“Going Against the Grain”
I think I should probably re-introduce myself. I’m Gary Hall, and I worked here for eleven years, from 1990 to 2001. I’ve been away from All Saints now for the same number of years I was on the staff, so I’m sure a declining percentage of people here remember me. I’m now rector of Christ Church Cranbrook, a parish in Michigan. I come back here every summer to see if the place is still getting along without me and to receive a new infusion of progressive movement spirit.
When you hang around with progressive movement types, one of the phrases you hear continually is “speaking truth to power”. Today’s Gospel tells us the story of what happens when you try to do that. If you’re John the Baptist, you get your head cut off. Many of us who are drawn to peace and justice have—how do I put this politely?—we have big mouths. A parishioner of mine from my Malibu days used to tell me, “My dear boy, you will never be a bishop. You can’t help saying the first thing that comes into your head.” So there’s speaking truth to power, and then there’s having a big mouth. I seem to fall into both categories. I suppose that’s why I fit in so well for eleven years here at All Saints.
The great progressive intellectual Noam Chomsky is skeptical about “speaking truth to power”. Here’s what he says:
I don’t agree with the slogan [speak truth to power]. First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves. –Noam Chomsky
Chomsky’s words remind me of one of the best scenes in the movie Casablanca. It’s night at Rick’s place, and the German soldiers start singing a military drinking song. In response, the great freedom fighter Victor Laszlo goes up to the band leader and tells him to play “La Marseillaise”. All the French patriots sing a stirring rendition of their national anthem, drowning out the Germans. And what does it get them? At the end of the song, Colonel Strasser tells Captain Renault to shut down the bar for good. The patriots spoke—or rather sung—truth to power, and power did what it does. It crushed them.
That is very much what we see in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. What made John the Baptist think it was a strategically good idea to criticize Herod for committing adultery with his brother’s wife? Herod was kind of a touchy guy. He was a puppet king of Israel serving the interests of Rome. He thought himself the Messiah—the Jewish king who would bring back the throne of David, even if as a puppet satellite state. So John’s message that there was another Messiah coming—Jesus, an anti-king—was not precisely calculated to win friends and influence people. We know from the contemporary historian Josephus that Herod was already afraid that John the Baptist would lead an insurrection against him. So getting up in public and accusing a nervous king of adultery was not a smooth move. It was like asking for “La Marseillaise” squared.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is a philosopher named Jonathan Lear, who teaches at the University of Chicago. Lear is also a Freudian psychoanalyst, and he writes intriguingly about the connections between philosophy and psychology. In his book Open Minded he tells the story of a dream he used to have about his name—Lear—and its connection to the Shakespeare play. He realized that in his dreams he was not King Lear so much as he was Cordelia, Lear’s daughter who refused to tell the king what he wanted to hear and is banished for her refusal. Jonathan Lear’s flash of insight came when he realized that Cordelia’s problem was his problem. Here is what he says:
To identify with Cordelia is to want to be blunt, to avoid embellishment, flattery, or hypocrisy-and to want to be loved for doing just that. This is not a set of desires which get satisfied often. By and large, people prefer to be flattered. They find it hard to recognize love in a blunt appraisal; and they find it even harder to reciprocate such love. Cordelia's strategy is not the route to massive popularity. -- Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, p. 3
We want to tell the truth, and we want to be loved for doing it. That was Cordelia’s problem. That was Jonathan Lear’s problem. That was John the Baptist’s problem. I can’t speak for you, but I realize that often it’s my problem, too.
So what is a prophet, or a prophetic community, to do? We want to speak the truth, we want to hold power accountable, and we want, if possible, to avoid being beheaded. Many of the people we call saints today were those who stood up for Christianity against the oppressive claims of empire. They were martyrs—literally “witnesses”—to the truth of the Gospel who did indeed speak truth to power. So martyrdom—witness—is an ancient and honorable tradition in Christianity. And there are times when we need to risk it in the service of what is right. But I’ve been around the movement world a long time, and a lot of what we call prophecy is simply self-dramatization. There is another ancient tradition, a more pragmatic one, a tradition that counsels working with power to achieve good ends. Of course, there are times when imperial power is intractable, when you have to stand up and demand that the band play “La Marseillaise”, even though you know they’ll shut down the bar. But there are also times to work with power to bring about a good result for everybody. The trick, of course, is to be able to tell the difference.
