Speaking Truth to Power from Powerlessness
The first Christians very quickly discover that Jesus wasn’t exaggerating when he told them that to follow him meant taking up a cross and dying. They find out that if you are doing Christianity right it is liable to get you killed. Stephen is the first of the long list of Christian martyrs.
Stephen was one of the seven who were chosen by the Apostles to deal with the practical business of caring. He was one of those, who the Church has later called deacons, charged with making sure widows and others in need were looked after. But Stephen was also full of grace and power as Luke tells us. He, like the Apostles themselves, was capable of performing wonders and speaking great wisdom in the power of the Spirit. Unsurprisingly he provoked the anger and jealousy of some, who, in an echo of the conspiracy against Jesus:
Secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
So Stephen is hauled before the same council who had tried Jesus as well as Peter and John before him. For Stephen this is just another opportunity to preach the Good News. He takes them through the whole of the history that he and his judges share, and demonstrates that that history has reached its fulfilment in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Not unnaturally the council are not impressed by what they hear:
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
And at this moment Stephen is given a vision of heaven:
But filled with the Holy Spirit he [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right of God.
Stephen is given a vision of the whole truth about Jesus. This is who Jesus is. Jesus is now, as he always was, the exalted Lord. He is the long awaited and exalted Messiah. He is the one who must be acknowledged and obeyed or rejected at the peril of rejecting God himself. This is a truth so compelling that against prudence Stephen has to declare it:
“Look” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
This seals Stephen fate. This pushes the council over the edge, they become an angry mob and haul Stephen out of the council chamber and out of the city and they stand him up against a wall. The council does not want to hear what Stephen has to say, and they want him silenced once and for all. In their minds what Stephen is saying is blasphemous. It places a human being in near equality to the glory and authority of God. And in fact it would be blasphemy were it not true. But worse than blasphemy, as far as the council is concerned, it further convicts them of having acted wrongly with respect to Jesus. When they rejected Jesus, and conspired with Pilate to have Jesus killed they were acting on the conviction that God was not on Jesus’ side, and Jesus was not on God’s side. The resurrection has vindicated Jesus. And now this vision further asserts that the council were absolutely wrong in their conviction. Jesus was and is on God’s side. There is no clearer vision of God, no other access to the truth about God, than through Jesus. Their authority is denied and their power undermined.
What happens in the world however is that truth is determined by those who have the power to assert it. Might makes right. And the council uses the power at its disposal, the power of this world, which is as ever the power of death.
They dragged him [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him.
The council have declared that Stephen is their enemy, and the enemy of their understanding of God. The world deals with enemies in only one way, it seeks to destroy them. But above all Stephen demonstrates that Christians have a different way of dealing with their enemies. He doesn’t resist what is being done to him. Indeed his focus remains elsewhere, on the vision of heaven that has been given to him. Stephen shows that Jesus’ followers die like Jesus died. Stephen dies with two of the same prayers which Jesus prayed at Calvary on his lips. The first is the simple children’s goodnight prayer:
Lord Jesus receive my Spirit.
Stephen dies in childlike trust in God for his well being. His prayer though is slightly revised to recognise that his relationship with God comes through Jesus. In this last extreme moment of his life Stephen demonstrates the quality that all of Christian living should possess at every moment, trust in God. Stephen also utters the same prayer that Jesus offered for the soldiers who were crucifying him:
Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
This is the prayer which demonstrates the real difference between Christianity and the power of this world, whoever it happens to be that is wielding it. Those with power have the option to try and destroy their enemies. This option is not not available to the powerless, like Stephen, nor is it desired by God or by any of the followers of Jesus. Jesus’ followers have a different way of dealing with their enemies. Following Jesus’ explicit commandment Stephen loves his enemies. He does the only thing available to him at that moment to demonstrate that love, he prays for his killers even as they are taking up rocks and throwing them at him.
