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Bearing Witness

Casey Jones is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a devout Christian in the Episcopal (Anglican) tradition, Casey’s interfaith hero is the Reverend Pauli Murray, a fellow Episcopalian whose vision of democratic freedom in the United States during the fifties and sixties was often ahead of its time. Casey strives to be as thoughtful and visionary in his leadership. He serves his faith community as the Campus Missioner at Saint Michael’s University Church. In this role, he manages St. Mike’s community garden and helps develop campus and community partnerships with the church. 

 

This past Sunday, I was asked to “bear witness” during a prayer vigil organized by the Union of Black Episcopalians in response to the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and most recently George Floyd. The task made me reflect on what it means to bear witness, to hold brokenness, and be broken. 

Scholar Jennifer Griffiths teaches that bearing a true witness requires an openness to the possibility of being the victim, perpetrator, or accomplice in someone’s testimony of trauma and therefore to the possibility of our own brokenness. Anything less is an incomplete, false witness. Anything less means that we are not ready to change ourselves, let alone the world. 

When we hear the words “I can't breathe,” we must open ourselves to the possibility of our own breathlessness. When we see the kneeling officer, we must feel the power and pressure that we wield with our privilege. When we watch in silence, we must hear the way we reify our investment in white supremacy. The pressure of this vulnerability is enough to break us, but the evils we face and carry with and within us are broken as well.  

Psalm 51 in the Christian Old Testament and Hebrew Bible says that God is not interested in our burnt offerings, but our broken hearts and broken spirits (and broken bodies) will not be despised or rejected. To be clear, I am not shaming or dismissing the actions of those who have taken to the streets in violent protest. The United States is a nation that has been shaped and reshaped by violent as well as non-violent rebellions and reconstructions, and in both cases, movements have had great success when targeted the tools of capitalism. 

I will say that the spiritual tactics of Gandhi, King, and others have gotten a bad rap in the turn toward more violent strategies. I believe the non-violent protest is about changing ourselves more than anything. It is about developing the inward spiritual fortitude (or maybe brokenness?) to divest oneself from oppression. It is about the discipline that comes when we are truly exhausted by evil such that we can never return to it. Whether we arrive thereby bearing witness for ourselves or others, I believe and my faith teaches that such inward spiritual brokenness is the precursor to lasting change and proper action no matter what vehicle we take on the road to that end. 

I have offered myself shattered by my witness of the broken bodies of Breonna, Ahmaud, George, and the host of others who have succumbed and survived oppression in hopes that God and the world might make use of all these pieces. In the crucible of this reckoning, I have experienced the ongoing unfolding of convictions. I will conclude by sharing just a couple of these revelations.   

First, I have felt a renewed call to interfaith organizing. The inherent value of interfaith work is in its requirement that we each become a true witness for one another. It is a movement that acknowledges that something special (sacred?) happens when we look and listen to each other with sincere compassion and a willingness to be changed and even broken by our experience of one another.  

Second, I have felt a renewed call to the community. Jennifer Griffiths says that community is the only way to feel whole again when you have been broken. As Psalm 51 teaches, my broken offering changes me so that I can change others. I cannot realize or sustain the responsibility of my witness alone. It requires a community. Together we can change the world. Alone, we cannot even change ourselves.  

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.