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Foolishly Speaking Truth to Power

August 2, 2009

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 9     2 Samuel 11:26, 12:15     John 6:24-35

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Many have claimed the phrase “Speaking Truth to Power.” Some are pretty powerful people justifying their own beliefs. But a Quaker first coined it in 1955 as a title for a pamphlet calling on the US to change the course of the Cold War by unilaterally disarming.


It is a phrase that resonates for us. It rings of courage and righteousness with more than a hint of danger. I think it is why the politically satirical Daily Show with Jon Stewart who does this nightly, is a global phenomenon. Few of us would be displeased to have it said of us at our funeral… “She or he spoke truth to power.” Yes, that sounds like high praise, and it is why the story of Nathan confronting David’s adultery with Bathsheba grips us. We see Nathan in heroic terms, cloaked in righteous indignation pointing his finger at David and springing the trap, “You are the man!”


The appeal of the story lies in our being hard-wired to be outraged by abusive power. Even David felt it, to his later regret. When the abuser is confronted and condemned, we find it wholly satisfying, not unlike being served a heaping plate of comfort food. The meal in this case is revenge, which everyone knows is best served cold.


But this is a meal that can give us indigestion. While outrage may motivate us to speak truth to power, outrage is not a very good indicator of what is truth. If it were, the same things would outrage all of us. This week in New Zealand there seems to be universal outrage over a conflict between MP Paula Bennett and two young mothers on benefits that assist them in going to school. But our outrage is not in agreement. Some are outraged that a person in power released private information to intimidate her critics and others are outraged at the amount of the benefit the women received and the nerve they had in complaining about its insufficiency. While people on both sides are savouring their righteous indignation, the truth they seek to speak seems to be more about their personal motives, experiences, values and prejudices than some external universal truth.


The problem with truth is how do we know it when we see it that we might speak it? Clearly trusting our gut is not sufficient. Perhaps it is in trusting authority.


Let’s look again at David and Nathan’s encounter as an example. We know in our gut that David’s actions were horribly wrong. We know Nathan was courageous to confront him. And if our gut didn’t tell us, Holy Scripture makes it clear. But is our gut or Scripture equally appalled at God who directed Nathan to confront David? Or did it escape our notice that the God calling David on the carpet for betraying Him (this is definitely a male deity) helped David betray Saul, and then gave him his wives and kingdom. Did we notice that the God who condemns David’s murder of Uriah punishes him by murdering David’s infant son? What is truth? Is betrayal, murder and adultery wrong when David does it on his own, but OK when God condones or facilitates it? If we are outraged at David shouldn’t we be equally outraged at the one who condemns him? Scripture doesn’t seem to think so.


This double message as to truth in the story raises questions about the story’s veracity. Why was it told in the first place? Is it factual history or is it propaganda? Who is telling the story? Certainly no one who is a friend of David’s or seeks to curry favour from him.


One of the things that makes the story suspect is that it is unlikely Nathan said these things to any king at the time. He would not have survived longer than it took for the words to leave his mouth. Never mind, being able to tell of the encounter later. So if the story was manufactured who benefited? Some scholars think it was Bathsheba who was in a power struggle with David’s other wives over who should succeed David as king. When Absalom, David’s favourite, was killed, Bathsheba and her ally Nathan were not likely to have shed any tears. It left the door wide open for her son Solomon. This story may have been about giving his rise to power legitimacy. Later it may have been useful for Solomon to justify building the Temple that David failed to build and which many objected to building. No one really knows the truth. It is lost in the political intrigues of the day and power struggles of later editors.


So if the truth we feel is too subjective and the truth we are told by authorities lacks our own input or ability to verify, perhaps reason will lead us to truth. Reason’s virtue is that it relies on our intellectual resources but can be subjected to external test. If I tell you this morning it is Sunday in Auckland it can be tested by the calendar and the opinion of others. It is the middle position between relying on our passions and relying on authority. It is particularly attractive to the likes of Christopher Hitchens and other secular humanists as they see it as a means to dismiss belief systems all together. I don’t have to consult the Bible or feel that it is Sunday. Reason gets me to the truth.


