Bearing witness to suffering is disconcerting. It can be uncomfortable to be present with people in times of pain, loneliness, and loss. It is heart wrenching to encounter persons lacking basic goods for survival—food, health care, shelter, physical safety.
Your Hurt Makes Me Hurt
Through attentive presence, we listen fully to another person and respond with empathy. Accompanying my neighbor through their trauma can create in me a vicarious trauma, resulting in compassion fatigue. It is risky work. Furthermore, loving those in need has a way of creating within us a righteous discontent, causing us to seek causes and explanations; prompting us to see patterns and connections. Bearing witness to God’s creation with a truthful historical review (historical clarity) gives us opportunity to realize personal and social responsibility for the world around us.
Being attentively present with persons in the midst of suffering makes me aware that all is not okay in this world. The world is filled with violence, injustice, and oppression. What part have we played in the injustices of this fallen world? How has our community failed to care for its most vulnerable members?
Seeing that everything is not okay in the world, is necessary preparation for repentance. Recognizing that we all have dirty hand when it comes to systemic injustices such as climate change, we could despair if it were not for the promise of forgiveness. And even if we are not paralyzed with inaction through despair, we can easily become overwhelmed trying to save the world. Yet it is not through our own power but through the power of the Holy Spirit that we join in the work of justice.
Reassessing our past in light of present ills enables us to name injustices and recognize systemic oppressions. The plight of one person might appear simply unfortunate; the plight of an entire group of people might indicate problems in need for our collective repentance.
Recognizing Our Faults
There are many poor communities across the globe that have few resources to deal with direct losses due to climate change, dislocation, malnutrition, and economic upheaval. Just as attentive presence leads to a conviction that our neighbor’s suffering is real, historical clarity convicts us that we have a hand in suffering.
For example, Native Americans and whites Euro-Americans of the 19th century, had diverse cultures and differing mind-sets. The prevailing Anglo-American attitude was one of cultural, religious, and technological superiority, which prevented significant relationship building and justified oppression of Native Americans. White failures made it impossible for them to bear witness through historical clarity; not sensing any injustice and not seeing any victims; there was nothing in their mind or heart to repent of. They had cut themselves off from meaningful participation in God’s work of reconciliation and failed to love their Native Americans neighbors.
In the United States, with the slogan “black lives matter,” we’re recognizing a historical continuum about the way our society treats women and men of color. Seeking historical clarity allows us to recognize patterns of oppression.
Broken relationships cannot be healed when there is no acknowledgment of brokenness. Addressing social sin requires dignifying the “other” but also an attentive recognition of our own discomfort and blind spots when it comes to confronting historical oppression with deeper clarity.
Understanding history without bias creates the repentant pause between love of others and justice for them, a pivotal point of introspection before full throated advocacy. Challenging the attitudes contributing to broken relationships is part of remorse. Reconciliation is the appropriate response, but we cannot rush into it without first doing the hard work of repentance.
This exercise of memory enables renewed perspective and understanding, and it takes time. Seeking forgiveness requires preparation. With regret for past action, we can ask for and accept the forgiveness of God and mindfully turn away from repeating that same wrongful action. It is only by reckoning with our past that we can prepare ourselves for meaningful participation in God’s preferred future.
What issues in your region call for an awakening to patterns of injustice in the lives of your neighbors? Can you reassess the past and repent, allowing for God’s forgiveness of both personal and social sin?
God’s Forgiving Grace
Without a foundation of dignity and love, attempts at repentance falter. How can we receive God’s forgiveness if we remain unrepentant?
Love does not stop at triage, but neither can justice survive without love. The process of bearing witness cannot be abbreviated or shortcut. We cannot condense the healing of millions of broken relationships into one ceremonial act of repentance, no matter how well intentioned. More importantly, we cannot fully participate in what God is doing in this world without seeking healing for our brokenness.
Through grace, we are given the power to repair harm and dismantle systems of injustice. Empowered by God’s forgiving grace, we can enter into right (just) relationship with God and neighbor. We must repent of our past, unjust ways and bear witness to our neighbors before we can join in what God is already doing to repair and reconcile this world.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?
Reckoning with the past is a difficult moment of bearing witness to God. How do we use historical clarity to act for justice, especially when institutions are involved? We are tempted to deny current realities. We might prefer to forget and be forgiven. We may want to rush to “reconcile” before taking appropriate responsibility for learning about the past, our role in it, and seeking to offer restitution to those to whom it is due. Attentive presence with our neighbors, confronts us with a mirror of convicting grace, reflecting our own brokenness. We can see that all is not okay in the world. Historical clarity, then demands repentance.
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and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)
First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. (Acts 26:20)
(Paul’s Joy Over the Church’s Repentance ) Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. (2 Corinthians 7:2)
Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom by Darryl W. Stephens