Speaking Truth to Power in the Education System

Reflections from a non-member... on the Christians on the Left Day Conference.


I was sitting quietly during the conference lunch break listening to the vicar of St John's Hoxton practising with his music team, when Louise Davies (CotL's Director) introduced herself to me. I declared I was not a member of Christians on the Left and so she asked the inevitable question "why are you here then?"



I gathered my thoughts - why indeed had I travelled in to London on the sunniest day of the year to be at the Christians on the Left "Truth to Power" National day Conference? Throughout the last twenty years my attention has on occasions been drawn to Christian Socialism and Christians on the Left, however I had never acted upon my interest. This time however my attention was drawn to the title of the day conference: Talking Truth to Power. It resonated with me as I have been engaged in research into this very area, particularly, but not exclusively, in the context of education where many have experienced speaking freely and frankly to those in authority in our schools and institutions. The conference title was therefore a providential sign which I felt moved not to ignore.

The morning session of the conference began with warm and friendly greetings from members and an informative and challenging talk from Esther Swaffield -ray on the work of the International Justice Mission. Her talk drew upon Moses' experience of talking 'truth to power'. Esther gave examples of IJM's work and reminded all Christians of their special calling to speak 'truth to power' in order to achieve justice for others.  After Esther's inspired talk there came the 'sofa panel'. This comprised Louise Davies interviewing David Lammy MP, Susie Stride, Paul Bickley and Jennette Arnold OBE AM, on their experiences as Christians of speaking 'truth to power'.

Speaking 'truth to power' is an occupational hazard for Christians who seek justice for themselves and others. Jesus himself encountered many instances where he spoke 'truth to power' and both the New and Old Testaments are peppered with similar instances of those called by God to speak the truth to those in authority over them. Many found it challenging and costly to themselves and their families to speak out about some truth or injustice. David Lammy reminded the conference of Luke 12:48 that as Christians much had been given to us and consequently much was required of us.

In modern times the literature abounds with stories of whistle-blowers who more often than not pay a high price for 'speaking truth to power'. The French philosopher Michel Foucault had much to say about this phenomenon. Foucault draws attention to the concept of parrhesia present in the plays of Euripides in 5th Century Ancient Greece. The plays of Euripides often contain themes designed to draw attention to injustice thereby awakening society's attention upon a range of social and political issues. Parrhesia was a moral and ethical code known to Ancient Greek society in the 5th Century BC which afforded a person of less power to speak truth to someone more powerful without experiencing retribution. In 5th century Greece the consequences of 'speaking truth to power' could prove fatal to the speaker as they still can do today in some countries across the world.

Why then would someone in 5th century Greece or 2019 UK want to take such risks of possible retribution or condemnation? Foucault cites the Ancient Greek idea of 'care of the self' an in-built human need to speak out to achieve personal growth and well-being. Tolstoy and Gandhi may have described it in terms of a 'God consciousness'. Christians might explain it as a mark of a subjects God given uniqueness to aspire to truth, justice, and peace. An innate God given need to be mindful of one's neighbours through service. 'Speaking truth to power' is what Christians are called to do. It is not an optional extra only to be performed by a few brave individuals. As Christians though we are not alone but are accompanied by the Holy Spirit and can utilise our calling into fellowship with others to support and sustain us in seeking meaning and justice in the service of others when we feel called to speak ‘truth to power’.

Our schools and educational institutions are often very hierarchical in nature and characterised by authority figures whose role it is to encourage, inspire, cajole and coerce others, often with great loving kindness, to follow the institutions need for calm, order, predictability and conformity in order to achieve successful outcomes for both students and the institution. My early research findings indicate that whilst on the surface we encourage staff and students to express themselves openly and truthfully to those in authority it can come at a cost to themselves and is not always generously received. So far, I have interviewed ex school staff who after speaking ‘truth to power’ felt their only option was to resign and change their jobs, through to young people who recollected their own experiences of talking to authority figures when they were students. Some experiences were challenging and others quite amusing. Amongst the latter, was one young person who recalled ‘talking truth to power’ via an underground unofficial student newspaper which lampooned the headteacher’s attempts to inspire her students to constantly aim higher. If you have a story to tell of speaking truth to power in an educational context then I would love to hear from you.


Graham Roberston (g.robertson@uel.ac.uk

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