Speaking Truth to People in Power

November 18, 2013 — Leave A Comment

CraigGlassI’m excited to welcome to the blog today my friend Craig Glass. Craig is the founder and president of Peregrine Ministries in Colorado Springs. Through a variety of avenues ~ including father-son “rite of passage” retreats, conference speaking, individual coaching, and ongoing partnerships with churches and their men’s ministries ~ Craig helps men understand their identity in Christ, embrace their role as men, and Live out their God-given calling in life. I encourage you to learn more about his life and work at www.peregrineministries.org.

In 2002 TIME magazine’s Persons of the Year were three women who spoke truth to power:

  • Sherron Watkins, the Enron vice president who wrote a letter to chairman Kenneth Lay warning him that the company’s methods of accounting were improper.
  • Coleen Rowley, the FBI attorney who caused a sensation with a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller about how the bureau brushed off pleas from her MN field office to investigate a man who became one of the 9/11 disaster
  • Cynthia Cooper, who blew the cover off WorldCom when she informed its board that the company had covered up $3.8 billion in losses through phony bookkeeping.

More recently, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission during the Sept. 11th assault on the U.S. embassy in Libya has been speaking truth to power by describing a series of events other than what we have heard before.

The first documented time the term “truth to power” was used was in a series of papers, “A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,”developed by the Quakers in the 1950’s as they urged alternatives to violence in the conduct of the Cold War. Considering the consequences a truth-teller might experience, speaking truth to power epitomizes genuine conviction that something is wrong, and genuine courage to do and say something about it.

Every now and then doing the same might place us in disagreement or even outright conflict with those in positions of authority over us. As we see in the news on a regular basis, conflict with those in power happens in the workplace, in ministries and the church, and in the military. Authority gets potentially abused or blind in just about any place we might work.

What do we do about that? I propose we speak truth to power.

Though the phrase “speaking truth to power” may be only 60 years old, the practice goes back quite a bit further:

1. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ~ The book of Daniel tells the stories many of us learned in childhood of four young Israelites who defied the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar, their political authority, to bow before his idol and to cease praying to God. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were confronted with the threat of death they refused to obey. They spoke truth to power.

Similarly, when Daniel was told to stop praying to his God, he didn’t. In fact he prayed three times a day. In his room where the window faced Jerusalem. He engaged in civil disobedience that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been proud of.

2. Peter and John ~ After Jesus’ home going, Peter and John were told by the Sanhedrin, their spiritual authority, to no longer preach in his name. Acts 4 describes their encounter with power in verses 18-20:

“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

This was not the meek response the keepers of the Law were expecting.

3. Jesus ~ Countless times Jesus stood before the pious Pharisees, the stoners of women, the condemners of healing, the pompous legalists, the spiritual authorities of his day, and spoke words that silenced and condemned them. He got in their faces so frequently and so disturbingly that they eventually crucified him.

Daniel and his colleagues spoke truth to political power. Peter spoke truth to spiritual power. Jesus spoke truth to illegitimate power. We may not put ourselves in their league. But we do, in fact, have the same authority to speak on behalf of integrity, fairness, justice, and kindness.

How do we do this when we confront issues of dishonesty, prejudice, or demeaning treatment of others?

Perhaps more than any one other quality, speaking truth to power requires Heart.

The French word for heart is Coeur. It’s the root word of the English word Courage. When we encounter a conflict with authorities, we must live and speak from our HEART. We must:

1. Honor our authorities and organizations. ~ Look at the biblical examples we have referred to: In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar searched for the finest men to serve in his palace. Daniel 1:19-20 says “he found none equal” to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Regarding Daniel’s reputation, Dan. 6:4 says, ”They could find no corruption in him…”

These four godly men were not troublemakers, or passive-aggressive whiners. They stood out head and shoulders over everyone else. Even though they had another God, they still honored Nebuchadnezzar’s political authority over them.

Sometimes we Christians think we have to make enemies with anyone who has an opinion different than our own; whether it’s a denominational difference, business difference or political difference.

Not every difference of opinion requires a religious battle. Often, the best approach is to honor legitimate authority and prove to be the best worker, the best citizen, or even the best friend, that person has.

We can be friends with those who differ with us. We can be above approach as workers. We can and should honor those who carry legitimate positions of authority in our lives.

