Speaking Truth to Power

If we look at history, I think we can see a constant swinging back and forth between two poles, Right and Left, representing two necessary values…

The first task seeks order, certitude, clarity, and control. It is the best way to start. But whenever that pattern is in place for too long or is too overbearing, what will eventually emerge is a critical alternate consciousness. Whenever the law-and-order thing is overdone, another group of people will react against it. Once you have an establishment, you will eventually have a dis-establishment. When some have all the power, those who don’t have power ask very different questions, and the pendulum swings back again—eventually. That has been the story of most of history and the sequencing of most revolutions…

It is interesting that these two different powers took the words “Right” and “Left” from the Estates-General in France. On the right sat the nobility and the clergy (what were the clergy doing over there?) and on the left sat the peasants and 90 per cent of the population. Those are now commonly used terms in the global political world. The Right is normally concerned with maintaining some status quo, stability, continuity, and authority; that is a legitimate need and without it you have chaos. Those on the Right, however, are normally considered innocent until proven guilty.

Those on the Left are presumed, for some reason, to be guilty until proven innocent, at least in the minds of many…The powers that have tended to write history have usually been from the side of authority and power, and those who protect power and authority. Once we see this, we wonder why we never saw it before. Without some form of Right, we have chaos in society; and without some form of Left there is no truth and reform in a culture. Thomas Jefferson said we would need another American Revolution approximately every 25 years, or it would become its own new tyranny. And thus the pendulum swings, and I guess we all hope we are living at the appropriate time when it is swinging toward our preferred side, or that there are at least a few elders around…

In the Biblical tradition, the power on the Right and the power on the Left are symbolized by the kings and the prophets, respectively. There is almost a necessary tension and even opposition between them. There is only one time in all the Hebrew scriptures that the two ever made friends, and then only barely. That is when David the King accepted the critique of Nathan the prophet, after Nathan accused him of his sinfulness and David had the humility to say that he was correct: “I have sinned against the Lord” (see 2 Samuel 12).

The Right always considers itself the product of rationality, experience, and civilization. The people on the Left are always the product of these “silly” people’s movements arising out of high-minded ideology, unbearable injustices, or both. Neither of these currents is totally rational (even the Supreme Court disagrees on what is rational). Movements from the Left are normally not well-planned at the beginning. They are intuitive and come from what is suffered by the little people, who at that point are of no account and have no press or status. Thus they rely on symbols, songs, slogans, and momentary charismatic leaders to get off the ground. Remember when white people laughed at black people for singing, “We Shall Overcome”? Remember also those naïve English colonists on the East Coast of America who said “No taxation without representation.” The pattern is always the same: “kings” (power) versus “prophets” (truth).

Richard Rohr, adapted from A Lever and a Place to Stand:  The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer

Quakers often use the phrase to “speak truth to power“, by which is meant precisely what Rohr is saying here about the prophets. What is easy to forget, though, is how much the process owes to the spiritual, rather than the political, aspect of humanity. The prophets are more than critics of the Right: they are conveyors of God’s justice and mercy, and their work is seen supremely in the life of Christ, and in his relations with both the Jewish religious authorities and the occupying Roman forces.

It’s fatally easy to forget the vital connection between mercy and justice, with the results seen in pretty much any violent revolution throughout history. Jesus refused to be drawn by those among his followers who hoped for a military solution to the oppression of Palestine under the Roman occupation, and continually proclaimed that his Kingdom was not an outer, but an inner, realm.

At the centre of all we do and say is this knowledge, gained by the plain experience of silence. It seems to me we can do nothing apart from this. All our truth is rooted in silence, our mercy and compassion in love.

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