Speaking truth to power

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

All power needs truth. The power we have as individuals - in our workplaces and by the titles we hold - need the framework of truth.

The more power we have, the more opportunity there is for us to abuse that power in our relationships with less powerful people. Power can so easily be used to diminish others and thus diminish the truth.

We all have seen powerful people in politics, sports, business and Wall Street abuse power - even the church. Thankfully, there are truth tellers who often risk a lot to expose the truth.

The struggle for truth is very evident in the Bible. At one point, King David was approached by a powerless Nathan, who was armed only with the truth. In a high-risk situation, Nathan spoke the truth to David, who later repented and said, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Samuel 12:13). The life of Jesus certainly conveys to us the message that truth and power should work together. Of himself he said, "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6).

Truth is the center of who Jesus is. Forgiveness goes with that truth. To withhold forgiveness is to reject the truth. By not forgiving, we misuse our power.

We live in a "smackdown" culture where the will to prevail too often takes priority over the truth. Half-truths, distortions of the truth and even downright lies become harmful avenues in the search for power. Recent and upcoming political advertisements all too frequently serve as examples of truth sacrificed in the search for power. Forgiveness is often disconnected from the use and abuse of power. I frankly long for truth and forgiveness to become forces for the resolution of the chaotic dissension we so often face at all levels of life. Without truth and forgiveness, power corrupts the well-being of all.

In our world, nation, state and community, there are groups constantly screaming their version of the truth. Each group's turf often seems more important than what serves the common good. If each of us and the groups we hold important make power our goal, then extreme care must be taken to protect the truth.

If the power of self-interest replaces the service of truth, we are headed in the direction of chaos.

As much as society may place power on a pedestal, its abuse damages people to the very core. In particular, people without power, such as the poor, the unemployed, the mentally and physically ill and homeless, are victimized by truthless and unforgiving power.

God's purpose for us can get lost in the lingo of power. Issues can become so rhetoric laden that honest, moral debate can't happen. Turf wars, power plays and tragic struggles for power replace truth and mutual respect. Even within the Christian community, there is much division and dissension that must sadden our Lord.

In Galatians 2, the apostle Paul was in conflict with Peter. They were on different sides of a very controversial issue. But they found common ground, not in the law but in the grace of God. They heard the truth in a situation that could have brought permanent division.

Our challenge is to equip ourselves to think and act faithfully in the issues, relationships and situations we experience. There needs to be more voices that speak the truth in love in the middle of the many diverse, and often divisive, viewpoints we hold.

The truth is begging to be heard. Sometimes we are the ones who need to make the truth known.

In our use of power, may we always speak the truth to power.

• Rorem is a retired Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor living in Juneau.

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