Carolyn Arends ( www.CarolynArends.com) is
a recording artist, author and director of
education for Renovaré. Find more of these
columns at www.Faith Today.ca/Go WithGod.
Asmycoworker Justine and I finished a project, she confessed she’d had mis- givings in its early stages.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I
asked. She shrugged. “Speaking up
in this case didn’t seem like the right
thing to do – and it turns out my
concerns were unfounded. Nine-
and-a-half times out of ten, I’m glad
when I hold my tongue.”
Why does Justine’s response
seem so countercultural? I think it’s
because we live in a society ob-
sessed with speaking up.
“Find your voice and shout!” we
exclaim, hoping to encourage the
oppressed and the shy alike.
“Speak truth to power!” we cry,
urging ourselves to resist systemic
We’re haunted, of course, by the
human track record – all the times
evil has gotten an assist from our
silence. “First they came for the
Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist,” begins
the emblematic Martin Niemöller
poem. We know how it ends. “Then
they came for me – and there was
no one left to speak for me.”
This emphasis on raising a ruck-
us in the face of oppression is right
and good. “Open your mouth for
the mute, for the rights of all who
are destitute,” says Proverbs 31: 8.
Yet I wonder, with all this speaking up, is there anyone left to listen?
Our culture is vibrating with
polarized rhetoric. Many of us have
easy access to soapboxes on social
media. Under these conditions it’s
easy to confuse “speaking truth to
power” with “venting when I’m an-
noyed” . . . or “spouting off to show
How do I distinguish between
the times I should speak, and the
times my voice will only add to the
How do I recognize those moments when my advocacy would be
articulated better in actions than in
How can I discipline myself to
listen more readily than I speak –
particularly if there’s an opportunity
to create space for the voice of someone who’s not heard often enough?
I’m learning – slowly – that if I
want to be a person who knows
when to speak (and what to say) in
public, I must become a person who’s
listening to the Spirit in private.
A story about John Woolman,
one of America’s first abolitionists,
brings this truth home. Woolman
indeed “spoke truth to power” –
resisting slavery, injustice to Native
Americans, cruelty to animals and
It’s easy to assume Woolman was
the kind of guy who loves a good
fight. But his journal reveals a soft-
spoken man, one who only entered
a confrontation – or even spoke at
all – when he felt a divine prodding.
In their book Life With God,
Richard Foster and Kathryn Helmers
point to Woolman as an example of
the “quiet power of a life transformed by the grace of God.” Living
in the mid-1700s, Woolman didn’t
set out to become an abolitionist,
but the more he prayed, fasted and
attended to the presence of God
and other people, the more he was
“afflicted in mind” by injustice.
Once Woolman was invited to
stay at the home of a wealthy fellow
Quaker named Thomas Woodward.
When Woolman realized over dinner Woodward’s domestic servants
were slaves, he said nothing. But
that night he wrote a letter to his
host, explaining why he couldn’t
stay. Then he slipped into the night,
stopping briefly at the slaves’ quarters to pay them for the day’s service.
The next morning Woodward,
convicted by Woolman’s empty bed
and gentle letter, freed all his slaves.
“Woolman was the kind of person who shrinks from giving offence
to others,” write Foster and Helmers.
“What gave him the strength to act
against his own natural inclinations?” The answer, they suggest,
was Woolman’s sustained, intentional life with God.
His spiritual practices allowed
the Spirit to shape him into someone who knew when to be silent,
when to speak, and when to let his
life do the talking.
Working with Justine I know
three times each day an alarm goes
off, and she disappears for a few
moments to pray. It’s out of the flow
of a steady conversation with the
Spirit that she decides whether to
speak or hold her tongue.
I’m guessing that’s why, when
Justine does speak, she speaks with
power. That’s the truth. /FT
Speak truth to power
Use words when necessary
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