“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These words were written by Lord Acton in 1887. Throughout the ages, we have seen this: When autocrats exercise power corruptly, heroic persons stand up to challenge them. This essay is a brief history of just a few of the countless individuals who have spoken truth to power over the past 2500 years and who sacrificed their lives for it. Let us not forget them.
The expression “speaking the truth to power” originated in 1948 with Black Quaker activist Bayard Rustin, a civil rights leader who practiced nonviolent direct action, conscientious objection, and civil disobedience, which led him to imprisonment and risking his life. He wrote, “The primary social function of a religious society is to speak the truth to power.” Rustin was a political organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of the dream he held for all Americans. Just a few years later, King gave his life for that dream.
The phrase “speaking the truth to power” was used again in 1955 as the title of a short book by the American Friends Service Committee – which is in the public domain at https://archive.org/details/AFSCSpeakTruthToPower/. In this book, the authors describe public truth-telling as “a Quaker search for an alternative to violence.” The phrase “speaking truth to power” was taken up again in 1968 by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice in Human Rights after RFK’s assassination.
The tradition of speaking truth to power goes back at least as far as the 5th century BCE, where it is found in the philosophy and public dialogues of Socrates of Greece. The method of dialogue that Socrates employed with his friends and adversaries involved moral and logical questioning. This approach was designed to cause people to reflect upon themselves, which sometimes led to public embarrassment. Socrates was accused and convicted of impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens, for which he was poisoned.
Marcus Tullius Cicero lived in the 1st century BCE, a multifaceted public figure who filled many roles: elected politician, activist, lawyer, educator, author, orator, and philosopher. He popularized “natural law philosophy,” which declared that each of us may use our faith and reason to know good from evil in morality, law, and politics. He consistently defended the Roman Republic, and as a result, would-be dictators threatened his life at least five times as they sought to destroy the Roman capital and overthrow the elected government of the people. Cicero was ultimately beheaded, and his severed head was displayed on a pole to warn all others against challenging the violent power of autocrats.
Jesus of Nazareth, a Palestinian Jew, called himself “the son of man” so that he would be understood as a servant of the people, not as a superior being. Jesus challenged the powers of his time, speaking the truth of God’s will. His way was to heal whenever healing was needed, even if that was on the Sabbath, which was against the existing law. He also visited lepers, which was also against the law. Jesus preached that love of money was the root of all evil, and he preached about “a new heaven and earth” to come, established by the Kingdom of God. He advocated a community where wealth was held in common, where conflict was met with pacifism, and where relief was given to the oppressed. For his words and actions, Jesus was executed by the Roman governor Pilate. The execution was preapproved by the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, who rationalized, “It was better to have one man die . . . than have the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50)
In mid-1500s Japan, military dictators (Shoguns) initially welcomed the arrival of Christians, believing these missionaries might help undercut the power of the Buddhist monks. However, in just a few decades, Japanese authorities became intensely concerned about European colonialism. They banned Christianity as a threat to national unity and persecuted Christians with torture and death. One renowned Japanese Christian martyr was Madeline of Nagasaki. Her parents were a Christian couple martyred when Madeline was only nine. She then lived the remainder of her short life serving a series of Catholic priests, who were each martyred in turn. By the time she was twenty-two, so many Japanese Christians had publicly renounced their faith that Madeline chose to engage in an act of defiant truth-telling. She donned the traditional robe of St. Augustine and turned herself into the authorities. She suffered thirteen days of torture, was hung upside down in a public square (on a gibbet), and was killed by drowning on October 15, 1634.
Quakers suffered similarly for their political and religious beliefs under kings in England and tyrants in America. In 1660, Mary Dyer was martyred in Puritan Massachusetts, according to laws passed by the Calvinist rulers. Quakers and other dissident groups had been banished from the colony. Dyer, however, returned to visit friends who remained there, and as a result, she died with three of them on a scaffold. Right before she was hanged, she said, “In obedience to the will of the Lord God, I came, and in his will, I abide faithful to death.”
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln overcame the Southern Confederate rebellion and was assassinated. He spoke truth to power and slavery ended.
Franz Jagerstatter was a Catholic farmer living with his wife and three daughters near the village of Redegund, Austria, when German troops invaded in March 1938. He was the only person in his village to vote against the German annexation of Austria when a plebiscite was held on the question. The German Army called him up for duty in February 1943, and Jagerstatter refused to serve as a soldier for Hitler. His wife, his priest, and his mayor all urged him to serve, arguing that the sin would not be his, but that of the authorities who required him to kill for the Nazis. But Jagerstatter declined to save his own life, was sentenced to death for sedition, and was beheaded in Berlin in July 1943, at the age of thirty-six.
More than 2.7 million people were murdered in Nazi death camps in the 1930s and 1940s – most of them because they were Jews, some because they were Gypsies or homosexuals. Protestant minister Dietrich Bonhoffer was hanged for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Catholic priest Maxmillian Kolby was executed at Auschwitz for producing anti-Nazi propaganda and due to an act of sacrifice for a fellow prisoner. German philosopher Edith Stein, who became a Carmelite nun at the age of forty-seven, was killed in the gas chamber at Auschwitz along with 232 other Catholics of
In 1948, Gandhi was stabbed to death for his efforts to nonviolently form a modern India. In the 1960s, the world was shocked by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, three public figures who spoke openly on behalf of human rights.
In 1983, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass in San Salvador. He espoused nonviolent liberation theology and practiced it in his mission to the poor and oppressed. He was accused of communism because he asked the rich to give just wages to peasants.
In 2003, Rachel Corrie was martyred for her beliefs and actions resisting the Israeli practice of destroying Palestinian homes. While engaged in a nonviolent civil disobedience action, at the age of twenty-three, she was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer.
In November 2005, all four members of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq were taken hostage. They had been working in Iraq to document and publicize human rights abuses there. One member of the team, Tom Fox, a Quaker, was assassinated in early March 2006, about two weeks before the other three hostages were released.
On September 13, 2022, a twenty-two-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amin, was arrested for improperly covering her hair with her hijab. She was placed in a detention center and beaten into a coma. Three days later, she died from her injuries. In the months that have followed Amin’s murder, hundreds of Iranian women and girls have been killed in the fight for freedom and equality in their country.
In founding the Quaker movement in the 17th century, George Fox spoke truth to power continually – to governors, colonels, judges, pastors, and priests. Fox instructed his fellow Quakers that their mission was “. . . spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, and gathering out of transgression into the Life of the Covenant of Light and Peace with God. Let all nations hear the Word by sound or writing, spare not tongue, or pen, but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the work, and be valiant for the Truth upon earth. . . Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”
Conscience will no doubt continue to call more brave souls to speak truth to power during the years ahead, to speak out of love for their neighbors. With nonviolence as the means, and peace and justice as the end, let us hold all who act with such courage in the Everlasting Light.
Bill Durland is a U.S. attorney, peace activist, author, educator, and former member of the Virginia State Legislature. He is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, CO (IMYM).
You can find a companion article to this one, also by Bill Durland, published in Western Friend’s online library, “Cicero and the Fall of the Roman Republic: The Meaning for American Democracy Today.” Click here to read this article.