As with Daniel and his three friends, we should be of blameless character and be an example to others in how we honor our authorities.

2. Examine our own motives and intentions. ~ Luke 6: 41-42 is an appropriate passage to remember for this topic: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own…Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor” (The Message).

I think that’s remarkably clear advice. Again, we Christians sometimes have a deserved reputation for demonstrating a holier-than-thou approach with others ~ whether neighbors, co-workers, or even Christian denominations that we think will probably just barely make it into heaven.

This passage makes it unmistakably clear; before we go off on a rant about someone else’s shortcomings, make sure we have taken a good look in the mirror at our own practices and our motives.

Bill Ury, the author of a book called The Power of a Positive No, warns us: “When angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Before speaking truth to power, take some time to think this through. Humbly examine your heart; respectfully examine the other person’s intent. You just might see another perspective.

3. Approach the right people. ~ When we disagree with a new policy at work, or are legitimately concerned about a decision our pastors or elders have made at church, the easiest path is to find someone else just as aggrieved as we are, and commiserate with each other. As they say, “Misery loves company.”

This is neither a courageous nor an honest path. It’s gossip. Simply looking for others to endorse our own point of view does little to bring about resolution or justice in a healthy way.

We should approach the right people; those who actually determined the decision or policies we are struggling with, or who have the authority to make a change.

4. Represent. ~ Speak up. Be honest. Speak for yourself and for others. Look at our previous biblical examples. Daniel and his cohorts were blameless, model citizens and workers, until…they were told to compromise a principle more important to them than their position or security.

In the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, they were told to bow down to an image. That’s where they drew a line. We will obey and honor you, they said, but we will not worship you nor compromise our beliefs. Daniel 3 describes this encounter. They were brought before Nebuchadnezzar who was “furious with rage.” How dare you disobey, he exploded! I’ll have you thrown into a blazing furnace! Then what God can save you from my hand?!

How did they represent their convictions? Respectfully, directly, courageously, and without apology. Verses 18-20, “we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

We know how the rest of the story went. They were spared.

Daniel represents in a similar way. With Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar, who sees the obscure writing on the wall but can’t interpret it, Daniel pulls no punches when asked to translate the message, “O, Belshazzar, you have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven” (Daniel 5:22).

With his successor Darius, Daniel was told not to pray to any other God. When confronted with a demand he could not obey, he didn’t. “Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before”  (Daniel 6:10-11).

His response was not with words, and it was not hidden, it was outright disobedience.

Peter and John’s response to power is told in Acts 4:18-20: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

They responded respectfully, directly, courageously, and without apology.

How about Jesus? How did he respond to threats and intimidation from authorities? With bold reference to a higher authority: “I do nothing on my own authority…I have come with my Father’s authority.” On what authority do we establish our convictions and speak up when we need to? The exact same authority. Others may not recognize it; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

“I am not here to please man!” Jesus said. Who are we trying to please when we confront dishonesty, injustice, corruption? Do we let it slide or do we speak truth to power?

We represent. We represent our convictions, we represent on behalf of others, we represent the values and principles we believe God calls us to.

5. Take the consequences ~ Just like our biblical examples, we understand that speaking truth to power may well have some consequences for us. Patrick Lencioni, well known business author who wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says the best way to tell what your deepest values really are, is they are the convictions you’re willing to get punished for.

There will often be consequences when we take a stand. Sometimes they will be good consequences; sometimes they will be very hard.

  • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego survived a furnace.
  • Daniel survived the lion’s den.
  • Peter and John stood up for their convictions, and while John lived to an old age, Peter was eventually crucified, upside down at his request, for his beliefs.
  • Jesus was welcomed as a conquering king with palm fronds one day, and one week later was crucified for speaking truth to power.

There are no guarantees what reaction those in power might have. Some might be persuaded, others might fight tooth and nail, others might end their relationship with you. In all likelihood, none will kill or crucify you. In any case, the willingness to take the consequences of our convictions and actions is a crucial part of the equation when we talk about speaking truth to power.

Speaking truth to power is almost never the easy path. It takes genuine courage and it takes heart:

  • Honor your authorities
  • Examine your motives
  • Approach the right people
  • Represent on behalf of yourself and others
  • Take the consequences

Others before you did. Quite often they changed history. So might you.

Michael Warden

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