BEARING WITNESS TO SOCIAL INJUSTICE AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE:
MOVING FROM PAIN TO TAKING COMPASSIONATE ACTION
by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Forthcoming, Humanistic Paganism
Spirit of Life,
Transcending Mystery and Wonder,
Ground of Our Being,
Be present with us now as we contemplate
How best to bring healing and justice to the world
And inspire us with a vision borne of compassion,
Where the bounty of the Earth is revered,
Where no one goes hungry or unhoused,
Where the weak are protected and the innocent are safeguarded,
And where the riches of creation are shared.
May all souls find their true purpose and become whole,
allowing who we are to inform what we do.
May we come to learn that it is often through our darkest nights
That we discover the glimmers of light that will guide our days.
May our suffering allow us to become wounded healers
With the gift of empathy to sustain our acts of compassion.
When we bear witness to social injustices and that which should not exist,
Let us find the courage to publicly speak our truth to those in power
Demanding changes in institutions and practices that inflict harm upon our neighbors.
Let us re-commit to building the Beloved Community.
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.
Each of our personal life journeys informs our public politics and shapes our involvement in movements for social change. Often our political engagements are ground in our personal grievances. Popular political consciousness is derived from an individual's commitment to their everyday life, according to sociologist Richard Flacks. When the accustomed patterns of our everyday lives become threatened collective mobilization tends to increase. But the suffering of others also shapes our public stances. Finding ourselves face-to-face with a person who is suffering we may feel sympathy and have the urge to make things better. If that suffering is caused by injustice, we may feel outrage, guilt, shame, shock, and / or helplessness. Fueled by these emotions and understandings we may get involved in efforts to alleviate that suffering through changing policies and programs that perpetuate that suffering. My own life struggles have likewise shaped my convictions.
My journey through homelessness has given me the opportunity to confront horrible, ugly and unacceptable realities that were largely hidden from me prior to my becoming homeless. I have bipolar disorder and experience devastating episodes of major depression in which I loose the motivation to keep on going and can become suicidal and dysfunctional. To cope with these powerfully dark moods, I have self-medicated with illicit stimulants which elevate my spirits and make life seem worth living again. These challenges have lead me to become homeless three times in the past 17 years, to repeatedly loose all my possessions and to become involved in our criminal justice system.
My time on the streets, living in shelters and enrolled in rehabilitation programs, and later working as a social worker in such programs has allowed me to bear witness to innumerable social injustices. People with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, and other major life obstacles often lack access to care, housing, and public assistance; they must fend for themselves in the dog-eat-dog environment which comprises contemporary urban homelessness.
I have lived in all three shelters in Santa Barbara, been a part of rehabilitation programs and lived in transitional housing. Most recently, in November 2011, I had a particularly bad depressive episode which lead to my becoming homeless. Once again, I ended up loosing everything. The pain was so unbearable that I choose to self-medicate with street drugs, which led to my entanglement with the legal system. Between these very bad moments I have had extended periods in which I held it all together, spending six years working as a social worker, doing street outreach, counseling and helping people transition off the streets.;
Because I have spent a decade immersed within the social worlds of those who have the triple challenges of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, I feel an obligation to testify in public about what I have witnessed. I have seen the human consequences of a society without an adequate safety net to prevent people from free falling to the bottom. I have seen the outcome of often indifferent civic leaders who year after year underfund the very programs needed to allow people to lead lives of dignity and worth. I have seen communities that seem not to care as people needlessly suffer and even die, often more concerned with shopping for trendy consumer items than knowing the pain of their fellow brothers and sisters on the streets.
Many of these people getting no care and having no place to go lead tragic lives filled with enormous suffering. Each of the women I have met sharing these three has been repeatedly sexually assaulted. Most others, both men and women, have been victims of other forms of violent crime. Many cycle in and out of jails, emergency rooms and homeless shelters in what has been dubbed “the revolving door” – never receiving the integrated and sustained psychiatric treatment they need and deserve. They often die unnecessary deaths at an early age.
It has been over 50 years since states began shuttering mental health institutions. “De-institutionalization” was supposed to be accompanied by the growth of local alternatives. The old asylums were seen as mere warehouses in which no one ever recovered and with treatment that was often inhumane. Unfortunately, the new community-based mental health services never emerged. When our economy faced yet another economic downturn the states reduced mental health funding to save money.
