Speaking Truth to Power from Without
Speaking truth to power is key to understanding the life and ministry of Jesus. It sounds confrontational, and it often moves us beyond our comfort zone. The truth is that, if we read the gospels carefully, we will find that Jesus likely makes his followers uncomfortable. My guess is that anyone who felt too uncomfortable about challenging the status quo did not stay with Jesus for long.
I am spending two days to this week to specifically look at how we speak truth to power … from without (meaning outside the institution/organization/community) and from within (from those belonging to the institution/organization/community).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had come to Birmingham, Alabama, to aid in the fight for racial justice and was subsequently arrested as the marchers stood in non-violent protest against law enforcement. While in jail, he happened to come upon an open letter written to him in the local newspaper. It was signed by eight religious leaders, including two Methodist bishops, Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin, and the letter challenged him as being an outsider who was instigating violence by encouraging the African-American citizens of Birmingham to stand up to the white oppressors.
The letter asked Dr. King (along with others) to stay out of the conversation in order that the citizens of Alabama could respectfully talk about their differences while also respecting “law and order” (parenthetically noted because we hear that same phrase used today).
You can read the full text of both the Clergymen’s Letter and Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail here response here.
For the purpose of this reflection, I am focusing more on Dr. King’s response as to the nature of his presence as an “outsider.” He compares himself to the Apostle Paul who is called by God and the newly emerging church to go to places as an “outsider” himself in order to bring the power of the gospel to bear in each situation.
Dr. King came speaking this truth from outside that community while demonstrating a solidarity with the oppressed through non-violent resistance that was intended as a gift to both the oppressed and the oppressors.
We divided our nation and the Methodist denomination in the middle of the 19th century over slavery, and even today, we southerners don’t care for people from the north making proclamations about our politics or our religion. Even more, we Texans don’t like having people outside of Texas influence ANY PART of who we are as Texans (which accounts for why we have a power grid separate from anyone else in the USA).
But as we follow Jesus to the cross, it might be helpful to understand that, while he was a Jewish rabbi, he was from the north (Galilee) and he was meddling in the religious affairs in the temple, which happened to be in the south (Judah). Jesus was considered an outsider.
There is an interesting exchange after Peter has been told that he will deny Jesus three times on the night before Jesus’s execution. He is sitting around a campfire near where Jesus is being interrogated, and the people sitting around the fire with him said, “You are certainly one of his followers; your accent betrays you.” (Matthew 26:73). We may well have said it, “Y’all sound like you from the narth.” (I am told I only talk that way when I meet up with people from my hometown or my family … sigh).
Jesus himself was an outsider who came to meddle in the affairs of religious leadership in Jerusalem, and when he turned over the tables of the money changers, he was immediately targeted because he was not someone who lived in Jerusalem … and he certainly never served in the temple.
So as Jesus confronts us in our complacency and our comfort, he often comes in the voice of the “outsider” … the one who speaks from “without” the institutional structure we hold so dearly.
Some have heard me tell the story of my angel that hangs in my office. This angel (pictured below) was given to me by someone who could easily have been labeled as an “outsider.” He was someone who attended the large church where I was on staff, but he never joined. He was always in the margins. Fortunately for me, I had been told by a wise mentor that the best insight I could ever have about how the church was doing was by asking someone in the margins to tell me the truth.
Mike was that person. He was a recovering alcoholic who had a deep distrust of the church. He had been harmed by the church early in his life. He had watched the church destroy the lives of his friends, and while he knew that there was truth in the message of the church, the messengers were often very untrustworthy.
He was willing to speak truth to power even at the risk of being considered an outsider … a rabble rouser … who didn’t take care not to offend the largest givers or keep the peace with key decision makers in the church. He just spoke the truth … and by the grace of God, I had the good sense to listen.
As he realized that I was willing to listen … to share a relationship with someone who could easily tarnish my image as a “good pastor” by giving credence to his critiques and his perspective on the truth … he and I developed a deeper friendship. He then gave me this angel.
But there is the truth about the angel that perhaps leads us to an even deeper insight. Mike made art out of discarded toys. The angel herself is a discarded Barbie doll that was partially dismembered, and Mike found her by accident when he noticed her in a neighbor’s trash.
You see the truth that Mike knew was that, even as an outsider, he could speak a truth that might feel like a dismembering … a breaking apart … and yet he trusted, like Dr. King, that there was something greater yet to come. When we speak truth to power … even from the outside … there is this implicit faith that God will take that which falls apart and make something beautiful and new!
O God, who comes to us speaking truth from the outside: Speak your word into our world and our structures that we might discover the beauty that you have for us on the other side of brokenness. Amen.