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The Greek Rhetorical Concept of “Parrhesia” As Theological Key To A Renewed Democracy

From Hollywood comes the latest political scandal.  Richard Dreyfuss, a prominent actor, was spotted at a Ted Cruz rally.

Shock and outrage echoed from Hollywood and Vine throughout Malibu Canyon.  Does Mr. Dreyfuss consider supporting a conservative, tongues wagged, in the likes of Ted Cruz?!   Dreyfuss vehemently denied culpability. His defense was simply the value of listening to differing viewpoints. In other words, simply entertaining opposing thought convicted him of an unforgivable sin of Hollywood- a crime of which not even Johnny Cochran could acquit him.

Dreyfuss, who was not even seen applauding the Senator’s speech, turned out to be guilty by association. Cast the same scenario, if the President of Bob Jones University, were seen at an Elizabeth Warren rally.  Soon he would find himself looking for employment elsewhere far removed from evangelical circles.

In the words of Philippi Joseph Salazar, the distinguished philosopher and rhetorician of South Africa and co-author of the influential essay “Truth in Politics,”, “democracy cannot exist in the presence of only one voice.”(34) The tyranny of the “singular voice,” wherein “one message” seeks to drown out all other competing ideas, represents a clear trend from both sides in contemporary American politics.

This trend flies in the face of the spirit of American democracy itself. As Salazar emphatically implies, multiple voices competing for influence is the fabric out of which democracy is constructed.   How can we reverse this anti-democratic trend and acquire a tool for guidance back to free democratic speech?

In Christianity and Democracy Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain asserted that Christianity and democracy are linked in such a way that liberty of speech is derived from the traditions of Christianity and as such breathes life into democracy. He pointed out that Jesus of Nazareth himself endowed Christianity and all religions with power and freedom from political domination. “Christ’s words “render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” freed religion from any enslavement by the State, but has no sacred pretensions.”(21)

As such, the spirit of Christ is allowed to influence the state. Its power, Maritain says, is like “leaven” in the social and political life of nations, “as the bearer of the temporal hope of mankind.” (22)  He stirs in Bergson’s notion borrowed from Rousseau and Kant, “the essential thing is fraternity…democracy is evangelical in its essence.” (36) Salazar also comments, It is “dialogue between different levels of agency that creates democratic negotiation and in the process, shapes policy.” (38 ) The critical factor of note here is that dialogue, from dialectic, is that which creates policy. Without it policy is both prejudicial and ineffective.

While numerous theological concepts offer support for the dignity and worth of man, there also stands out one clear dictum which historically gives rise to civil discourse and freedom of speech. This concept, while it has been customarily overlooked in by the Church, is clearly present throughout the New Testament texts as a fundamental component of Christian liberty.

The term is parrhesia, which can loosely be translated as “to speak freely” or “to speak candidly.  It is also a major focus of Michel Foucault’s late work and the special topic of some of the last lectures he gave at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall of 1983.

Beginning with the person of Jesus, continuing with the Apostle’s preaching, and culminating in the epistolary material, even continuing in the Church fathers, the term parrhesia bears significant theological import and proclaims the voice of liberty for democratic praxis in the public square.

Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, bore such a pedagogical mark. When speaking theologically the Scribes and Pharisees labored for hours exegetically, thus speaking above the heads of the people. But Jesus, as the text states, “spoke openly, without concealment” (Jn. 11:12,14)  Again, “he spoke openly, plainly.”(Mk. 8:32)  Even His confession during the crucifixion reveal intimate and vulnerable expressions of trust in the midst of agony, “my God, my God; Why have you forsaken me?”( Matt. 25:14), can be considered the first clear example of parrhesia.

