Recently I saw the excellent film, Kill the Messenger, which is about Gary Webb, a journalist in the 90s who uncovered the truth of US complicity in the drug trade from South America during the 1980s. It was during the 80s that the US professed to be committed to a “War on Drugs.” The failed “War on Drugs” is not the central part of the film, but it sets the backdrop; an enormous system dead-set on protecting a false reality that is pierced by Webb’s investigative reporting. Webb’s truth-telling at first brings great acclaim and notoriety to him and his paper and while I won’t spoil the ending, the notoriety does not last as the systemic powers intent on self-protection came against not just Webb’s story, but Webb himself.
It is a powerful film and I strongly recommend it not only to highlight the horrible drug policies and sentences that the United States has maintained for over four decades now, but I also recommend it for those who truly desire to tell the truth regardless of the consequences and no matter how big or entrenched the powers are we speak the truth to. The reality is that truth-telling is never without consequences.
I tire of the clichés used when people talk about telling the truth. There is “telling truth to power” which I hear at the endless rallies where people are standing outside some building signifying an entrenched power, screaming and yelling while some speaker makes the claim they are “speaking truth to power.” No, you are screaming at a building in which, most likely, not a single soul can hear you or gives a damn what you are saying. But everyone in the crowd yells their assent more out of their own need to feel like they are making a difference than actually making that difference real. If you find yourself at a rally where the speaker rails on and on about speaking truth to power just know that you are likely speaking truth (or better yet, someone’s weird agenda) to concrete and mortar. Rallies tend to benefit us more than transform entrenched power.
Or another cliché is when I hear someone say we must “speak the truth in love.” This is usually spoken by someone who loves more than they tell the truth. In fact, they are so afraid of the truth that they add the love stuff so they don’t have to hear the truth at all. Too much love without truth is like wet oatmeal – yuck.
To speak truth as Jesus did – to speak truth that could possibly result in individual and societal transformation or could possibly end in your own demise – I believe inherently involves risk. We have to have skin in the game so to speak. Whether it was confronting his own disciples for their lack of faith, or especially confronting the religious leaders for their lack of faithful example and their corruption that came through protecting their entrenched status and power at all costs, Jesus risked the fragile movement he was building in being brutally honest.
Matthew 23 is one of those Bible passages that is rarely preached on because it makes us so damn uncomfortable. Jesus is not trying to take over the place of the Pharisees and scribes so there is no turf war happening (though they think he is). He simply wants them to be something that many of them seem incapable of being: true to who they claim to be. If Jesus had won the religious leaders over, his movement would have, at least momentarily, been sustained. But Jesus preferred honesty to his own temporal success. So he blasted them.
And man, did they ever get even. They colluded with the very power they were most worried of corrupting the culture of their faith: Rome. Jesus spoke the truth directly to the face of those who most needed to hear it – no articles, no emails, no fundraising campaigns denouncing the religious leaders so that his ministry could collect funds, no ulterior motives or covert agendas. His tirade in Matthew 23 was public, it was straightforward, it was angry, it was right, and most importantly, it was honest. It should be said that Jesus’ verbal assault in Matthew 23 was preceded by a number of open invitations to all people throughout the gospels – religious leaders included. We don’t get to be brutally honest unless we also radically love. But let us also not forget that brutal honesty is a necessity of that love.
Speaking the truth cost Jesus his life. I worry today that we are more afraid of speaking the truth than in living comfortably with lies. I am concerned when United Methodist clergy insist that they must protect lifetime appointments if they are to speak prophetically. I suggest that clergy can’t speak prophetically – they cannot speak truth that entails any risk unless their security in the institutional system is removed. I know that sounds harsh and many will not agree with me, but I truly believe that it is only when we speak the truth and have our own position or title at risk that what we speak has a chance to truly be prophetic. It is when what we say has the equal possibility to individually or collectively transform or to cause our own demise that we can honestly say we are being prophetic. Until then it is far too often merely rhetoric.
The liberation we can know when we risk our status, titles, and position to speak the truth far outweighs the pseudo-comfort we mistakenly believe will keep us secure. Could it be that this is the kind of truth that will set us free?