Martyrdom has always been an important part of Christian testimony. Deaths like Stephen’s throw into the sharpest relief what qualities all of Christian living should possess. Stephen has an unwavering commitment to the truth of the Gospel. The claims we make about Jesus have to do with the truth. What the gospel says about Jesus is true. It doesn’t stop being true even if the ones who are making those claims are killed. And indeed it is the kind of truth that you can’t stop testifying to, even as you are being killed. But it also shows that faith is simple trust. Even in the face of death, God in Jesus Christ is to be relied upon for our security and well being. And above it shows that Christians have a different way of dealing with the enemies we make by testifying to the truth. We love them and pray for them even at the cost of our own lives. That is the truth which Stephen’s death speaks.
Stephen has done what the Church and Christians are often called to do, he spoke truth to power. The Church and Christians time and again find that we must speak all the truth that God has shown us in Jesus Christ. And we must do so in the face of threats and actual violence from those in power. The Church and Christians cannot and should not deny the truth even when it would be expedient to do so in the face of the denials of those in power. However power is a problem for Christians. Power corrupts, we know it, we say it, but we struggle to actually believe it. Power is corrupting. Powerless Christians die like Stephen. They have little choice because they know the truth and it is a truth that compels them to testify. Jesus is Lord is a truth that is true, even when it is going to get you killed for saying it. But with power Christians have proved themselves too willing to persecute those whom they deemed to be the enemies of God, based on exactly the same vision of God that was given to Stephen. When a martyr says, “Jesus is Lord” we can be sure that it is true. In those circumstances it is entirely trustworthy testimony. When “Jesus is Lord” is spoken from a position of power it tends to mean something like: “We’re in charge, and we’re using Jesus to legitimate our power.” In those circumstances we have grounds for skepticism.
Imagine if in that scene from Acts the roles had been reversed. Those who testified that Jesus stands at the right hand of God were sitting in judgement over those who denied it. And those who resist that truth claim were powerless before them. I suspect the scene would have played out in virtually the same way. The judges would have stopped their ears. They would have been enraged by the denial of their certainty. The weak helpless ones would have been dragged out and stoned, or burnt at the stake, or received some other terrible fate or some denial of their dignity or their humanity. The tragedy of the Church in power is that scene has actually played out countless times through Christian history. Power corrupts. Power makes us unwilling to love our neighbours and be forgiving towards those who are our enemies. Power makes us reluctant to place a childlike trust in God for our well being in the face of death. With power we tell ourselves that testifying to the truth doesn’t have to cost us our lives. With power we would be able to avoid martyrdom. It is uncomfortable to recognise and difficult to accept but powerlessness is the only appropriate position from which to conduct Christian mission. It worked that way for Stephen, but it cost him his life. It worked that way, of course, for Jesus! But we tell ourselves it doesn’t have to work that way for us. We can’t imagine how anything could be accomplished without power. We tell ourselves that is just the way the world is. And with power we imagine we could do so much good. Much of what the Church does comes down to seeking power; more people, more money, more influence. The effort is sincere but misguided. The reality is that power undermines our ability to speak the truth. And it is only with access to that truth that we can do any good at all.
The assertion of truth which Stephen makes:
I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
Is the assertion of the truth which the Church must make. But it can only be made from a position of powerlessness. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed: “Some things are true when whispered but false when shouted.” The example he was thinking of was the phrase: “I love you.” When whispered into the ear of a beloved one, it perhaps can be relied upon. When bellowed it takes on a different meaning. It probably means something like: “I love me, I want to control and use you.” The truth of the Gospel has something of the same quality. When asserted from a position of power it takes on a different meaning. It becomes an attempt to control and manage the lives of others and shape them to Christians’ wishes. The gospel is true, but any attempt to impose its truth falsifies its claim to the truth. The Lordship of Christ cannot be imposed on others from a position of power. The claim to that truth, that Jesus is Lord, can only safely be made from a position of powerlessness. A position which gives those who hear it the clearest opportunity to accept or reject the truth which is declared to them. That is why the truth of the gospel is clearest and most convincing when it is found on the lips of a dying martyr.
Speaking Truth to Power from Powerlessness by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.