I don’t know that white folks’ voices should be front and center in the affirmative action conversation, but I will just say briefly that the SCOTUS decision harms us all. Black and brown kids deserve to be able to go to college. And colleges are better learning environments when they have a diverse student body.
Racism is still real, and it still impacts every aspect of people’s lives. There is no level playing field. And so, I’m in solidarity with everyone who is livid (or in Austin Channing Brown’s words, “mad as hell”) about the decision.
That said, the main thing I wanted to share this week—sort of unrelatedly but also sort of relatedly—is a written version of some thoughts I had the chance to share at church a couple weeks ago. Our pastor invited reflection on the questions “What does it mean to you personally to be a witness to Christ’s work in the world?” And “What do you hope for our church as a community that can bear witness to Christ’s love and work in the world?”
Good questions. This is what I had to offer:
I imagine I might not be the only person for whom “witness” can be a bit of a loaded word. I’m not assuming that all of us carry some baggage around this idea. But I also don’t think I’m the only one who does. For me, and maybe for many of us, this idea of “being a witness” might sound like it has to do with trying to convert people to Christianity.
I like to think that, in my younger, more evangelical days, I was never—or at least very rarely—particularly obnoxious in my efforts to convert people. I didn’t accost random people on the street asking if they knew where they were going when they die. I didn’t hold up signs listing all the different kinds of people who are going straight to hell—with accompanying Bible verses.
But I did try to initiate conversations about spirituality. And in those conversations I wanted people to see something in me or hear something in what I was able to articulate about God—something that got their attention and appealed to them, and maybe changed their minds and made them want to become Christian.
I believed in Christ’s resurrection power. I believed that that changed everything. And I wanted friends—and strangers, and everyone—to know God’s love and hope and joy in their lives.
I still believe—or want to believe, or at least some days believe—in resurrection. I still think Jesus is a game changer. I still want people—including me!—to know that God is here with us, and God loves us. But I don’t really feel a need, anymore, to convert people into one particular understanding of what all that means.
I’m still deeply interested in spiritual conversations. I love hearing about people’s honest experiences of faith, God, religion—the good and the not so good.
I think the difference is that—at least at my best—I no longer come into these conversations thinking I know all the things and have all the answers. I don’t enter the conversation wanting the other person to come to understand things in exactly the same way I do.
I think that this process of letting go of the need to convert others has liberated me—or is liberating me, because it’s still a process—to be more honest about my own experiences. Experiences of God’s presence and God’s absence, of faith and doubt, of belief and uncertainty, of love and connection and loneliness, of hope and despair, of peace and anxiety.
I used to think I should only show the happy parts of my spiritual journey. Because otherwise who would want to be Christian? I thought I was supposed to model something appealing that would make people interested in embracing Christianity for themselves.
Among other issues, this is a super individualistic way of seeing things. I’m supposed to be such a good person that it gets people’s attention and makes them want to know what’s so different and special about me. And then I can say, oh, you want to know? I can totally tell you. It’s Jesus! And they’ll be like oh awesome, that makes sense, and they’ll want to become Christians too.
I feel a lot less pressure, now, to try to be nicer than others, or come across as happier and more peaceful and serene, or otherwise spiritually “better.” These are all strangely competitive things. This idea that my life is more appealing than other people’s lives, so my religious beliefs must be the right ones.
When I think of bearing witness now, I think it’s the opposite of this sort of individualistic competition to see who can have the best and most appealing faith. Instead of competing with one another spiritually, we can recognize that we are all together in this spiritual journey. We grow together or stagnate together. We’re healthy or unhealthy together.
And if people see God in us, I think it’s because they see God among us. Not just in me personally, but in our relationships. In our care for one another. In the community we’re forming. In the ways we serve our broader communities. In the ways we contend for justice. I don’t know if we’re meant to bear witness to Christ’s work in our world individually so much as we’re meant to bear witness together, as a community.
I don’t have to show myself to be an exceptionally good person. I do get to be part of a community who’s trying to love one another, and love our cities and our broader communities, and love our world.
And because it’s not about me showing myself to be a really good person, I’m liberated to be more honest about my own spiritual journey—and to make room for others to do the same.
So, I want to bear witness by saying the most true things I can say about my experiences. By listening to others as they try to do the same. By refusing to put a happier face on things than the way they actually are. By sharing the stories that are incomplete and unresolved, not just the ones that turned out okay in the end.
This is what I try to do when I write. Bearing witness. Not just to the good things in my life and in our world, but to the hard things too. I try to bear witness to the realities of climate crisis, patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, injustice of all sorts. I try to avoid false optimism and toxic positivity and to speak of things as they really are. I try to wrestle with what the Bible means and how to be a person of faith in this kind of world, the one we actually live in.
It isn’t always fun or easy. But I still believe resurrection power is a game changer, and I believe God’s Holy Spirit is at work moving toward justice in our world. And so I don’t write without hope.
For our church communities, I hope some similar things. I hope church is a community where we have courage to speak the truest truths we know how to speak, and where we listen as others do the same. Where we listen especially to those among us who are most marginalized in our world, most deeply on the underside of all the different power structures we live in every day.
I hope we bear witness in our relationships and our community life together that, despite what racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism might say, we are equals. We are fellow children of God, one family together. We belong to one another. Our wellbeing is bound together.
Solidarity in community across race and class lines is not a common thing in our world. If we can learn how to be connected as equals—how to honor our differences but not use them to claim superiority over one another—this is a powerful thing. This is how justice comes to life in our world. This is a witness to Christ’s resurrection power. This is what I want to be a part of, together.
Peace and solidarity to you and your communities this week,