Friday, June 20, 2008

Truth Telling: The Church's gift to the State

Over these past few weeks I've been reading and learning a lot about the South African Council of Churches (SACC) role in what can only be described as the miracle of South Africa. What has amazed and inspired me the most is the church's ability to look Caesar in the eye and tell him the truth. "You are not God; your reign will not last forever."

Throughout the ages the great heroes of our faith have stood witness to the truth before the thrones of this world. Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall to King Belshazzar and told him he would die because he trusted in the gods of silver and gold. John the Baptist spoke courageously when he told Herod it was not right for him to have his brother's wife. Paul prophesied to his centurion captor about "danger and much heavy loss" if the ship they were on continued to sail.

As a church we have by and large lost that prophetic voice. These days we are much more likely to chaplain the State than we are to speak truth to it.

Why? Because speaking truth is a fearful and lonely enterprise and only the most courageous of people ever do it.

When I graduated from Duke Divinity School Rev. Dr. Peter Storey delivered the commencement address. Storey had previously served as president of the SACC and was close friend and confidant of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1980 the two were the targets of an unsuccessful assasination attempt.

In his commencement address Storey (left) talked about the pastor who was driving down the highway when his cell phone rang. It was his wife. "Honey, be careful," she said, "there is a madman out there on the highway going the wrong way." "It's worse than that," the pastor told his wife, "there are hundreds of madmen going the wrong way."

To stand up to Caesar and tell the truth about war and peace and race and religion puts us in the line of a lot of oncoming traffic. But it is the right way to go. And the State desperately needs us to do it.

Who else would? It's been the Church's gift to the State from the very beginning. And it is still our gift.

So, with a little encouragement for us all, I'll close by sharing something Desmond Tutu wrote to Caesar about the Church at the height of the apartheid era:

The SACC is a Council of Churches, not a private organization. The Church has been in existence for nearly 2000 years. Tyrants and others have acted against Christians during thsoe years. They have arrested them, they have killed them, they have proscribed the faith. Those tyrants belong now to the flotsam and jetsam of forgotten history-and the Church of God remains, an agent of justice, of peace, of love and reconciliation. If they take the SACC and the Churches on, let them know they are taking on the Church of Jesus Christ.