The act of “speaking truth to power” is the manner in which Quaker spirituality is made manifest. In an abstract sense, it is the thread that connects the inner Light to our boundless faith in humanity’s unrealized potential. As a more concrete action, it can be defined as a non-violent political tactic, employed by dissidents against the received wisdom or propaganda of oppressive, authoritarian regimes and institutions.
The phrase originated with “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” a Pendle Hill pamphlet published in 1955. The popularizing of the phrase in America has been attributed to civil rights organizer and peace activist Bayard Rustin, who may have adapted it in the early 1940's from a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. While speaking truth to power is in no way exclusive to Quakerism, it is an idea that fits well within the contours of our understanding of what we are called to do.
The concept has deep roots, reaching back to the Hebrew Prophets whose truth is grounded in the notion that the People of the Book have a covenant with God—a demanding covenant requiring constant nurturing, action, and hope. When people drift away from the path illuminated by the covenant, God sends prophets bearing messages: “Stop worshiping idols.” “Really bad things will happen if you don’t start paying attention.” Many of God’s prophets are unexpected, their statements unwelcome—but in a prophetic tradition that begins with speaking truth to power, every complete message must also be one of hope. After all, God wants His people to prosper, to find sanctuary, to love one another. And for hope to have meaning there must be action, a reckoning, a call and response. Outcomes matter. Words are not enough, dreams are not enough, and in the end, not even action for its own sake is enough. For all of it to make sense, the result of each action called for must be some measure of beauty. Truth spoken to power is amplified by hope; hope inspires action; right actions increase our wonder, our awe, our collective delight.
Sound familiar? All of this is part of our Quaker tradition, expressed in our faith, embodied in our convictions. Quakers, famously, embrace the idea that we are called upon to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. Mary Dyer became a Quaker martyr when she chose to be hung on the Boston Commons rather than renounce the truth that had been revealed to her. Truth can remain in the absence of freedom—but freedom is not possible in the absence of truth.
History is punctuated by truths spoken boldly into unwilling ears. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr, the truth resonated from the Castle at Wittenberg to the Birmingham prison. We revere Mahatma Gandhi for his non-violent protests in Dandi and Nelson Mandela for revealing the truth from Robbins Island. John Woolman’s diary has remained in continuous print since 1774 precisely because the vigor with which he wrestled with the truth inspires and uplifts the written word.
Often, speaking truth to power is incompatible with self-interest, orthodoxy, religious belief, and sincerely held values. This can be so even when the truth is simple, observable, and demonstrable through the scientific method. At one time, it took real courage to say that the world is neither flat nor at the center of the universe. Darwin’s theories were lunacy, universal suffrage an unthinkable aberration. Today, it can be difficult to go against party orthodoxy to state the obvious: The planet is warming and human activity is the cause. Today, saying that war is not the answer can be equated with exhibiting weakness—with casting doubt on a narrative that claims that war makes us safe and peace is dangerous. Today, we abide a prison system that creates perverse incentives for profit-driven prison companies to reward shareholders not in spite of inhumane service but because of it. Our government demonizes refugees, puts children in cages, and uses funds intended for schools to build a wall worse than useless. Our world remains compromised.
Our role in this fragmented world is clear. Quakers protest injustice. We advocate for the unrepresented. We are activists, community organizers, outspoken promoters of peace. We sit-in, we walk out, we get arrested, we demand that our government, our institutions, and our corporations behave fairly, equitably, and inclusively. We do not eat at Chic Fil A. We have mixed feelings about the Boy Scouts. We take off school to protest what frackers are doing to the environment; we don’t drive Hummers and we don’t buy fur coats. Sometimes our protests are quiet and personal: We rescue animals, don’t buy Round-Up, cut back on eating red meat. Our resistance can also be more visible: We choose to work in non-profits, we do not swear oaths (we affirm), we take a knee and support those who do.
It is fair to say that we are at our best when we see and respond to problems not of our own making.
What about the problems that occur in the groups that we have organized, in the institutions for which we are responsible? Our Quaker schools, retirement communities, colleges, social services agencies, and publications: how do we address challenges arising in the entities under our care?