Such a theme continues in the record of Acts. Here Peter, as the head of the Jerusalem Church, preaches interpreting the events of Pentecost. “When asked, he spoke freely, confidently.”(Acts 2:29)

Paul, the apostle to the gentile church also affirmed liberty of speech as characteristic of God’s Spirit and the spirit of the Gospel. In a most curious passage Paul explains Christian liberty by contrasting his Gospel ministry to that of Moses, the Law-Giver. In II Corinthians 3:10-18, Paul says that he is not like Moses who ministered through concealment and secrecy, rather his ministry is open and genuine. “We are not like Moses who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.” (II Cor. 3:13)

In the following chapter, Paul approaches the subject from a different angle, that of a comparison to the Judaizers. Paul contrasts himself to the practice of those at the market who deceptively put wax in the cracks of pottery to cover up imperfections. By contrast, Paul claims that his communication was not that of deception, or distortion, but of openness and clarity. ” We do not use deception, nor do we distort… On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience…” (II Cor. 4:2)

Perhaps this notion of vulnerable, open, frank communication is most instructive in the exhortations from the writer of the Hebrews as he speaks of the believer’s confession to the Messiah. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness…Let us then approach the throne of grace with parrhesia…” (Heb.4:15.16)  Such words ring connotations in authentic and truthful confession, so that one gains personal spiritual truth to power with God Himself.  The exhortation continues based on parrhesia with further exhortation,” Therefore, brothers, since we have parrhesia/confidence to speak freely, to enter the Most Holy Place…let us draw near to God…” (Heb.10:19-22).

Philo, the Church father in his 4th century exhortation from Special Laws, sums up this New Testament position and affirms parrhesia as essential to spirituality, “Truth-telling with openness and freedom, is a consequence of the heart…with this openness of the heart and transparency of the soul before God, there is an impulse of the soul which lifts one up towards the Almighty.”

Not only is parrhesia clearly fundamental to Christianity, but it is also foundational to Western democracy as seen in the life of Greek Athenian politics. Citing a few examples are noteworthy.

Foucault mentions an initial citation from the literature of Euripides [BC.411-409 BC[.  In his play the Phoenician Women, parrhesia is affirmed as a vibrant pillar of the Athenian assembly.  Here, two women are found conversing about the role of parrhesia as the valued right of Athenian democratic citizenship.

JOCASTA: This above all I long to know: What is an exiles life?

POLYNEICES: The greatest; worse in reality than in report …The worse is this: right of free speech does not exist

JOCASTA: That’s a slave’s life- to be forbidden to speak one’s mind.  (Euripides, The Phoenician women (386-394)

Thus, parrhesia was esteemed as a fundamental right of Athenian citizens. When an Athenian leaves for another city-state, the privilege of parrhesia is removed.  But upon returning the right is joyfully restored.

Plato, further, affirms parrhesia, yet in an even deeper sense. It appears extensively in his writings – Phaedra, Ion, Apology, etc. Yet, while the term is political in nature, it is also philosophical.  It lies at the core of his ethics. Plato values parrhesia in the political realm, not only as a right of citizenship, but as a necessary characteristic of the good king, the ethical leader. And for Plato, this ethical quality is present not simply when one speaks freely, but when one speaks with the congruence of both belief and truth. So, for Plato, parrhesia, is esteemed not only when one speaks his mind, but more importantly, when one speaks his truth, truth to power.

Simply put, parrhesia is the one little word, often overlooked in our present day political discourse, which distills the meaning and character of Western democracy. If parrhesia with its antecedents in our Christian theological legacy could be restored within our American political culture, it would go a long way toward reversing the current orgy of ideological rigidity, incivility, and venomous scapegoating that distinguishes so much of politics-as-usual today.

William Elkins is  an instructor in composition and rhetoric at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His specialties include studies in Biblical Literature and exegesis, political theology, and rhetoric, especially in structural and post-structural theory, communication and persuasion theory and praxis as well as personality development and spiritual formation, and mediation and conflict resolution. He has over 30 years teaching experience, which include teaching at public state universities in Arkansas and public and religious institutions and forums in Texas, Colorado, and Arkansas.

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