Listen again to the last part of what Noam Chomsky says:
And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.
One of the things I’ve learned as a preacher is that anybody can get up in a pulpit, point their finger at somebody, and tell them what is wrong with them. The harder thing is to build the kind of relationships that will make for real change.
The story of John the Baptist’s execution for speaking truth to power leads me to make two points about its implications. One point is about our national life. The other is about our personal lives.
First, about our national life: if you’re anything like me, you’re already sick of the presidential election, and it’s only July. [Am I in danger of putting All Saints’ tax-exempt status at risk here?] Speaking as both a liberal and as an American, I am increasingly troubled by the ideological polarization of our nation. One of the insights of American Pragmatism (espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, Cornell West and others) is that arguing over principles will never get you anywhere. The late philosopher Richard Rorty, a great pragmatist thinker, said,
When I first went into philosophy, I was looking for first principles. I thought that if you could get the right principles, everything else would fall into place. I was wrong. I gradually realized that it is only when things have already fallen into place that you can figure out what principles you want. A political left needs agreement on projects much more than principles. [Richard Rorty, “First Projects, Then Principles” The Nation, December 22, 1997, pp. 18-21]
Rorty was speaking to the left here, but he might have been talking to the nation as a whole. We Americans will never agree about principles. Some of us will continue to believe that America is most itself when it is generous and compassionate; others will see America as primarily a home for untrammeled individual liberty and the main chance. As a people, we will never completely agree about what America means. But we can find common ground about what America does. As Rorty says: first projects, then principles. I believe we in the faith community have a role that goes beyond the mere speaking of truth to power. I believe we can be the ones who convene a national conversation that transcends ideology, a conversation about what we as Americans can do to improve the quality of life for everyone. As Chomsky says, we can join with people to find the truth. As Rorty says, we’ll derive new principles once we’ve worked together on projects that advance the common good.
So my first point is aimed at us liberal, progressive Christians. We need less to speak truth to power and more to find common ground with those we have stigmatized as our adversaries. For the most part, they want what we want. Common projects—and maybe sharing a meal together—will take us all to a new, shared place. So this summer, try taking a Tea Partier to lunch. But don’t be naïve about it. Get them to pick up the check.
Second: we should hear what Chomsky and Rorty have to say in its relevance to our personal lives. How many arguments have I been in where I wanted to be right more than I wanted to be reconciled? Households are political communities. The people in them may disagree about principles, but in the end they all want the same things. I know that I have failed as a husband, as father, as a son when I have insisted on my own rightness over against the needs of the family community. It’s one thing to end an argument by slamming the door with a great exit line. It’s another to open yourself to the other’s point of view and make a new truth together. First projects, then principles works as a mantra not only in the public square. It also works at home, on the job, and in all areas of our lives. I’ve been abstractly right and relationally wrong about as much in my life as I want to be. Join with people to find the truth. First projects, then principles.
The Gospel will always be countercultural. Rome, Medieval Europe, contemporary America all fall short of God’s vision for human life. In the same way, every family can be more loving and just. But too often we use the countercultural nature of the Gospel as a club with which to beat each other. Either mercy or justice, we cry. Either compassion or freedom. Instead of that tired drumbeat, how about this: from now on, no more false choices. No more speaking truth to power. First projects, then principles. Let’s join with each other—at home, at work, in the community--and make a new, shared truth. Let us eat and work together to build that truth into a living reality of mutuality and justice and freedom and compassion. And then let us have the grace and forbearance to live that new truth and walk together into the abundant life God always offers us, made real now around this table at which we dine together with each other and with Jesus. Amen.