How do we find the balance of speaking truth to power while exercising leadership at our own Quaker organizations, particularly when those organizations face existential risks as they navigate changing market conditions and evolving consumer expectations? Are we nimble enough to respond to our competitors’ innovations? Can we manage situations when beloved personnel exhibit signs of burn-out? What do we expect from our leaders at moments when change is hard and unwanted, but essential? Who determines what actions define “UnQuakerly” behavior? What does Quaker governance look like within our organizations when boundaries are crossed, trust compromised, collaboration viewed as optional?
Harder still, what do we do when our failings are invisible to ourselves? When we start from a place of utter certainty that our perspective is correct and any challenge is misguided or the result of a misunderstanding—the misunderstanding of others, of course—how can we open our ears and hearts to unwelcomed truth? If I know that I am not racist, it must follow that I could never say anything racist—surely? If I know myself to be tolerant, open-minded, and respectful of others, it must follow that my comments are offered in service of the good—clearly? In that crushing certitude the space for different perspectives collapses.
The purpose of speaking truth to power is to disrupt. It is the opposite of comfort. To speak truth to power is to accept risk, to demonstrate courage, to stand apart.
This elevation of truth does not happen in a vacuum. It occurs in the midst of raised voices, in the cacophony of the market place, in noisy debates, and on Facebook as often as it does in the contemplative quiet of Meeting for Worship. This raises a difficult issue: Who gets to say what words represent the truth?
A significant part of Quaker practice has been built in response to that very question. Quaker worship is an exercise in patience, as we wait for inspiration and the dawning of an understanding—a truth—that we feel compelled to speak.
And then we share it.
We share with others who listen and reflect and consider and weigh and, when deserved, recognize the message that has come to us and through us as the truth. For those occasions when our shared message is not, upon consideration, felt to be truth, we have developed corporate filters. From James Naylor on, we have learned to elder, to stand in silence, to ignore, and to provide clearness. It is not easy and, at times, we find ourselves flailing in a place where finding the right balance is elusive, our collective wisdom challenged, and our choices debatable.
In our non-hierarchical, intentionally flat Quaker organizations, standing in the way of change—especially change initiated by leaders—is often seen as admirable. Within communities that encourage activism and protest, opposition in the context of a principled stance can be the default reflex. Change itself may be put on hold indefinitely so as to allow the group to examine the process by which the change is proposed, tested, implemented, and assessed. In these moments, Quaker process is elevated, understood as near-sacred, perhaps assigned a value in excess of kindness. Adherence to the process, rather than a communal seeking of truth, becomes the end goal. Humility is replaced by sanctimony—and necessary change is held captive to questions of procedure.
So, this is my truth. Our boards of trustees must develop strong leaders for our Quaker organizations. We hold our leaders accountable for ends as well as for means and, in turn, we must allow them to be responsible. We must seek and support leaders who will force a reckoning with the status quo, who will increase our collective understanding of what it means to be truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable in ways that call for power to shift within our organizations. It may well be that such a shift will cause those to whom we previously catered to feel less certain of the future. This uncertainty should not be—indeed, cannot be—a deterrent to change. We must understand that leadership in a time of dissent can feel disruptive. We must empower leaders to put forward innovation, to encourage changes that move us outside of our comfort zones.
Today, we require leaders who listen with their hearts and their heads. Leaders who question in a spirit of inquiry, not cynicism. Leaders who reflect—and who are not afraid to act. Leaders who are kind, whose default expectation is that people are good, who retain the humility that allows them to imagine themselves not as leaders. Leaders who understand that when they are asked to lead our organizations we are asking them to embrace the opportunity to serve.
Our institutions need and deserve leaders who possess the courage to speak truth to power and who, once in a position of power themselves, preserve the grace that allows them to hear truth from others.
And we must honor those who have been called to do the work within our Quaker organizations by according them many of the same expectations that we have for those in leadership positions. Like our organizations’ leaders, we owe them the expectation that they will model humility and care—especially in times when change is afoot, experimentation is built into the plan, resources are scarce, and the future less certain.
Developing and empowering those who lead our Quaker organizations takes time, space, and a conscious investment of goodwill. It takes rethinking how to speak truth to power when we are both.