“Speak truth to power.” The phrase resonates with the biblical prophets and the courage it takes to challenge those preoccupied with maintaining their power at the expense of truth. The phrase rings true in Robert Mugabe’s rule over Zimbabwe, or in the stonewalling silence of a church in the wake of a sexual abuse crisis.Yet in American culture, and especially in mainline Protestantism, the phrase has become hackneyed. Pastors invoke the phrase in sermons; seminary professors use it in classroom lectures; groups organize around it. One person even suggested that the phrase is the very heart of the pastoral vocation. Is it really?
In American theological education, we are in the midst of recruitment season. Applications to M.Div. programs across the country have been read and argued over by admissions committees, and offers of admission have gone out in the mail. Now we are wooing our accepted students, making the case that our school is the right place for them to become the ministers God is calling them to be.
The word jargon suggests needlessly obscure words that insiders use to dazzle and confuse outsiders. But if we call the same words “technical vocabulary,” we’re suggesting a precise and established way of speaking that emphasizes accuracy. Christians have lots of words like hermeneutical, ecclesiology and sanctification.
One of our family hobbies is to tackle new languages at the dinner table or on trips or in odd moments before bed. I can’t say we’ve made great strides, but we have ventured far enough to decipher Old English fuþark and cry hwœt! as needed, write our names in Egyptian hieroglyphs and order pastizzi in Maltese.
Poet and writer Maya Angelou, who died last month, was revered by many persons, black and white, for her way with words and her story of overcoming a difficult childhood. What was less remembered about her was her social activism—her support, for example, of black nationalist leader Malcolm X and, more recently, of marriage equality. She personally called New York state senator Shirley Huntley, who opposed marriage equality, to get her to reconsider when New York was deliberating about legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians. Huntley changed her mind and voted for the legislation (Think Progress, May 28).