The downside is that reason is based in logic and logic requires assumptions based in experience. But when experiences vary assumptions vary bringing us to different conclusions that are logically true. Truth appears to become relative. Furthermore, when truth is beyond our experience it cannot be attained through reason for we will have no words to describe it. All this makes reason exceedingly flexible for us when we argue our position in the marketplace of ideas. To quote Shakespeare, “I have no exquisite reason, but I have reason enough” [Twelfth Night]. If we are persuasive we can make our reasoned truth widely accepted. It is therefore the kind of truth favoured by both revolutionaries and demagogues throughout history. Ironically, this truth can become the abusive power we wish to speak to. Before speaking reasonable truth we should remember G.K. Chesterton’s observation, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relationship to reality.” [Orthodoxy]


That leaves us with the truth of our senses, empirical truth. This is the truth that under girds the sciences. Science has given us many truths. Some have even stayed true over the test of time, while others have been set aside by new discoveries. The seekers of scientific truth will have much to do for many generations. We know much less about our world than we do know. Much of the world’s oceans have yet to be explored. Our knowledge of climate change is in its infancy. We know more about the cosmos than do about what is under our feet having barely penetrated the earth’s crust. But as great as having that knowledge will be there are still great truths that will be forever beyond our five senses and the instruments we have created to enhance them. Truths such as what are the ethical uses of that knowledge? The mystery of life: science can neither create nor explain it. Clone, genetically engineer, or facilitate it, yes -- but create it, no. Love will never come out of a test tube any more than courage and compassion can be concocted in a Petri dish.


These are our fundamental ways of knowing a truth we might speak to power. All allow us to strive for truth, but none get us there. In our post-modern age many have thrown up their hands saying there is no objective truth to strive for. While some might accuse me of being in denial, I can’t accept that. I can accept not attaining it, but for me what matters is the striving. If I ever come to believe I have attained it, please put me somewhere I cannot harm others or myself.


How do I strive for it? Certainly I utilise the limited means I have described but our Gospel reading suggests to me how best to speak to power.


When the Johannine Community reflected on what was so special about Jesus, they described him in sacramental terms by having him declare himself the bread of life, clearly a reference to the Last Supper we celebrate at communion. The American Book of Common Prayer catechism has a beautiful description of a sacrament: It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. That grace is for me ultimate truth. In his healing of the outcasts, feeding of the hungry, compassion for the poor; fearlessness in the face of oppressive authority he was an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual truth that divine love is within, between and beyond us.


That grace is the truth for which I strive to live. To the degree I embody that love I speak it. Now to whom should I speak? A poem I love by Edward Sills points the way. It’s called The Fool’s Prayer:



The royal feast was done; the King

Sought some new sport to banish care,

And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,

Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!"


The jester doffed his cap and bells,

And stood the mocking court before;

They could not see the bitter smile

Behind the painted grin he wore.


He bowed his head, and bent his knee

Upon the Monarch's silken stool;

His pleading voice arose: "O Lord,

Be merciful to me, a fool!


"No pity, Lord, could change the heart

From red with wrong to white as wool;

The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,

Be merciful to me, a fool!


"'T is not by guilt the onward sweep

Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;

'T is by our follies that so long

We hold the earth from heaven away.


"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,

Go crushing blossoms without end;

These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust

Among the heart-strings of a friend.


"The ill-timed truth we might have kept--

The word we had not sense to say--

Who knows how grandly it had rung!


"Our faults no tenderness should ask.

The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;

But for our blunders -- oh, in shame

Before the eyes of heaven we fall.


"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;

Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool

That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,

Be merciful to me, a fool!"


The room was hushed; in silence rose

The King, and sought his gardens cool,

And walked apart, and murmured low,

"Be merciful to me, a fool!


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