Speaking truth to power
(Readings: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53)
Introduction to Mass
In this Sunday's first reading the prophet Jeremiah is nearly murdered because he speaks out in opposition to the policy of the king and his court. Then, in the gospel, Jesus tells his followers that they must expect to encounter opposition and conflict if they're serious about being one of his followers.
As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love....
Saint Augustine took the strict position in his moral theological writings that it is always wrong to tell a lie, although I don't know if he ever allowed for the possibility that a small lie might be the lesser of two evils.
In any case, in practice, most of us, I'm sure, have found ourselves in situations where we indulge in a bit of exaggeration or distortion, either to save face or to get ourselves out of a tight corner or even, a lot of the time, to avoid hurting other people's feelings.
But a totally different thing, morally speaking, is the type of lying that we would associate with dictatorships, or totalitarian regimes. Those kinds of regimes depend on a whole web of falsehood to stay in power, but the evil of the falsehood doesn't just lie in the fact that the whole population is deceived about what's going on in their own society.
It lies more in the fact that the people in power - the party bureaucracy, or the military or whatever - take it on themselves to define the truth, or to identify the truth with their particular interests or their particular political goals, and in fact to get rid of the distinction between lies and objective truth altogether.
You might remember the way that George Orwell, in his novel 1984, caricatured that tendency by having his hero, Winston Smith, brainwashed into saying that 2 plus 2 equals 5, just because the party says that it does. Maybe the power of the party never actually extended as far as that in the countries behind the Iron Curtain, but the fact that dissident writers and activists under any dictatorship say that their first and last duty is to tell the truth shows what the basic issue is: that there is such a thing as objective truth, objective reality, independent of the interests of power.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was an example of someone whose commitment to telling the truth brought him into conflict with the powerful institutions of his own time. He was an example of consistently speaking truth to power.
His country was under siege by Babylon, and against the propaganda of the King and the royal court and the priestly advisors, Jeremiah had kept up a barrage of open, public criticism, weakening the people's belief in the official information, and predicting that the war could only end with Judah's defeat.
But behind that particular dispute, there was a more fundamental and a more important conflict between Jeremiah and the establishment, typical of the conflict between prophets and religious authority: a conflict about who represented God, who was interpreting God's will accurately, and who could claim God's support for their actions.
The King and his courtiers had tried to manage the country's affairs by their own power-politics, negotiating deals with the various super-powers in the region. And of course their own position and privileges depended on their skill at doing that.
Jeremiah's message, on the other hand, was that the leaders weren't keeping the Covenant with God, they were betraying their proper role, and because they had effectively turned their back on God, the country was doomed. From the king's point of view, Jeremiah was a dissident: somebody who was undermining the government, and the war effort, and so he had to be shut up. It was a case of objective truth versus official truth.
The important thing isn't the details of the argument, or the issue at stake, although incidentally the disaster that Jeremiah prophesied did actually come to pass. The important thing is the consequences of confronting powerful interests with the truth.
And that's what connects the first reading with the passage from St Luke's gospel, where Jesus warns, or at any rate, informs, anyone who wants to be his follower that commitment to his vision of God's Kingdom will be just as likely to bring division and conflict as peace and harmony.
Christ's remarks about family members fighting each other aren't supposed to be taken literally: he's just using the symbol of a family, torn by divisions, as a stark image of the extent of possible conflict that might arise from being committed to the Kingdom.
In the course of his ministry, with all the arguments and disputes that Jesus had with the religious officials of the time, he didn't always wait until they had attacked him, he didn't only respond to attacks from his opponents. Very often Jesus initiated the hostilities, taking the argument into the enemy camp.
And that was because, like Jeremiah, Jesus was the type of person who couldn't keep quiet about dishonesty, religious hypocrisy or false ideas about God. He felt impelled to actively confront those things. He was the sort of person who refused to take part in the various illusions that people entertain and he felt a kind of passion - or fire, he says - to burst out with the truth, to try to open people's eyes to reality. That meant actively confronting the teaching of the Pharisees and the scribes, for example, and not just waiting to be confronted by them.
Just the same, Jesus wasn't the kind of aggressive person who causes arguments for the sake of it. When Christ warns his followers to expect divisions and opposition he doesn't mean that they should go around deliberately trying to stoke up conflict and causing bitterness between people just for the fun of it. He means that the person who strives to be honest and truthful will inevitably come into conflict with the dishonesty and the self-interest of other individuals and other groups, and that, in those circumstances, they'll face some hard choices and difficult dilemmas.
We all know instances in which an individual, who doesn't think of him- or herself as any kind of radical or prophet, discovers some unjust or dishonest practice - at work, perhaps, or in some organisation they belong to.
First of all they try to draw it to the attention of their superiors, expecting it to be put right. But gradually they find out that it's actually policy, and if they persist in drawing attention to it, they get branded as a disruptive influence, a subversive or trouble-maker. They're not any of these things: they're just a truthful person, acting according to their conscience, in an ethos of lies and injustice.
This is the kind of situation that Christ warns us about finishing up in, if we're serious about committing ourselves to the priorities of God's Kingdom.
We never know, at any given time, what demands our honesty is going to make on us as individuals, and we never know in advance how far we'll be able to go in making sacrifices for the sake of truthfulness. But in ordinary circumstances, this commitment to prophetic truthfulness, confronting powerful interests and so on, belongs to the whole Church, as a sort of "community of truth", rather than each of us as isolated individuals.
Not only that: if we make enemies by being persistent in the truth, we also find friends, among other people, non-Christians and non-believers, with a similar instinct for the truth. If we make enemies of the powerful people of the world, we also make friends with their victims, and we should go out of our way to strengthen those kinds of bonds.
So I'd sum up the message of this Sunday’s readings in three points.
Real belief in God gives rise to a commitment to truthfulness, a passion to expose any lack of truth that works as a smokescreen for the interests of the powerful.
Second, that passion can lead us into conflict, and Christ warns us to be ready for that.
And last of all, the appeal that Jesus makes to us in the gospel this Sunday is addressed to us together – we shouldn’t have to act as lone rangers. We have to be in solidarity with other people who share the same commitment to truthfulness if we want our efforts to have a beneficial effect.