helsinki, Frank Bruni, the NYT columnist came to my rescue. He wrote, on July 20, a powerful op ed piece entitled “Disgusted With Donald Trump? Do This” Bruni makes the strongest argument I’ve read for the power of voting, calling it “utterly straightforward and entirely effective” and saying we must stay “fanatically focused on…registering voters, turning them out, directing money to the right candidates, donating time in the right places” as well, of course, as voting ourselves. He reminds us painfully that only 40% of eligible voters did so in 2016 and fewer than 1 in 2 voters ages 18-29 did so. Bruni convicted me in what I’ve been doing saying “too many people spend too much of themselves on the shouting and save too little for the plotting.” Bruni challenges us on this – “Does our discipline rise to the level of our anger? Does our will?”
Bruni presents voting, not as the last passive option we have for standing up to this president, but as the foremost tool of our democracy. The vote is the one power we all can and must use, an expression of faith in our system, despite its flaws. Bruni’s belief is that the majority of us will opt for honesty in government and a government committed to the well-being of all of our people, and that the 2018 election will indeed be the most important in a generation.
So I’ve decided to stop ranting, stop watching way too much MSNBC, and get serious about electoral politics. The truth we can each deliver to power is our vote. Election results do stick and are the only guaranteed way to make sure we bring about a change in leadership. It may not sound so big and brave and bold as Nathan’s confrontation with David, or Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers in the temple, but actually, what could be a better way of speaking truth to power than defeat by millions of engaged and outraged voters?
Finally, all this talk about truth to power – how would we define this truth? How can truth be other than subjective – my truth vs. your truth? Again, the NYT helped me out with a recent letter to the editor from one Ann B. Diamond of New York. She lists ten things that she thinks almost all
Americans would agree on – the things we should vote for instead of wildly partisan single issues. Here they are:
- We deserve a president who tells the truth.
- Cabinet members should be advocates for their agency.
- Americans want clean air and believe in climate change.
- Every citizen should be encouraged to vote.
- No child should go to bed hungry.
- Canada and Mexico are not our enemies.
- Russia is not our friend, and is trying to undermine democracy.
- The press is not the enemy.
- The tax cut benefits corporations and the wealthy, not the middle class.
- Children belong with their parents.
We could say what these things, upon which it’s fair to say most would agree, represent the truth we need to speak to both political leaders and the financial powers that fund them.
There hasn’t been much God-talk in this sermon, although certainly the story of Nathan and David provided a Biblical basis for confronting corrupt leaders. The God part, the Jesus part? Why would faith in God or a desire to follow Jesus prompt us to speak truth to power? For me, faith in God, involves meaning and value and a sense of the world as a precious creation we are called to protect. I want leaders who share that sense, no matter their religion. For me, Jesus, as a human being, signifies God’s presence in our humanity, in each of us. Jesus signifies our capacity and call to be God’s love in the world. Within each of us is the capacity and call to be God’s love in the world. One of the most important ways we can do this is to be faithful citizens, responsible caretakers of our precious democracy with whatever tools we have. As we consider our options in this bleak time for our country, we can ask ourselves this question: what are ways that each of us can embody God’s love in the world, not in hatred, not in tearing down, but in the slow and patient rebuilding and reinforcement of the kind of leadership our founding fathers and mothers dreamed of ? Voting is not nothing, not a pitiful last resort, but something we all can and must do to bring about the kind of leadership we so need and long for today. Amen.