Striving for True Boldness

March 1, 2002

"Words are a medium of divine self-disclosure," I once heard Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel declare to a group of Christian liturgists as they congratulated themselves at having celebrated a largely wordless liturgy. I recall that he looked like a Hebrew prophet of old, and spoke with the authority of one who prayed deeply. He respected words because he recognized their power to convey something of God's presence. As a friend of God who lived in the realm of God's mercy and justness, Rabbi Heschel spoke with such boldness that his words have stayed with me over the years.

In the New Testament, the word "boldness" is used to characterize the apostles' deeds and utterances in the Book of Acts. Boldness means plain, truthful, unadorned speech free of defensiveness and self-assertion. Bold speech is grace-filled and convicting because it proceeds from the Spirit of truth working deep within us rather than from our self-serving egos. Interestingly, what boldness means in the scriptural context is the opposite of what we usually think of when we describe a person as bold.

The Anglican tradition uses words carefully, as is evident from the attention given to the shaping and choice of words we use in the service of our common prayer. Subtlety and nuance and an appreciation for the fact that things in this life are seldom black and white is very much a part of the Anglican ethos.

We can also use words loosely and dangerously, in a manner that may be bold - and aggressive - in the popular sense of the word bold. We can use words to mask the truth, and create violence and mayhem. The letter of James likens the tongue to the rudder of a ship: though small, it can achieve mighty things for good or ill depending on how it is employed. It is important, therefore, to attend carefully to what we say because our speech can either build up or tear down. It can be bold in the scriptural sense, or simply aggressive. It can foment rage, instill fear, or it can calm and supply insight. It can draw people together or it can drive them apart. (I note here that within our church such words as liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and revisionist can reduce people to caricatures, undermining their integrity in the eyes of others as persons of genuine faithfulness.)

And, as in the case of a rudder - where a slight turn can generate a powerful alteration in direction - so too, one word can incite havoc. The fulminations of an Osama bin Laden can wreak death and destruction. In a similar way, intemperate rhetoric on the part of our administration can further alienate and separate us from the very nations with which we must seek common ground if this fragile earth is ever to know a season of true peace.

When emotions run high what is needed is bold speech in the scriptural sense, and not aggressive rhetoric. At such times we need temperate and restrained speech, and particularly the willingness to see various dimensions of an issue and to ask difficult and unpopular questions.

Boldness is not only a matter of words: it is a way of seeing the world in the clear light of the resurrection; it is a way of understanding that all things, including humankind, exist in webs of relationship; it is a way of being with and for one another across all lines of difference and otherness; it is to be conformed through grace and struggle to the image of the One who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for the healing of the nations and the reconciliation of all things in the force of his deathless love.

This nation is spoken of as a superpower, which should remind us that to those who have been given much from them much will be expected. A superpower, if it is to be a force for good, must become a super servant genuinely concerned for the welfare of the world beyond the idolatry of its own economy and self interest. A war on terrorism will yield little fruit if there is not, at the same time, an assault on poverty and disease and environmental depredation. Here true boldness is required.

If self interest is our nation's stance toward the rest of the world, then self interest should move us to care about the wellbeing of nations and peoples beyond our borders, or there may be no more world to satiate our unrelenting consumerism. Yes, boldness is what is called for, and courage. But, let us understand the deep meaning of boldness, and the need for bold speech and bold actions that reflect our solidarity with the peoples of the world yearning to be reconciled in the bond of peace.

Lent is a good time to engage in self examination. Over these next weeks there is time to ponder deeply our calling to be bold in word and action as persons under Christ, and as citizens of this great nation.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

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