Culture / Witness

Truth-Telling: A Just Movement Toward Human Flourishing (More Than Words, Pt. 1)

Abstract

In ancient Greco-Roman culture, parrhesia, meaning free speech, was the act of boldly speaking truth to power. It was speech that critiqued both individuals and systems. Although the term is now obscure, the practice of parrhesia is frequently on public display in contemporary Western culture, particularly in a negative way, e.g., to discredit and disempower. However, this is not to be the Christian’s relation to parrhesia. Concerning Christ-followers, what might it mean today to be a people who create space for truth-telling without sacrificing the potential for healthy conflict? Building on Michel Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia, and Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, this article explores the relation between parrhesia and pneumatology to argue the following:

Communities of Christ followers, as they discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and interrogate their corporate emotional processes, can model paths that speak truth without sacrificing the fruit of the Spirit.


Truth-Telling: A Just Movement Toward Human Flourishing

In 1971, a televised debate took place in the Netherlands between American linguist Noam Chomsky and French philosopher Michel Foucault. Two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, debating the topic of human nature. Midway through the discussion, Foucault was asked by the moderator, “Do you believe that we can call our societies in anyway democratic?” After immediately answering no, Foucault explains,  

It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.1

In part, Foucault was illuminating on parrhesia (pronounced pa-ree-zha).  Parrhesia is free speech in which the one who uses parrhesia boldly speaks the truth.2 It is an activity in which the speaker risks their life because they recognize truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people, as well as themselves.3 That is to say, speakers of parrhesia are willing to put their livelihood on the line for their sake and others, and even more so when situations have worsened around them.

Parrhesia is free speech in which the one who uses parrhesia boldly speaks the truth. It is an activity in which the speaker risks their life because they recognize truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people. Click To Tweet

Foucault would also argue that parrhesia is fundamental to human flourishing. When he states in the above, “to criticize and attack them,” the exhortation is not to assault individuals or groups, but to prioritize space for truth-telling for the sake of a just and equitable society. As it pertains to current social disruptions both inside and outside the church—political polarizations, church scandals, our growing mental health crisis—parrhesia sounds like a welcome practice in as much as it can contribute to communities and institutions moving from unjust to just. 

However, what obscures the role of parrhesia, specifically in contemporary Western culture, is that the line between parrhesia and expressive individualism is ambiguous. Regarding individualism, phrases such as, “Speak your truth,” “Trust who you are,” and “Do what you feel is right” sound empowering and interested in the development of truth-telling. Yet, modern conceptions of individualism and parrhesia have become so inseparable that truth-claims are only legitimate if I, the individual, agree. Conversely, if I disagree, it must mean that whatever message was presented to me is not true. 

Modern conceptions of individualism and parrhesia have become so inseparable that truth-claims are only legitimate if I, the individual, agree. Click To Tweet

Related, parrhesia has become less an activity in service to community development and more a rallying cry around self-interests. This tends to create a domino effect whereby present-day forms of parrhesia are increasingly dismissive and hostile toward all that does not conform to one’s perspective on truth. Given the dramatic ways in which these domino effects have manifested in society, one can sympathize with church historian Carl Trueman, who observed that, “The solution is more complicated than we might imagine, and the most acute challenge comes from the fact that we are all to some deep extent expressive individualists now.”4

In other words, the governing social narrative is that truth is a matter of what one chooses to believe. So, if we are all expressive individualists, what might the Christian’s relation to truth-telling look like in contentious times? And is there more to truth-telling than mere words? This two-part article interacts with Michel Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia, as well as Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, to propose the following: 

Communities of Christ followers, as they discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and interrogate their corporate emotional processes, can model paths that speak truth without sacrificing the fruit of the Spirit. 

Evaluating Your Character and Message as a Truth-Teller

Originating in Greco-Roman politics, a primary function of parrhesia was to boldly speak truth to power. By power, what is in view is the imbalance of authority and control in systems and relationships, e.g., questioning a majority decision, an employee speaking candidly to their boss, or an individual appealing to a friend at the risk of losing the friendship. On the surface, speaking truth to power aligns with the evangelistic zeal of Christian ministry. Passages such as Acts 4:23–31, Acts 28:17–31, and Ephesians 4:11–32 are a few of the many scriptural examples that illustrate Christians living out and proclaiming the gospel both to members in the body of Christ, and to the dominant culture. 

Originating in Greco-Roman politics, a primary function of parrhesia was to boldly speak truth to power. By power, what is in view is the imbalance of authority and control in systems and relationships. Click To Tweet

More soberingly, contemporary examples of church members rightly confronting toxic pastors, who tend to have great authority in the church, can also be a form of parrhesia as the members bring to light issues of abuse or wrongdoing in the church. In addition, Christians, by their relation to the “already–not yet” Kingdom of Christ, have opportunity to incorporate parrhesia in a way that extends beyond any socio-political reality. As Foucault expressed, “Christian practice brings a new dimension to parrhesia: Not the political and moral values of the ancient pagan world but rather the power of a courageous openness to mystery.”5

To reframe, speaking truth to systems and powers for the people of God has potential to reflect a moral praxis that is unconventionally courageous, as they learn to live “coram Deo” (before the presence of God) rather than in step with the political and cultural values of the age.

Speaking truth to systems and powers reflects a moral praxis that is unconventionally courageous, as people learn to live before the presence of God rather than in step with the political and cultural values of the age. Click To Tweet

However, a crucial element of parrhesia is increasingly neglected among Christians and non-Christians. That is, parrhesia is as much about the character of the person as it is about their message. Not everyone who claims to be speaking the truth should be regarded as a truth-teller. Instead, parrhesia assumes the temperament of a certain kind of person. For, “The ‘parrhesiastic game’ presupposes that the parrhesiaste [truth-teller] is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and, secondly, to convey such truth to others.”6 

In other words, the evidence that the truth-teller was speaking the truth was on account of their good standing in relation to others and their willingness to risk it all. Persuasive rhetoric was not crucial to parrhesia. What was significant was that the truth-teller was respected and had everything to lose in speaking the truth.

This ought to give Christians pause. Instead of an emphasis on knowing the truth, i.e., scriptural intelligence, perhaps followers of Christ ought to more deeply consider how their knowledge has translated to practice. For example, what are Christians known for in your context? How are you (the reader) regarded in your sphere of influence? Do others in your community know you well enough to affirm that you can be depended upon to speak the truth?

An important acknowledgement is that parrhesia is not without risk. That is to say, conflict is unavoidable when parrhesia is on display. Foucault unpacks it in this way: “In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.”7

To reiterate, the practice of parrhesia includes:

    1. frankness—what is spoken is clear and leaves no doubt as to the mind of the speaker
    2. truth—what is spoken is the truth and not merely conjecture 
    3. courage—what is spoken puts one’s well-being at risk
    4. criticism—what is spoken is capable of hurting or angering the listener 
    5. duty—what is spoken is for the sake of the flourishing of the community 

With these attributes in mind, parrhesia challenges Christians to examine their dedication to living in and speaking truth, not in a belligerent or shaming manner, but in a way that is considerate and transparent. While Christians in principle may value truth-telling, it would seem that many Christ-centered churches are designed to preserve the peace at all cost and ill-equipped to navigate the tensions that arise when the truth is spoken or sought out. One wonders to what extent we as Christians genuinely practice parrhesia. Does our preference for peace-keeping sacrifice the need for truth-telling within our communities of faith? 

At the same time, relational conflict does not mean a call to abandon virtue. Rather, the challenge for Christians is to be a people who speak truth in love, as life in the Holy Spirit. A helpful example of this posture is found in the letters written by the Apostle Paul. In his letter to Philemon, Paul appeals to Philemon to take back the servant, Onesimus, who ran away from Philemon. Although the reasons for Onesimus’ flight are somewhat veiled, what is not in dispute is that there were clear tensions between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul could have commanded or spoken harshly to Philemon. Instead, he pleads with Philemon as if he, too, was Philemon’s servant, writing, “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold [speak with parrhesia] and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” (Philemon 8–9). 

Here, Christians are reminded that to speak truth is first and foremost a call to love. Yes, speaking the truth matters, but not at the expense of love. Moreover, what is consistently demonstrated by Paul and the early church is that the Christian’s primary relation to the gospel story and to the writings of Scripture is not that of prosecutor but participant. In other words, the people of God are daily invited to discern the times and to join in what the Holy Spirit might want to do in and through their lives, in the here-and-now.

The Christian’s primary relation to the gospel story and to the writings of Scripture is not that of prosecutor but participant. The people of God are daily invited to discern the times and join in what the Holy Spirit is doing. Click To Tweet 

Ideally, there need not be for Christians a dichotomy between speaking truth and acting in love. Unfortunately, growing tensions today suggest that it has to be one or the other. How then might Christian communities cultivate space for parrhesia and the fruit of the Spirit, without circumventing conflicts? We will address this problem in Part 2.*

*Editorial Note: Part 2 of this article will post on Tuesday, January 10, 2023, as our winter publishing break concludes.


Foucault, Michel. 2001. Fearless Speech. Edited by Joseph Pearson. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Besley, Tina., and Peters, Michael A. 2007. Subjectivity and Truth: Foucault, Education, and the Culture of Self. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Foucault, Michel. 2011. The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others, vol. 2: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1983–1984. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Trueman, Carl. “How Expressive Individualism Threatens Civil Society.” The Heritage Foundation. May 27, 2001. Accessed October 4, 2022. https://www.heritage.org/civil-society/report/how-expressive-individualism-threatens-civil-society.

Bernauer, James., and Carrette, Jeremy., eds. 2004. Michel Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Foucault, Michel. 2001. Fearless Speech.

IBID.