Speaking Truth to Power
I spoke to two members of parliament last week. One, unsurprisingly, was our very own MP, Daniel Zeichner. Daniel, not for the first time, had organized an online meeting with some faith leaders in Cambridge, and I was glad to be one of the invitees. Almost everyone at this meeting was a Christian minister, from many denominations, right across the city. We all told versions of the same story, with changes of emphasis relating to context. Churches of all sorts reported on a dearth of income, and the impact on their mission and ministry. We all spoke about mental health - not only those in our communities for whom the consequences of lockdown have been so damaging, but our own too. Daniel was, as always, a compassionate and considerate listener, and promised to raise our concerns and ideas in Westminster.
The second MP is a close friend, Robert Courts, an active member of the congregation in my last job, and, last week, appointed as Under-Secretary of State for Transport. We rarely agree on political policy, which doesn't stop us from being the best of friends. I had the privilege of baptizing him, and officiating at his marriage - and allowing him to beat me at squash weekly before his election as MP for Witney in 2016 took him off to London for much of the time.
I have had the privilege of knowing many politicians, some of them holding very high office. The ones I've known personally have been clever, caring, and very conscious of what I would describe as their vocation. And they've been willing to listen, to learn, and to act. I am all too aware that not all politicians display such integrity.
I'm not sure I was conscious of 'speaking truth to power' when I had those conversations. The phrase is usually employed on a larger canvas than the local vicar talking to their MP. While it has classical roots (type 'parrhesia' into a search engine), in modern times it is credited to Bayard Rustin, a twentieth-century North American Quaker and gay rights activist who some say is responsible for popularizing the phrase in the 1950s. He 'spoke truth to power' on a bigger scale than me - I imagine than most of us.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), whose feast day is today, is often misremembered as a rather sweet old nun who had lovely visions and wrote beautiful music. But she knew all about speaking truth to power, be it popes or potentates. She even wrote to our very own King Henry II (just before Thomas Becket was murdered) to warn him about his abuse of power, adjuring him not to pay heed to those of 'squalid morals' who were advising him. No messing with her.
But all of us can find ways of speaking truth to power. I would want to say that, as Christians, we have a duty to speak truth to power. And that truth is not something we make up, but is something that we have discovered and changed us. That Truth is a man, who taught his followers that the way we do things is, on the whole, different to how God would have us do them. He knew this better than anyone, because he was God's Son. And when power listens to truth, the hungry get fed, the homeless are housed, the humbled are exalted. It's Magnificat. Beatitude. Kingdom. The life in all its fullness that Jesus came to bring.