Speaking Truth to Power: Practices From the Inside Out

Speaking Truth to Power: Practices From the Inside Out January 11, 2023

Speaking Truth to Power: Practices From the Inside Out

Speaking Truth to Power

It is easy for us to be confused about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and this weekend. Speaking truth to power is what this holiday weekend is all about.

For some of us it feels like a few days for football playoff games or college basketball.

We need more information about this man named Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of us believe he was a rabble rousing troublemaker and others see him as a dreamer. He falls into the category of people we name holidays for who lived a long time ago. A few of us have attended schools or driven on streets named for him.

We may have heard his name, but we do not know his story.

Some of us have a vague idea he and this weekend have something to do with racial justice.

This weekend is an excellent opportunity for us to begin spending time exploring Dr. King’s life and times. We can find him on YouTube and we can read the words he wrote and said.

But this holiday is not about Dr. King being from Atlanta or being African American. It is not a holiday because he had a dream or because he was an eloquent speaker.

We celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for speaking truth to power.

He did not set out to become a celebrity or to have his own holiday. Put into challenging situations again and again, he took opportunities to tell the truth, no matter what it cost him. Doctor King was not a politician or a television personality. He was murdered when he was 39 years old.

We celebrate his holiday this weekend, and honor his legacy, by appreciating his example. Each time we speak truth to power we are following in his footsteps.

Demonstrating Truth to Power

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born more than ten years after Nelson Mandela and two years before Desmond Tutu were born in South Africa.

Dr. King is the only African-American person, as well as the only member of the clergy,  for whom the United States has designated a national holiday. He was not a perfect person, but he accomplished a great deal in a short lifetime.

The eldest son of an African American minister, he grew up in relative comfort within a segregated society. The church and expectations of his family played central roles in his early life. A graduate of Morehouse College, he attended seminary in Pennsylvania and did his doctoral work at Boston University. In graduate school he became familiar with the thinking of Christian theologians including Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Neibuhr, as well as the writing and work of Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Henry David Thoreau, and Mahatma Gandhi in India.

At home in the world of education and ideas, he worked throughout the rest of his life to put his core values into practice, speaking truth to power.

After completing his education at the age of 25, he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Six months after arriving, he was asked to take a leadership role in an effort to change Montgomery’s policy of segregation in public transportation.

The rest of Dr. King’s story is filled with examples of demonstrating truth to power. He lead boycotts and demonstrations, marches and a campaign of poor people. At each step of the way he put truth into powerful words focused on those who held power.

This weekend our social media pages are filled with Dr. King’s words. Those words were spoken in a context of demonstrating truth to power.

How Do We Speak Truth to Power?

We have complex traditions for how we spend many holidays, while we apparently ignore others. I know people who have complicated lists of expectations for Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving.

Many of us believe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a recent development. We have not invested time in deciding what our practices will be. Each year we think about what we would like to do, but get tired and end up doing nothing. Our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day practices are remarkably similar to how we practice Saturdays.

This year, exploring Dr. King’s life and writings gives us an opportunity to change our practices.

Reading and watching Dr. King can be a good place to begin. We can find places where the words he wrote will be read on his day where we can listen with others. Some of us will want to read or listen and spend some time reflecting on what he said.

We might want to spend time by ourselves listening to sacred stillness and contemplating how to practice Dr.King and his holiday.

Each of us can find our own ways to practice.

Do Contemplatives Speak Truth to Power?

Our understanding of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. shapes how we speak truth to power.

We explore who Dr. King was and what he did. Some of us take time to watch him on video and read the words he said and wrote. We learn about his experience and his teachings.

Reflecting on Dr. King includes understanding the wisdom we find about him in our culture, our own spiritual tradition, our own experiences, and what we believe. As we reflect we begin to find our own questions and insights about Dr. King and his holiday.

Spending time with our insights and questions helps us begin to see how we will practice Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Each time we reflect gives us new questions and new insights which shape our practice.

What truth do we discover as we listen to sacred stillness?

Martin Luther King, Jr., like all of us, was a complex person. The more we understand the deeper our practice becomes.

The ways we understand Martin Luther King, Jr. and his truth shapes how we follow his example.

What additional examples can we find this weekend of people speaking truth to power?

How will we practice speaking truth to power this week?

[Image by Scarlet Sappho]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.

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