This failure to provide treatment and supportive services over burdens emergency rooms, local jails and homeless shelters. Only about a third of people who need treatment for mental disorders receive it. These people getting no care at all and having no place to go have been a major contributor to the increase in homelessness. Locally it is estimated that about half of the people on the streets suffer some form of mental illness. Half of those suffer from substance abuse issues.
In the city of Santa Barbara, our public housing agency has ceased to take new names for the waiting list for federally-financed subsidized housing because these lists are already so long that it will take seven years to serve. Hundreds of people live on the streets, including people in wheelchairs, people with untreated yet severe mental health challenges, elderly people, and youth. When the financial crisis hit in 2008-2009, the County was “forced” to downsize the number of workers providing various social services, including street outreach workers. And now as I now write these words threats of budget cuts are again sending shivers through the community.
A very chilly climate exists for many of our poorest neighbors in sunny Santa Barbara. Across the country there is a campaign by those in power to harass and penalize those living on the streets. Numerous local communities, overwhelmed by the numbers of people flocking to their cities, have implemented draconian laws to discourage people from staying. These local ordinances are devised to bring law enforcement officers into close contact with those on the streets to enforce arbitrary policies meant to harass those without homes. Sleeping outside is against the law2. Sitting on sidewalks is against the law. Selling handmade jewelry on the sidewalk is against the law. Panhandling is discouraged and can result in hefty fines.
The real goal is to hit the most visible culprits with a barrage of tickets so that they will leave town. Many simply wander to the next beach community. Throngs of people shuffle between San Diego and Santa Cruz, never getting the assistance they deserve. Civil rights are routinely violated so that rich communities retain their tourist destination status. Civic organizations spend vast amounts on security teams who are charged with targeting homeless people in busy shopping districts. Social injustices abound, all in the name of profit. In Santa Barbara, with over a thousand people without homes but far less than 400 shelter beds, people are routinely written tickets for sleeping outside even though there is no place else for them to go. RVs are being banned on downtown streets. Attempts are being made to stop religious organizations and non-profits from feeding the hungry in our parks.
For the fragile and traumatized people sleeping in doorways and encamped along our creeks, this increased and unwanted attention by law enforcement teams feels like brute torment. Many get dozens of citations with corresponding court-dates, which turn into jail time when they are ignored. They feel singled out and penalized for behaviors for which housed people are ignored. Judges and courtroom personnel feel that their times and skills are wasted on people with no criminal intent, who are not really harming anyone. Through these laws, we inflict more suffering on those who are already marginalized, displaced and struggling to subsist.
These are the crimes of which I accuse my fellow citizens: that apathy, indifference and cynicism have befallen you, and have lead you to become numb to the suffering all around you; that you have given up the struggle for social justice and the hope that we can change the system so that all people can lead healthy lives; that you have forgotten your most sacred value--the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and that with an instrumental calculus difficult to comprehend that we knowing allow for the increase in suffering for those with mental disorders in order to meet budgetary requirements. Do we pretend to not know the human costs of deceases in funding for mental health services?'
These are but some of the unjust issues we face in the modern world, a small facet of systemic strife. These are times which demand witnesses who can testify concerning the social suffering of our world, explicitly contrasting the ways things are with how they ought to be. My journey exposed me to the plight of some of the most destitute in our contemporary urban settings. Most American cities are now filled with such nomads surviving on handouts, come-ups, and whatever meager edibles they forage in the garbage cans and dumpsters of these paved jungles.
While I have been housed now for over five years I continue to play an active role in reforming local policies concerning homelessness and mental health3. There is a constant need to advocate for improved services for these populations.
Extreme suffering seems to be all around us lately—victims of violent crime, people with mental /health challenges living on the street, immigrants receiving less than humane treatment, poor working families unable to put food on their tables. Many of these forms of suffering are the result of social injustices inherent in the workings of our social system. This means that structural transformations in the nature of that system are required to alleviate these horrendous problems. While charitable acts are often required—the hungry must be fed and the sick need to be cared for—these acts by themselves do not address the associated root causes, and are merely temporary stopgap measures.
