In the words of Inigo Montoya from one of my favorite Christopher Guest movies: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Witness. What does that even mean? What should it mean? Why is the living out of this so hard?
Dr. Scott Schiffer so eloquently posed the question of virtue this past week; it seems as though finding living witnesses has become an increasingly challenging prospect. In a world where we place leaders on pedestals for their charismatic and manipulative abilities, it is no wonder that we struggle to locate virtuous, dare I say righteous behavior in the ever-changing landscape.
I admit that I struggled with what topic I wanted to write about not because there were too few to choose from; but rather, it seems the options are endless: crisis in Syria, the continuous unfolding of gun violence in this nation, racial inequality, the whole Kim Davis soap opera… where is God actually abiding in all of this?
For those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, yesterday morning we were in James 2:1-17, an exhortation to be impartial, to welcome the stranger, to put faith into action. As we prepared for Sunday worship, it became clearer and clearer to me that James was looking for a witness, and the early church with whom he was corresponding was not cutting it. He writes:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
(2 James, 2:14-17, NRSV)
We have plenty of witnesses, but to what are they witnessing? Those who reject refugees on the basis of fear, ideological differences, and cultural stigmas are bearing witness. A gun is a witness to fear. The way we oppress others is a witness to our own insecurities. Kim Davis is a witness, and in some circles is seen as a type of “living martyr.” Again, to what are these bearing witness?
One witness that I have been thinking of recently was a man named Roger Schütz, or perhaps better known as Brother Roger. Schütz was a protestant minister in Switzerland who at the height of World War II’s grip on Europe founded a new way of living the Christian faith, a new “witness.” Schütz bought some land in Taizé, a small town on the border of occupied France, and remained there taking in refugees until forcibly driven out by the Gestapo. Once the war concluded, Schütz returned to Taizé with a handful of men and the Taizé community was born. Today, it encompasses over one hundred brothers from around the world, hailing from numerous Christian traditions. Their worship is simple, powerful, and inclusive of all participants. Their way of life seeks peace and dialogue. They are not necessarily known for what they say, but are known for who they are. Led by Brother Roger until his recent death, the community has flung open its doors to the world, proclaiming God’s love and the bold call of faith to love others.
The Gospel awakens us to compassion and to a kind-heartedness without bounds. There is nothing naive about this; it can require vigilance. And these values lead to discovery: seeking to make others happy liberates us from ourselves. Looking at others with love allows the beauty of the human soul to reveal itself to us. (Brother Roger, “Three Letters to Young People” from God is Love Alone)
Christian witness points any and all back to Christ. It does not point to the ideology of self. It is not hateful, or malicious, or harmful. It seeks to include all, Jews, Greeks, Syrians alike. We often confuse the sometimes devastating consequences of witness with the witness itself. Bearing witness can result in pain, but it does not seek out pain, and while many proclaimers of the faith have died, witness does not seek out death and destruction.
What kinds of witnesses are our lives portraying? Are they portraying anything? As we rest from our labors today (Happy Labor Day in the US, by the way), let’s reflect on how we can labor in ways that work for the common good, that Christ’s kingdom can come on earth. How are you doing that in very ordinary ways?