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Speaking the(ir) truth

28 February 2024 By David Guretzki

How Pontius Pilate demonstrates abuse of power

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The phrase "speak my truth" is often used by those who have suffered abuse at the hands of powerful people. There’s something vitally important behind this idea.

Speaking out is important because without it abuse continues. Almost all who suffer abuses of power are silenced, usually through further abuse or shame. Abusers, not surprisingly, don’t want their actions to come to light, and they’ve learned further violence is a good way to keep things hidden.

Tragically, people who have suffered abuse might come to believe silence avoids further abuse. So they might end up shutting down emotionally, or worse.

Abusers sometimes silence those trying to speak up by pointing to false claims of abuse. It is sadly ironic that some false claims exist, because those who make false claims out of a sense of revenge or hatred also engage in an abuse of power. They misuse a system meant to help – a tactic that is wrong and must be resisted.

But the vast majority of claims come from people finding courage to speak up and expose the violence they’ve experienced. To speak their truth, as it were. So let me be clear. If speaking my truth means to expose unspeakable deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5:11), we should support such efforts whenever possible.

However, we need to be aware of a downside of this now-popular phrase "speaking my truth," and an idea that can lie behind it.

The word "my" highlights that everyone experiences the world from a unique vantage point. But the idea of "my truth" can dangerously relativize the notion of truth. As if truth is customized according to the standard of an individual person’s perspective.

If "my personal truth" can benefit an abused person, then it can be – and tragically often is – equally used that way by an abuser. Indeed, a key tactic of abusers is to distract people from what actually happened and reshape the narrative to their personal benefit. Too often they make it a competition of interpretations between abused and abuser.

In other words, "You have your truth and I have mine." So who can really know what happened?

The tactic of questioning whether truth is knowable evokes the story of Jesus before Pontius Pilate (John 18:28–19:16). After asking questions he thinks might incriminate Jesus – "Are you really the king of the Jews?" – Pilate eventually loses his prosecutorial nerve.

Jesus confirms His own kingship, albeit not of this world, calling Pilate’s own power into question. And Pilate then turns from being the aggressive prosecutor to the dispassionate philosopher.

"What is truth?" he inquires, not because he wants an answer, but because he wants to distract from the question of the innocence or guilt of the person before him. Confusion and complexification are classic strategies of the powerful. If you can’t win ’em, confuse ’em!

What is truth? asks Pilate

Jesus refuses to play Pilate’s philosophical game by making an astounding declaration. "Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me." Notice Jesus doesn’t say, "Hey everyone, let me speak my truth here." On the contrary. He affirms such a thing as "the truth" and not merely His truth.

By this point Pilate realizes the crowds aren’t going to back off their demands to crucify Jesus. Frustrated, he resorts to what all abusers do when backed into a corner – he threatens violence. "Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?"

It’s crucial to understand what’s going on here. Presumably Jesus is brought before judicial and political power to ascertain His guilt or innocence. Pilate starts with good intentions to bring truth to light, offering his opinion that he can’t find just cause to crucify Jesus.

But when he finds himself losing control and power, he stops caring about justice and righteousness, rapidly turning the whole investigation into a public display of his own power. Similarly, when powerful abusers start to lose power, the only tactic left is to ramp up threats.

As the Church continues to grapple with ongoing abuses of power within our own organizations, we’ll need to be prayerfully alert to this tell-tale indicator – when powerful abusers’ actions are revealed, we shouldn’t be surprised they seek to make it all about the injustice or abuse they have received. It’s a Pilate-inspired power move.

Those tasked with investigating abuses of power will need spiritual courage from God not to cower in the face of such threats.

We must be on guard against tactics of those who wield power when they come under investigation of abuse. Such abusers rarely, if ever, care about what really happened, about the truth. We need to become better equipped to cut through the sophisticated tactics of powerful abusers by never forgetting Christ’s words – "Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me." Help us hear your voice on behalf of those abused and silenced, oh Lord.

david guretzki
David Guretzki is the EFC’s president and CEO. Read more of these columns at Opening illustration:

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