This article has been abridged from a longer original, which can be found at: westernfriend.org/media/speaking-truth-unabridged.
In March of 1918, a year after the US entered WWI, a mob surrounded a Rosebud County, Montana, man named E.V. Starr and tried to force him to kiss an American flag. Starr refused, saying, “What is this thing anyway? Nothing but a piece of cotton with a little paint on it. I will not kiss that thing. It might be covered with microbes.”
The previous month, Montana had enacted a flag-desecration statute that became the model for the 1918 federal Sedition Act, outlawing “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the US Government or its flag. Starr was charged with sedition, fined $500 and sent to the state penitentiary for ten-to-twenty years of hard labor. Ruling on Starr’s appeal, the federal district court judge who heard the appeal wrote:
In the matter of his offense and sentence, obviously, petitioner was more sinned against than sinning. . . [The mob’s] unlawful and disorderly conduct, not his just resistance, nor the trivial and innocuous retort into which they goaded him, was calculated to degrade the sacred banner and bring it into contempt. Its members, not he, should have been punished.
Quakers are famous not only for the Peace Testimony, but for speaking truth to power. Lately “the truth” has been politicized. The word “truth” is now used in politics to mean opinions as well as facts, observations that seem self-evident, veracity, or what we feel to be morally right. The truth to the above-mentioned mob might have been that kissing a flag is the only way to prove fidelity. The truth to the appellate judge was another thing, and were it to happen today, the truth as told in the news media would be something else as well.
In 1955 AFSC first wrote about speaking truth to power:
Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history.
As a state legislator and as an FCNL Advocacy Team member, I’ve learned that speaking my truth – from the heart, out loud, in public – is powerful. When I used to make floor speeches, I aimed to tell people how the legislation in question fit with my values and what we could be doing as body, rather than telling them what they should do. I liked to leave room for transformation.
In today’s political environment some Friends feel a special obligation to be the bridges between factions, to be peacemakers even while feeling shocked, aggrieved, and violated. Like having our legs torn off, but still needing to run onto the battlefield to negotiate a truce. And to do it in a Quaker-Nice way. I don’t think we have that obligation.
What speaking truth to power has meant to me is just saying how this thing we’re talking about sits with me and my values. I don’t have an obligation to change anyone’s mind. My obligation is to know my own heart.
Richard Rohr said it well:
Our temptation is to begin with politics and then try to figure out how religion can fit in. We start with the accepted parameters of political debate and, whether we find ourselves on the left or the right, we use religion to justify and bolster our existing commitments. . . .
But what if . . . we recognize that our engagement in politics should be rooted in our participation in . . . God’s love? Then everything changes. We are no longer guided or constrained by what we think is politically possible, but are compelled by what we know is most real.
Had a Quaker been on hand while the mob was accosting E.V. Starr, perhaps that Friend’s truth would have been most like Starr’s truth, or the judge’s, or the mob’s. It wouldn’t have been up to the Quaker to decide who was right, or how where to build bridges between the disputing parties. Had that Quaker been there, she might have spoken her own deeply resonant truth without apology or accusation, and in doing so, maybe some bridges would have been built. As they say in AA: Do the next right thing, and leave the results up to God.
Jasmine Krotkov is a member of the Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM).