Public Testimony, Private Struggle

Truth-telling in public is always difficult and sometimes dangerous work.

In many cases, however, it is a true vocation — the thing we can’t not do.

As Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, the supreme test of life is to have faced it fully and not run away. And so, for the truth-teller, the question quickly becomes how to sustain herself in her vocation — her public service — day after day without running away.

One option, common to philosophers and poets, is what Leo Strauss called secret writing. In order to avoid Socrates’s fate, the philosopher (or social gadfly) writes in coded language that’s simultaneously obscure to the authorities and clear to others who are in on the joke. Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote, the task is to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Walter Brueggemann, in his sermon “The Secret of Survival,” describes a different kind of secret testimony. After dressing down the people of Jerusalem in the strongest possible terms — leaving no doubt as to his meaning — Jeremiah retreats to his own room, throws himself on the floor, and breaks down in tearful, fearful prayer-conversation with his God. He is at least as afraid for his people as for himself: he can see how badly they have strayed, and he is calling as loudly as he can for them to return to uprightness.

Jeremiah might sound quite sure of himself in his public prophecy, but he is racked by deep insecurity and vulnerability — and he lets all of that out in the privacy of his room.

The secret to Jeremiah’s survival, then, is his ability to live with the enormous tension between his prophetic work and his personal fears. Both are authentic and true: he is concerned for his people, and he is sorely burdened by his vocation. And, as Brueggemann wisely points out, he couldn’t tell his truth in public if he couldn’t also express his deepest fears just as clearly in private.

Political life often requires a similar kind of courage. Politicians must learn how to write and speak a vision that is true but not yet fully realized — and also how to sustain themselves in the struggle to inch reality a little closer to the vision.

Truth-telling is an art. It must be done, and it’s worth learning how to do without running away.