Sermon Series: God and Country
Truth to Power
Pentecost X (O. T. 18)
II Samuel 11:26-12:10
Recently I told you the story of David and Bathsheba; I'll recap in order to refresh your memory. King David had fallen for a beautiful woman named Bathsheba, and he arranged for a tryst with her. When she turned up pregnant, he arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. This morning I picked up the reading at the point that they were married, and then God sent the prophet Nathan to David to judge him for what he had done.
Two things about this story have always amazed me. One thing is the way David treats the prophet. When the prophet Jeremiah went to Zedekiah about that King's behavior, the King had him thrown into a cistern. It's not unexpected that when a religious figure accuses a political figure of wrongdoing, that the person with power simply eliminates the accuser. Not David; when the Lord's prophet said to him, "You are the man," David's response was, "I have sinned against the Lord" (v. 13). He does not attack the accuser; he repents of his wrongdoing.
The other amazing thing is that this story is in the Bible at all. Especially among ancient rulers - but even to some extent today - the histories of their reigns describe their heroic deeds, their accomplishments, their greatness and power and wisdom. Apparently David's court historian got all this down, with David's blessing - or we would not know about it. David was less concerned with his own reputation than he was with an accurate portrayal of the ways of God with God's people.
So, now to today's subject: speaking truth to power. That was a popular phrase in my formative years, when Christian people saw as part of our role in the world pointing out the wrongdoing of the powerful. Well, that was a bit simplistic. But there was a sort of bravado in it, the assumption that we knew what was right and those in power were doing what was wrong and we needed to tell them about it.
And so the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church would prepare position papers about nuclear arms and racial justice and employment and issue them to the public. Preachers with television shows would take on the government. We would - and still do - use our ownership of stock as an opportunity to make points to boards and CEOs of major corporations. Sometimes the people in power actually listen.
Now that I've spoken a bit flippantly, let me say that they were right, that to speak truth to power is part of our role, and there are lessons we can learn from Nathan about how to live that role. The first thing I'll point out is the prophet's technique. He was very clever. He didn't go storming into the King's throne-room, point a finger and say, "J'accuse!" He didn't go on Fox News and ask, "Now, why did not David send a sympathy card to Uriah's family?" The King was sitting in judgment, as Kings did, hearing cases and issuing decisions. And the prophet told him a story.
Now, it strikes me as sort of a sticky-sweet story, but Nathan knew his audience. David had been a shepherd, and David had a soft spot in his heart for the poor. So Nathan told a story about a rich man stealing a lamb from a poor man, waiting for David's judgment. David not only issued a judgment, but he was downright angry. "The man who did this deserves to die!" That wasn't his sentence, of course, but that is how he felt about it. Although what David had done was far worse than the crime of the fictitious rich man in the story, still the prophet took the opportunity to respond simply, "You are the man."
There are moments in the Bible when it feels as though everything stops, and you have to put it down and take a breath - or two - before you can go on. This is one of those moments. David rages out his judgment, and then Nathan says, "You are the man." If you were an actor, how would you say those words? Loud and bold? Quietly? Which word do you emphasize? "You are the man." Nathan lets David condemn himself. He tells a story which traps the King into judging himself, and then goes on with the explicit details of what David has done and the judgment of God.
I don't know how you do that; perhaps you are creative enough to think of a good story that will confront the House of Representatives with the need to invest in the national infrastructure instead of focusing only on the well-being of their campaign contributors, or get the truth of God across to the Governor about the death penalty. But that does lead me to a second thought about the sense of speaking truth to power, and it's the simple question: Whose truth? When the prophet Nathan went to David, he went because "the thing that David had done had displeased the Lord." Here's a fun bit of word-play, for those of you who enjoy good writing. When David wrote to Joab his plans for the murder of Uriah, the King added, "Do not let the matter be evil in your eyes." And then the story-teller notes, "But the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of the Lord." David didn't want it to be "evil in the eyes of" his army's general, but obviously didn't think about whether it was evil in the eyes of the Lord.
Before we spout off speaking truth to power, we need to hold a deep conviction that we are speaking the truth of God, and not merely our political or economic preferences. We had a fun instance last week at Synod School. One daily custom is the man (Bill Humphreys) who stands in front of us every morning in his bibbers and reads pieces from the Des Moines Register. He read about the law governing marriage in Iowa and that churches may refuse to marry persons of the same sex for religious reasons and he added, as if it were written in the story, "because they misinterpret the Bible."
Many issues in our public life have clear truths, expressed by the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. Other times we are simply operating on auto-pilot, assuming something is the truth simply because it has been that way as long as we can remember. Sometimes clear Biblical truths are irrelevant to public policy, since our nation is governed not by the Bible but by the Constitution. And so these truths must govern Church policy and the way we live as Christian people, even if we cannot insist that government or industry go along. But it's useful to realize some things from our history as Presbyterians. When John Calvin, our ancestor in the faith, was working hard at reforming the Church in Geneva, he also spoke forcefully about public health. It was clear from the Bible that God wills that government do what it can for the physical well-being of the people. In the case of Geneva, that meant a good drainage system. When we get in the face of the powerful with the conviction that we are speaking the truth of God - after careful study of the Bible and after prayer - then we are standing in the tradition of our founder.
The last thing to mention: Nathan didn't go under his own power; God sent him. Now, I'm not going to be so bold as to say that when I attended the news conference and spoke on behalf of repealing the death penalty in Nebraska, that God sent me. But I'll say this. I did not go on my own; I went as stated clerk of our Presbytery, and therefore the local spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church. And I did not speak on my own authority, but I quoted from decisions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. That is, I did not represent my own opinion; I represented the Church. And I used the words of the Church to do so. I do not hear the voice of God telling me to do things, so I use my best judgment to decide when I am acting on my own and when I am doing the work of God. I go for the Church, which is bigger than I am.
It is true that our political system is built on the give-and-take of people pushing their own interests. Even so, the health of our society depends on some of us asking what pleases and displeases the Lord, and speaking when we are sent by the Lord or, at least, the Lord's Church. If we take upon ourselves to speak truth to power, we want it to be the truth of God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church