Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Speaking truth to power

The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ (STTP) is one that raises my hackles.  It really means ‘shoving my prejudices down other people’s throats’.  The latest example is from Steve Whiting of QPSW at Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017:
  “Speaking truth to power”.  We like that saying, don’t we Friends? And we Quakers seem to have adopted it as our own. I think that’s because those four short words capture the essence of our witness in the world.  “Speaking truth” suggests an external expression of an internally received insight, an outward faithfulness to a spiritually experienced truth.  It comes from the heart, from a place of love.  Saying it  “to power” implies courage to speak that truth to those who  may not want to hear it, and are in a position to punish you.

A number of points need to be made about this narrow minded and paranoid example of Quakerspeak.  Firstly, as far as I can tell STTP is neither a uniquely Quaker phrase nor an ancient one.  Google suggests it dates from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  Secondly, a quick look at Quaker Faith & Practice shows ‘power’ being used largely as applying to God alone, on the sound theological grounds that God has all power and man has none.  For example, consider the use of the word in the following well-known and very wonderful passage from George Fox:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms.  That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.  (QF&P 2.18)

The early Quakers did not recognise earthly power at all, which perhaps is Whiting’s point, but recognition of the exclusive power of God should make us very cautious about applying the term to the earthly realm.  Whiting commits the leftist fallacy of dividing people up between those who have power and those who don’t, when due consideration –  what Quakers call discernment –  will tell him it isn’t that simple.  The dynamics of power in any one demographic are fluid, as a Quaker meeting for business will show– and isn’t that a good thing, because how else could we learn and grow? 

A fortiori with the question of truth, which is probably best thought of as a process and a virtuous quest in love and integrity rather than as a hard fact.  Some truths are more easily discerned than others. As QF&P says at 19.34:
Truth is a complex concept; sometimes the word is used for God, sometimes for the conviction that arises from worship, sometimes for the way of life.
Even if one is seized by a strong conviction which arises from worship, we need to remember that we, unlike the early Quakers, live in a flourishing democracy where people are free to join any number of campaigning and political organisations.  In his speech, Steve Whiting goes on to ask:
 Imagine we’re a local Quaker Meeting and we’ve just heard about a planning application to our local authority for test drilling for fracking in our neighbourhood. And we want to do something about that.
On this occasion, the truth is very simple.  Friends who want to 'do something' are free - indeed, I would say, have a duty - to join Friends of the Earth or the Green Party.  It is unnecessary and divisive for them to involve their faith community.  My own Area Meeting, Kingston & Wandsworth, has considered the corporate statement on fracking and not acted on it.

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