Speaking Truth To Power Requires Standing For...Not Against

Last fall I saw a play about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and since then haven't been able to get away from this phrase, "speak truth to power". It just keeps reverberating in my head.

This phrase seems to be used a lot lately, but Rustin is credited with being the first to use it. His statement was then used as the title of a 1955 book he helped author, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. Originally, it was a call for the United States to stand firm against fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. It was focused on a non-violent approach to civil rights and contained a very anti-war message.

Over time this term has come to mean a variety of things to different people. But to start, look at how the Quakers originally defined these terms:

We speak to power in three senses:
1. To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.
2. To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.
3. To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.

Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history. Because of this we could not end this study without discussing the relationship between the politics of time with which men are daily concerned and the politics of eternity which they too easily ignore.

There are many issues today that are framed in the context of speaking truth to power. #BlackLivesMatter, #LoveWins and #MuslimAmericanFaces as examples. Often, these are civil rights and justice oriented efforts. Speaking out against systematic racism, identifying and educating people on white privilege and defending the rights of all people to marry the people they love.

But on the flip side, if you ask a staunch member of the NRA, a religious freedom advocate or presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, you would hear them describe their views the same…speaking truth to power. They are speaking to the liberal elite. The President of the United States, the definition of power in this country, wants to take back the guns and hinder our rights to practice our religion.

So which is it?

Every time I read the Quaker definitions I find something new and interesting. But also, every single time I can’t miss the clear statement that standing for something, instead of against, is the enduring answer. But as anyone that has a Facebook page knows, it is painfully missing in our discourse today.

Today, everything in the news and on social media is against something. The easy thing to do is be anti, to be critical or to attack. Criticism is often viewed as the more intelligent response. Fear controls people. Our politicians want to scare us into action.

But voice is part of leadership and fear isn't the most powerful approach and definitely not the most hopeful. To "speak truth to power" is to stand for something. To be effective, it is about changing attitudes, not criticizing beliefs. It is to win friends over, not shame them for their views. Demonstrating what you are for is much more powerful than simply disagreeing with everyone else and pointing out their flaws.

Of course Martin Luther King, Jr. represented these principles and his famous quote from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail reinforces the need to speak out, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

The silence is certainly a failure to speak up...but also a failure to speak the truth and stand for something.

Standing for something is:

  • Willingness to engage other people in a civilized discussion, with an intent to understand.
  • Understanding that my beliefs are not diminished by respecting another person's beliefs.
  • Standing for a cause because it is right, not because the other side is wrong.
  • Defending my truth from a place of love and not hate.


Photo Credit: Flickr.com/dullhunk