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Truth Tellers and Whistleblowers Suffer

I would be very interested in hearing a social anthropologist explain the difference between the way Julia Robert’s portrayal of Erin Brockovich and her fight against Pacific Gas and Electric, made Erin Brockovich a household name and why Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Karen Silkwood, even with Cher and Kurt Russell in supporting roles, was a real sleeper. I fear, many of you can’t even remember who Karen Silkwood was.

Maybe it was the difference of a generation. Silkwood was released in 1983 and Erin Brockovich in 2000. Or maybe it was the fact that Erin Brockovich is still alive and doing environmental activism while Karen Silkwood is dead, apparently murdered by the corporation she was investigating, Kerr-McGee plutonium in Oklahoma.

In my mind, both Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich were prophets in the sense that they stood up to power and spoke important truth on behalf of poor people who were being abused.

I am reminded of that scene in the 7th chapter of Amos when Amos is confronted by the king of Israel, Amaziah, who told him to stop preaching in his city and Amos replied, “I am neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, I am just a herdsman and a farmer.”

To be a prophet doesn’t mean you have to be a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, Jr. You don’t have to have degrees, a powerful pulpit, or a following of thousands. You just have to be willing to act in the presence of injustice to make it right.

I was only 12 years old when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. He was famous, handsome, and rich and running for president and may very well have won but at his funeral, his brother, Teddy, stood before 2000 mourners, all dressed in black, and I can remember hearing him say:

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it,” and while you can appreciate the humility of this sentiment, I think that we should idealize the Bobby Kennedys of the world, the Erin Brockovichs, the Karen Silkwoods, because they were good and decent people who saw wrong and tried to right it. . . Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Karen Silkwood was murdered, and, realistically, we should be thankful that Erin Brockovich survived her courageous stand against Pacific Gas and Electric.

Many such whistleblowers have not fared as well. Still, what I am trying to emphasize today is that what they did was right whether they got Julia Roberts to play them or not.

It is always the right time to do the right thing. It is never ok to witness injustice and remain silent, either in the public or the private sphere. A few whistleblowers become heroic legends, but most are lost to history and many, almost against all reason and justice, have languished in prison as their reward for doing the right thing.

Truth Tellers and Whistleblowers Suffer

Let me test your memory: do you recognize this woman? In 2001 she was a vice-president of Enron.

She wrote a memo to Ken Lay, the CEO, about his use of fraudulent accounting practices that made Enron one of the largest and most lucrative corporations in America.

As soon as she spoke to Lay about the use of illegal bookkeeping methods to steal money from investors, he called in corporate attorneys to start finding a legal way to fire her.

Sherron Watkins said that she counts herself among the more fortunate of whistle blowers because Enron was taken into bankruptcy before Ken Lay could exact the kind of corporate revenge on her that he had planned. And, you may recall, this time it was Ken Lay who died just before he was sentenced to prison.

Sherron was named Time’s Person of the Year and has received a number of public accolades for her honesty and integrity, but I don’t think that she ever got another corporate job. She is sort of the Colin Kaepernick of CPAs. Lots of public applause and recognition, but no job and no future.

Not everyone who goes to the cross gets resurrected and praised. Most likely get killed and are forgotten, others survive and are largely ignored. Still, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.

What can be worse, in many ways, is when you are a whistleblower in government. That can get you sent to prison.

Like a lot of other white liberals, I spent a cold week in a blizzard on the Standing Rock reservation, joining in on the protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline project in December of 2017. After a miserable week, I came home. But these 5 Native Americans were arrested during the protests and served or are still serving, four to six years in prison for standing up to both the energy company and local law enforcement.

Truth Tellers and Whistleblowers Suffer

Admittedly, all I took to the protest was a clerical collar and some of these protestors brought guns, and RedFawn shot hers but whatever their real crimes were, they were nothing in comparison to the crime of pumping this toxic sludge out of the ground in Canada and then sending it through pipes under the Missouri River and across Native American land.

There were instances of property damage against the construction equipment but was that worse than what they were doing to the environment? These things are not always equal but if you take the gospel accounts seriously, you can’t really assume that Jesus is on your side when you insist that anyone can demonstrate but destruction of property is never acceptable.

Most of the New Testament gives us a fictionalized version of the life of Jesus but one of the more historically defensible accounts was of the violent cleansing of the temple. That little Black Lives Matter riot is probably what really got Jesus arrested and executed.

