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When Power Listens to Truth

A reminder that at least once in history speaking truth to power worked.

Published on:
July 17, 2017
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3 min.
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It had been only weeks since the riot in Thessalonica. And though he first promised mercy, the wrath of Theodosius—the emperor—had been kindled. At his command, the people were ushered into the city’s arena, trapped, and as many as 7,000 were slaughtered. 

Now, Theodosius was entering a church. But at the door stood Ambrose—the Archbishop of Milan.

“Stop! A man such as you, stained with sin, whose hands are bathed in the blood of injustice, is unworthy, until he repents, to enter this holy place, and to partake of communion.”[1]

Ambrose barred the way of the great Emperor and demanded that he not only acknowledge his sin, but that he publicly humble himself and ask the Lord for forgiveness. 

To the amazement of the onlookers, the Emperor’s rebuke never came. Swords weren’t drawn. Chains weren’t clasped. Instead, as one historian writes, “some courtiers threatened violence, but the Emperor acknowledged the truth in Ambrose’s words, and gave public signs of repentance.”[2]

I remember hearing this story for the first time as a graduate student at Wheaton. I remember, with unusual clarity, that it piqued my interest not, as you might imagine, because of Ambrose’s bravery, but because of the Emperor’s response. He acknowledged the truth. 

Ambrose spoke truth, and Theodosius listened.

At a Loss

I confess that I’ve found myself at a loss lately. A loss of truth telling or truth motivated activism, maybe both. I don’t know if it’s fear, or anxiety, or simply the cumulative effect of a relentless news cycle filled with seemingly ever-increasing injustice, deceit, and outrage. But I don’t know where to begin. I find myself in conversations, searching for the appropriate words, and stumbling.

It isn’t that I don’t know the prescribed path. I’ve heard the speeches, read the op-eds, and even been inspired. I know what I’m supposed to care about, who I’m supposed to write and call, and what’s at stake. But it all seems too little. It feels as if the train has left the station and I have only pebbles to slow it with.

It feels like what I have to say, what I should say, doesn’t matter. Not that it isn’t important, or that it isn’t true, but that it simply won’t matter. Maybe we should speak truth to power, but power doesn’t seem to listen.

What about Theodosius

You have to wonder if Ambrose really believed his rebuke would work. He certainly spoke with conviction, but was it the conviction of a man sure of his success or of one resigned to an inevitable fate? Regardless, he spoke. And while I might advise a more tactful approach, we have much to learn from his encounter, though it may not be what you would imagine.

It’s not the boldness of Ambrose that we need to remember. It’s noble, to be sure, but it’s also fairly easy to find. In fact, in the age of social media, and the instant self-publishing that comes with it, boldness has never been more ubiquitous. A scroll through your platform of choice will surely confirm that. People do not seem scared to lift their voices. Timidity is not our problem. 

No, we don’t need to be reminded of Ambrose. We need to remember Theodosius. We must remember that he listened. He repented. He acknowledged the truth. Ambrose’s pebbles did stop the train. 

Theodosius is our reminder that truth does have power and it is effective. When spoken well, and out of love, it has the power to convict, to save, to heal, and to transform . . . and this is true even when our proclamation feels pointless, and even when the risk seems to outweigh the reward.

We must continue to speak truth to power, both because we have the truth, and because sometimes it works. Sometimes the truth from our lips is used by God to change hearts. Just ask Theodosius.

Sean DeWitt
Sean is an amateur historian, amateur theologian, and aspiring writer. He has masters degrees is historical theology and history of Christianity, and primarily uses that education to offer obscure historical information to uninterested friends and family. He lives in Arkansas with his wife, two little kids, and zero pets (he is not a pet person).

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 223–224.

[2] Ibid., 224.

Cover image by Jon Tyson.

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