I have had the rare opportunity in the past several weeks to have several conversations with different people about the concept of “witness” within the Christian context, none of which were initiated by me. In the Christian tradition we give witness to the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, though the language may differ among Christians in exactly how we do that. In legal terms a witness is someone who observes an event and is then called upon to give testimony about what they saw—which brings up another word with some baggage around it: “testimony.”
In some traditionally liberal churches “giving witness” is not part of our regular vocabulary, and in fact the term can provoke an at least somewhat distressing response. Why is that? Are we not called to give witness, to share our experiences of the risen Christ? Are we not called upon to share with the world the gift of God’s grace revealed (once again) through this Jesus person?
I have a mug on my desk with the words of St. Francis of Assisi, which I have repeated often and I have attempted to make a mantra in my own life (with varying degrees of success on varying days): “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Giving witness means more than just “talking at” someone, doesn’t it? Don’t we believe that experiences, especially experiences of the divine, change us, or maybe even transform us? So the experience of both sharing our witness and listening to and paying attention to the witness of others should change us. Traumatic experiences change us, making us more fearful, closed off emotionally, angry, etc. We give witness to these experiences not only in our language, but in the way we choose to live after the experience.
But I do believe our experiences, particularly our experiences of God (our witnessing the work of God) should change our language too. I have watched in horror in the past decade or two as a small but mighty group of Christians with a particular world view have commandeered the Christian identity and have worked hard to exclude anyone else from claiming that identity unless those others adopt the worldview and theological language of the few. The far right evangelical Christians have claimed to be the sole heirs of the Christian faith and have claimed to speak on behalf of all Christians. But the language they have offered is far from the language I have come to understand as the language of people transformed by the love and grace of God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth.
The language of this small but mighty crew has been mostly, from my perspective, language of hate, war, isolation, elitism, and violence. They have been the loudest about waging war against Islam, though this has been tempered in the years following 9/11 as they have shifted their call to war against “Islamic extremists.” But what about Christian extremists who strike terror in the lives of those with whom they disagree, i.e., anyone who is not them. Doctors have been threatened and killed for performing abortions (I am not a fan of abortions, and know no one who is “pro-abortion,” though they may be pro-choice). People struggling with sexual identity in a world bent on keeping people in stringent categories have been threatened and killed by these religious extremists. I have watched at rallies as people filled with hate carry angry scowls on their faces and signs that say terribly violent things against GLTB people. This is not the radical grace of God. I have heard violent religious rhetoric against people who come to this country illegally who are merely trying to survive and provide for their families, and who generally work hard and actually pay taxes! Immigrants, legal and illegal alike, have been targeted and called names that are less than human or humane, have been threatened by vigilante militant groups along borders, and who have been taken advantage of in their precarious lives by less than scrupulous people.
I am not so naive as to believe that the world is a safe place. People are people, and some people are driven in such ways that they have no problem walking over others to get ahead. I am fully aware of my own tendencies to objectify people who are simply in my way (driving on the freeways of Southern California with me at the wheel can be a hazardous activity, though I have worked hard in recent years to curb my objectification of those with whom I share the roads). But we are called to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We are called to respect and honor our sister or brother, whether or not they believe what I believe, because they, too, are children of God whether or not they choose to use that language.
Witnessing to Christ, I believe, is about living in a way that allows myself to be transformed by the grace of Christ revealed in some pretty extraordinary circumstances (the cross being the chief among them). I am not a fan of atonement theory, wherein Jesus died as a sacrifice for my sins. This violates what I believe I know of God’s grace and mercy and makes God into a terribly violent and vindictive Creator. Walter Wink wrote that the cross of Jesus reveals the potential and ridiculousness of human hatred and violence. What it reveals is our incredible potential to objectify the “other” in our lives in order to “feel” safer, when in reality such violence and objectification only makes us less safe. It brings to mind the quote emblazoned on a wall in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., attributed to Martin Niemöller, a German pastor and theologian born in Lippstadt, Germany, in 1892, in response to the rise of the Nazi Party leading up to World War II:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Is there a witness to the peace and compassion of Jesus? Is there a witness to the love and grace of God? Is there a counter response to violence waged in my name as a Christian? I know Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa have all written about active non-violent resistance to the wiles of power and hatred. I know people like Dorothy Day worked hard against the powers that be to change perceptions of those seemingly without power. And I am aware that there are countless others, both celebrity and non-celebrity, who have worked hard to try to shape and transform this world into something else than what they themselves have witnessed. The question that haunts me daily is: What am I being called to say and do? This is my witness to the transformative work God is doing in me: transformed and always being transformed according to the grace of God (to adapt the motto of our 16th century reformers).