Speaking Truth to Power Is Part of the Cost
When we think of speaking truth to power, we think of the Nobel Prize winner, Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn whose now famous writings have inspired many in their attempts to confront the powers of oppression. Nelson Mandela is another person who spoke truth to power and therefore changed the trajectory of South Africa. Mandela's story has inspired many. Although the man was imprisoned for nearly a third of his life, his experience did not break him or leave him bitter. Instead, Mandela preached forgiveness and reconciliation to a country torn by internal strife and dissension because of apartheid.
Real-life stories of courageous men who stick to their convictions must surely inspire ordinary Christians like us who in our present day encounter the "Allah" controversy and the ongoing Alkitab issue. Christians as "salt and light of this world" are reminded to "speak the truth in love" to the powers that be. Thus, we assert our constitutional right of freedom of religion and the right to free religious space to profess, practise and propagate our chosen religion. We maintain our right to have the Bible freely distributed regardless of its language medium so that all may be encouraged, strengthened and guided in life through daily devotion to and application of God's Word.
The moral discipline of "speaking truth to power" is often costly. In Solzhenitsyn's case, he was arrested for writing letters to friends, which contained "disrespectful remarks" about Joseph Stalin, the murderous dictator who led the Soviet Union through World War Two. After spending eight years at a labour camp, Solzhenitsyn was sent to exile for life at Kok-Terek in southern Kazakhstan.
For Mandela, he was imprisoned on Robben Island where he remained for 18 years. While in jail, he performed hard labour in a lime quarry. Mandela remained in prison until 11 February 1990. He was incarcerated for nearly 27 years.
What does all this have to say to the Christian community? "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," says German theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
With these words, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave powerful voice to the millions of Christians who believe personal sacrifice is an essential component of faith, writes the Amazon.com review. Bonhoeffer calls this costly grace in contrast to cheap grace. "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate" while costly grace calls us to follow Christ and it is costly because "it cost a man his life and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life".1
For some of us, the cost may not be our lives but our comfort and wealth. But can we ever measure up to this cost of discipleship? Are we so fearful of losing our comfort and wealth to the extent that we do anything to hold on to and protect our earthly possessions? If we have fear, it should be the 'fear of the Lord'. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding" (Ps 111:10). The fear of the Lord is not a feeling of being afraid but a reverential fear that produces obedience before the presence of our great God. With this fear, Christians will be able to see life's matters in perspective and be informed on our engagement and response to the very complex issues surrounding our socio-economic and political life in Malaysia.
But have we "internalised" the fear of the Lord in our hearts and minds as the scripture exhorts us to? Has the fear of the Lord become so much a part of our daily living that our very thoughts and actions are an act of dedication to and a living sacrifice before the Lord? Admittedly, such pursuits are by no means easy and require spiritual strength and discipline on our part. But until we have internalised the 'fear of the Lord' to the extent we can say with the great apostle Paul, "for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21), we cannot say we are following Christ wholeheartedly in the task of ushering in His kingdom. Such passion and commitment are what Christians are called to live by for the sake of God's kingdom and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
It is only through such living that God's kingdom will bear much fruit. John 12:24-26 specifically tells us: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him".
Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra explain the implication of these verses well when they say, "to the extent that the church participates in the suffering of Jesus, it becomes the bearer of the risen life of Jesus for the sake of the world".2 How might this happen? Joseph Tson, a Romanian Christian who went through suffering and persecution explains it well:
When the ambassadors of Christ speak the truth in love and meet death with joy, a strange miracle occurs. The eyes of the unbelievers are opened, they are enabled to see the truth of God and this leads them to believe in the Gospel ….. Herein lies its power to convince and to persuade: people see the love of God in the death of the martyr and are compelled to believe in God's love and sacrifice for them.3
The challenge is clear. In the midst of this difficult and trying moment in the history of the Malaysian church, dare we carry the cost as part of our discipleship? If we view this cost in the affirmative, we need to seek the Lord and fear Him; allowing the awe and presence of the Lord to permeate us so that we are able to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him, speaking the truth as well as speak truth to power!
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. (New York, NY: Touchstone, ), 45
2 Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramamchandra, The Message of Mission. (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP, 2003), 196
3 Joseph Tson, "Modern Protestant Theology of Martyrdom", ERT (2000) 24:1: 50-62, 54