Amos 7:7-17; Mark 6: 14-29
Do you remember times when you felt like your parents were treating you unfairly and you wanted to protest? Did you protest? Or did you keep quiet? I was a child who usually kept his mouth shut because I had been taught to be afraid of the consequences of speaking up. I allowed my father to have so much power over me that I lost part of myself in the process. It’s taken most of my life to find my voice to speak truth to power.
In recent weeks many decisions have come down from places of power, like the Supreme Court, the president, the congress, the Episcopal General Convention, and leaders of nations around the world. Some people agree with those decisions and others don’t. Speaking truth to power is always risky. John the Baptist found that out the hard way in today’s Gospel. But failing to speak that truth is also risky. When we fail to open our mouths we lose part of ourselves, and the world moves a little farther away from the in breaking Reign of God. William Sloan Coffin said, “If you lessen your anger at the structures of power you lower your love for the victims of power.” (To the left, p. 5)
So whether it’s our personal struggle to stand up for ourselves with our parents, our employers, our spouses, or someone who is oppressing us; or whether it’s speaking up on behalf of another group of people who are being treated unjustly, the risks of speaking truth to power and not speaking truth to power are evident at every turn. And the risks aren’t just about life and death. They’re about success and failure. What if people die speaking truth to power and nothing changes? We have seen the impact of protests in this country – against wars, environmental destruction, abortion, nuclear weapons, equality for women & gays, among others.
Clearly, if we evaluate speaking truth to power on short term success in light of the risks involved, not many would choose to participate. But that is to address the matter politically. Can we address it spiritually? What happens spiritually when we fail to speak truth to power? What prepares us spiritually to speak truth to power? Amos and John the Baptist offer some hints.
Both Amos and John had an appropriate sense of their own importance, neither too high nor too low. Both decided that despite not having high enough status, there was no one more appropriate or available to take up the mantle. Amos refers to himself as “just” a herdsman, as over against Amaziah, who was a priest, with access to the king’s ear. When Amaziah tried to emasculate Amos by saying he wasn’t living up to a prophet’s status, Amos replied, “I am not a prophet. I am just obeying God’s call to speak the truth.” When Amos spoke truth to King Jeroboam; Amaziah tried to silence him. But Amos was clear about who he was and what he was called to do. It wasn’t about him; it was about a larger cause. He wasn’t into status.
The same was true of John the Baptist. John’s role as messenger was to prepare for someone else. He began his career making sure everyone knew that he was not “the one.” “There is one greater than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Along the way he insisted that that he had to decrease while Jesus increased. People who speak truth to power don’t do it because it makes sense for them to be the ones who do it. They do it because there’s no one else any better.
They have a sense of being part of something greater – something more important than their personal agenda, personal status, or petty sins. Who speaks truth to power? Not the powerful them selves but those who are considered least likely to do so. People who speak truth to power aren’t in the spotlight. Well known people are often expected to speak truth to power, so there may be less impact when they do. It’s the common person who has no right to speak, the one whom nobody expects to do it, that will have greater impact on the powerful. Whenever you are tempted to say, “What difference could my voice make?” remember that it’s mostly been people who didn’t think they could make who made a difference speaking truth to power.
That was the kind of impact Gandhi had. While he became a person of stature through his struggle, he started out as a common person. He was able to have the impact he had because he understood that speaking truth to power required a spiritual strength that had to be developed. And he dedicated most of his energy to developing that spiritual strength.
Throughout history it’s been the unsung heroes rather than the historical icons who have made the most significant changes. Howard Zinn proposes some alternative heroes for our nation’s history. Why not recall William Penn, an early colonist who made peace with the Delaware Indians instead of warring on them, as other colonial leaders were doing? Why not John Woolman, who, in the years before the Revolution, refused to pay taxes to support the British wars, and spoke out against slavery? And what about grassroots heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper? Mrs. Hamer was evicted from her farm and tortured in prison after she joined the civil rights movement, but she became an eloquent voice for freedom. Or Ella Baker, whose wise counsel and support guided the young black people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the militant edge of the civil rights movement in the Deep South?
I want to address two aspects of the spirituality that undergirds this ability to speak truth to power. First, it requires us to be in our active mode of being rather than our reactive mode. We all struggle with this, whether we know it or not. Each of us has a way of behaving when all is going well and we feel supported and loved. That is our active mode. When we feel attacked, unsupported, unloved, lonely, stressed, etc. we respond in our reactive mode. I first figured this out about 35 years ago. At that time, when I didn’t feel that people were respecting me, I either withdrew or related to others as a compliant child. On the other hand, when I felt respected, I could access the broad range of active skills and abilities that I had and respond fruitfully.
Over the years I’ve learned that I can choose to respond from an active mode even when I am not being respected, by consciously accessing either healthy anger by restoring boundaries in a relationship, or by disengaging from the relationship because I realize that the other person doesn’t respect me, and that I don’t want to be in relationship with that person. When I combine that awareness with participating in something greater than myself, I can choose to remain engaged, and channel my anger to speak truth to the one who claims more power in the circumstances, but who doesn’t really have more power in the larger scheme of things. This is true whether it involves a public political protest, a child standing up to a parent, an employee standing up to a supervisor, or a customer relating to a shopkeeper.
Another aspect of spirituality that strengthens us to speak truth to power is the ability to maintain both love and anger, along with the courage to speak when it’s dangerous. St. Augustine wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” We need anger to speak up for justice. But we also need to stay connected to our love for people that motivates us to speak truth to power in the first place. William Sloan Coffin said, “We have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.”
Amos has this balance. God shows three scenes to Amos: locusts ready to eat the harvest; a shower of fire that dried up the sea and ate up the land; and a plumb line. In the first two, Amos begged God to relent of the plans for destruction, and God relented. In the today’s passage, God inserts a question to Amos after showing him the plumb line: “Amos, what do you see?” Once Amos acknowledges that he sees a plumb line (a tool of measurement rather than an instrument of destruction like the other two), God proceeds to reveal plans for destruction. This time Amos does not beg. What happened? Did Amos lose his love and patience for the people? Or did he finally see what God saw: the discrepancy between Israel’s calling and its conduct? Justice required dramatic action to make the wall “plumb.” The wall that was Israel would never support the structure of God’s call on its life without straightening its wall. A building whose walls are not straight (plumb) will collapse under its own weight. In that case, love requires us to convince the owner to make the necessary adjustments.
We too struggle to keep love and anger, justice and peace together. This is one of the challenges of speaking truth to power. Today’s Psalm says: “Will you be angry with us forever? Show us your love, O God, and grant us your salvation… Steadfast love and truth will meet, justice and peace will kiss each other. Truthfulness will spring up from the ground and justice will look down from the sky.”
Must we speak truth to power? Yes. Do we need to do that from a spiritually centered place? Double yes. I hope St. Athanasius will be a place that engages anger at injustice by participating in struggles for justice for many people. I pray that we will be able to do it in ways that also reveal our love and build bridges of peace. Otherwise, our justice work will be clanging gongs and noisy cymbals.