There’s that story by famed fairy tale writer, Hans Christian Anderson, about an emperor and two weavers chosen to make the ruler a new pair of clothes. The clothes, the emperor is told by the weavers, will be invisible to those who are incompetent, foolish, and unsuitable for their positions in the kingdom. In actuality, there are no clothes at all. The weavers haven’t made any. But no one in the kingdom has the courage to say something, for fear of being disgraced. No one wants to be the person to state what seems excruciatingly obvious. That the emperor is, in fact, naked.
It’s a children’s story. And this past week, when reading the turmoil brewing in the Southern Baptist denomination in particular and the evangelical church in general—of leaders being called to task, of injustices being brought to light, of harmful words and deeds being put in the open—this is the story that came to mind.
The story is of the dangers of power. Of an emperor being held in such high regard that the people around him—inferiors, equals, anyone really—live in fear of speaking the truth, afraid of what might come of them if they work up the courage to speak up about something that may make the person in power uncomfortable.
It came to mind due to current events, but the issue isn’t unique to a particular denomination, time or subject at play. It’s been a wearying trajectory the Church has been headed down for some time: the sacred cow we’ve made people in power, institutions, and in some cases, doctrine. Where ones willing to ask questions of any of those things are turned into scapegoats, their credibility discounted, and ultimately, hushed.
In sexual abuse allegations—of minors and adults. In misuses of money and misleading of those whose money is used. In unwise behavioral habits not necessarily wrong, but in need of reformation. There’s a pattern. The people bringing these things to light are labeled by those in power as grudge holders and reputation destroyers, told they are disloyal, wanting to usurp the authority of the God-ordained leader, and some even fired from their jobs.
Somewhere along the way we’ve created a breed of emperors in our religious spheres who prefer blind allegiance, unquestioning support, and silenced opponents, rather than hear the truth. The truth that they misbehaved, misspoke, made mistakes. The truth that they have blind spots that have led them to be unwise with people and with money. The truth that they aren’t invincible, infallible, or exempt from normal standards of conduct.
And yet, an increasing number of Christian leaders have opted to deafen themselves to it. To eliminate those capable of telling the truth rather than stomach the unfortunate but accurate reality. That they may have been at fault. That they may have gotten it wrong. That the emperor is without clothes.
The dangers of continuing to live with fingers in our ears, heads in the sand, donning invisible clothes, are obvious. The emperor loses credibility. But more than that, ultimately, so does the empire—the thing that emperor represents. What becomes of a kingdom made of people more willing to ignore the obvious pitfalls, the glaring mistakes, the public failures of their leaders, because—they think—saying something makes it more real than pretending it doesn’t exist?
The kingdom falls apart. Because the leaders fall apart. Because when loyalty to a particular authority becomes the most valued measurement of a person, something else must be compromised. Integrity, for one. Character, for another. Impartiality. Wisdom. Self-awareness. Credibility. Effectiveness in mission. I could go on.
We are at a watershed moment in the Church. A moment where we will need to decide if it is worth hitching our wagons to a person or institution in particular, or to power in general, at the expense of the gospel, the Church body, the people directly effected by the abuses of such power. We need to decide if we value loyalty more than honesty. Respect more than sincerity. Power more than love. Love that, as the apostle Paul writes, “rejoices in the truth”—even when the truth might cost us something.
In the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale it’s a child who finally has courage enough to say what the people have known all along but feared to speak aloud. It’s a child who calls the charade what it is. Maybe because it was a child who had nothing to lose.
And for a lot of us, we do have something to lose.
Even still, what will it take for us, in the global Church, to speak the truth? To the leaders with more power than we’ll ever know, but who have wielded that power for harm? To the institutions long-standing and highly regarded, but who are systematically hurting and enabling injustices done to the vulnerable and powerless?
We can’t afford to not speak up. The world is watching. Waiting to see if we can say out loud what they already know to be true. That we’ve failed and gotten it wrong in some crucial ways. That we aren’t nearly as close to blameless and faultless as we would like you to believe. That the allure of power is commanding and dizzying and unending, leading us to make more mistakes than we aren’t probably even aware we are making. It doesn’t look good. We don’t look good.
We are not too far gone. We are only beyond hope when we are beyond the courage of calling out the truth. So, will we be truth tellers? Will we relinquish our allegiance to a person and the power they represent for the sake of the greater good? The sake of the Kingdom?
The next few weeks, months, years will be telling. And the choice is up to us what exactly it will be telling of. The courage to speak up in love, or the tendency to keep the status quo to keep the powers, authorities and institutions happy.
How will the story go?