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When all else fails in silencing the voice of a prophet, governments often go back to the absurdly trumped up charge of “disturbing the peace.”

Challenging the status quo, disrupting business operations, that cost Socrates his life, and 400 years later, it cost Jesus his, and we could mark the trail of blood through centuries of martyrs who died for daring to tell the inconvenient truth in an empire of lies. The empires change, but the lies remain the same.

I took as our wisdom lesson for today a clip from an article by Marjorie Cohn about Daniel Hale’s nearly 4 year long sentence for revealing to the media that our military drone program was illegally targeting and assassinating civilians.

Here is an excerpt:

On July 27, a federal district court judge in Alexandria, Virginia, sentenced former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst Daniel Hale to 45 months in prison for revealing evidence of U.S. war crimes.

In 2015, Hale, whose job involved identifying targets for drone strikes, provided journalist Jeremy Scahill with secret military documents and slides that exposed shocking details about the U.S. drone program. Hale’s revelations became the basis of “The Drone Papers,” which was published on October 15, 2015, by The Intercept.

Although the government admitted it had no evidence that direct harm resulted from Hale’s revelations, in 2019, the Trump administration charged Hale with four counts of violating the Espionage Act and one count of theft of government property. Facing up to 50 years in prison, Hale pled guilty to one count that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

That happened in 2019, under the Trump administration. Most of us can almost placidly accept that Donald Trump would do anything immoral or illegal if only for his own entertainment, but as troubling as the case of Daniel Hale was, we must never forget Chelsea Manning, who was also a military whistleblower, releasing files regarding war crimes committed by our troops to Wikileaks.

In both cases, the American government could not demonstrate harm from these leaks. In both cases, they revealed war crimes but none of the soldiers involved in murdering civilians were prosecuted or punished. Hale got 4 years in prison. Manning was sentenced to 35 years, but her sentence was commuted after 7 years . . . 7 years during which time she was often kept in solitary confinement, held naked and cold and nearly starving, being tortured by the government of the United States of America, under the direction of President Barack Obama. That part, folks, is hard to even make myself say.

I know that Obama was not a progressive, in fact, he was a rather hawkish right-of-center Democrat, but I always wanted to think of him as being a reliably logical man who was, at heart, a decent person.

But describing Obama as being decent is a pretty hard sell when you think about how Manning was treated. Manning provided video evidence of our military murdering civilians, journalists, and medical first responders in an incident in Baghdad. You could hear those involved literally laughing about what they had done. Then they called in a military vehicle to repeatedly run over the bodies to make their identity indistinguishable.

I ask you, could the Taliban do worse? Would Al Qaida be worse? Why would we be fighting Isis if we are no different from them? Those involved in these crimes did not suffer suspension, discharge, or even demotion for the murders they committed. Chelsea Manning spent 7 years being tortured in an American prison and she is never free from government threats and harassment.

I won’t even mention Julian Assange. I believe you can look up my thoughts on his case online if you feel like I am leaving something out here. I have told you before how my reporting of my denominational officials for hiding sex crimes and stealing designated funds got me booted out of my former denomination. I won’t repeat that unless I write a “tell all” one day.

What I know from personal experience and from history that being a whistle blower is very unlikely to get you rewarded or declared to be Time’s Person of the Year.

It is more likely to get you fired, to make you unemployable for life. It might land you in prison and it might get you killed, but I know this: it needs to be done.

We don’t tell hard truths to make ourselves seem important at the expense of others. We don’t raise a prophetic voice to be noticed. We do it to help make the world a better place. And we do it so that we do not become passive accomplices to the worst evils in the world, whether they are committed by our enemies or our friends, or our own tribe.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought, within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world."

The burden of carrying the truth is typically very heavy, and nearly impossible to bear in the worst moments, and yet we must not be silent.

The playwright, George Bernard Shaw made the very obviously true observation that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Dr. Roger Ray

Don’t just go along with the injustices you encounter at work, in government, or even, dare I say, in your own circle or friends or family. Be the one who protects victims, who stands up for what is true and good and virtuous.

My own experience is best summed up by the Boston novelist, Alexander Jablokov, who said “The road to truth is long, and lined the entire way with annoying bastards.”

Just don’t let the bastards get you down.

Dr. Roger Ray
Emerging Church