Social injustice can be defined as the state in which people are treated without dignity and respect and are not provided access to basic human needs. Social justice thus incorporates both a “redistributive claim” which seeks a more equitable distribution of resources and goods, and a claim in the “politics of recognition”, in which so-called minority groups are accorded equal respect. Manifestations of social injustice include severe poverty, world hunger, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, oppression and exploitation based on ethnicity, gender or social class, and violation of human rights. Systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy, etc. operate on individual, institutional and societal levels through conscious and unconscious actions and beliefs to exploit some people and benefit others based on membership or perceived membership in social groups, including those based upon race, gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation and religion, etc.
These oppressive systems are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Through these processes members of dominant groups receive unearned privileges. These unearned privileges come, not as a result of merit or effort, but as a result of these systems of oppression. Thus, the privileges that allow some people to live imperial lifestyles and the penalties that force others to sleep in doorways are both the outcome of same social system. Our detachment from scenes of suffering, in which we tacitly reject any responsibility for the horrors we observe, is unfounded. Each of us bears some responsibility for the fate of our world.
Deep down in our psyches we know this fact because each of us has met good, hard working and honest people who, through no apparent fault of their own, suffer unjustly. Chances are that we understand that the distribution of suffering is not random, nor based merely upon individual effort or merit, but reveals the working of powerful elites who have shaped social systems to serve their own interest.
While for some time the arc of the universe appeared to bend toward justice, with increasing numbers of oppressed groups becoming empowered and greater equality coming to the system as a whole, today the claim of never-ending “progress” is harder to maintain. The ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House ushers in a period in which previously won gains are being rolled back. We are seeing an assault on the reproductive rights of women, the heath care needs of working people, the civil rights of African Americans, the social acceptance of LGBT people, to name but a few examples of political backsliding. I fear that things are going to get worse for lots of people and that suffering is going to increase.
To live in the modern era is to constantly be aware of other's suffering. Whether our awareness comes from direct observation of tragic events, through the painful experiences of our close friends and intimates, or in what has been called “observation of suffering at a distance”-- through ubiquitous photographic images in our various forms of media engagements4. The non-stop barrage of images of suffering can overwhelm our senses, and leave us numb, apathetic and indifferent, and thus diminish our willingness to take action to transform these unjust circumstances.
How can we transform our observations of another person's suffering an intolerable situation into prophetic spiritual practices which inform and motivate our struggles for social justice? My concern in this essay is to develop the notion of “bearing witness to social injustice” as a prophetic spiritual practice and to articulate some essential components. I begin by describing “the cynical cycle of mindless inaction”--a common way of dealing with another person's suffering in which we close down in apathy. Bearing witness to social injustice becomes a spiritual practice when the lived experience of another person's suffering elicits deep reflection, public disclosure and potentially direct actions to alleviate the situation. We achieve this through staying fully present and aware, thoughtful and intentional, and integrating these actions into the cycles of our lives.
Spirit of Life,
Limitless Creativity of the Cosmos,
Mystery of Mysteries,
Be with us now in this time of grave need,
When our governments inflict suffering,
When they shatter dreams and destroy lives,
And do not encourage broad-based human flourishing,
But instead promote discrimination and hatred.
We must lift up our sacred traditions
That teach that diversity is a gift,
That encourage compassion to all things,
And remind us constantly of our ethical responsibility to all people and to the Earth.
As people of faith and of moral commitments,
We must join the forces of resistance to fight these unjust actions.
Our traditions demand that we welcome the stranger and the sojourner.
The message of love and of freedom is strong and unswerving.
We must reject these forces of evil
And stand against the soul-harming hatred
It breeds and join in movements to stop the harm.
As people of faith and of conscience
We must stand against these policies and uphold values
That celebrate the fullness of the human family
In all its glorious diversity.
There are many of us, our voices are loud, our commitments are strong,
our will is tough as steel, and our faith unswerving.
May it be so. Blessed Be and Amen.
There have been many times in my life when I saw horrible suffering and had no idea what to do. One night while walking home I saw a woman crawling out of her wheelchair to take refuge in a doorway. She said she didn't want any assistance. Her hair was matted together and she smelled of urine. Wanting to do something, I reached into my pockets, located some bills and gave her a couple of bucks. For a brief moment a flood of relief washed over me, but I was left with a terrible feeling that I hadn't really done enough.
We often are numb to the suffering around us, unconsciously avoiding facing the harsh realities of modern life. To navigate through our hectic lives we routinely turn on what I call 'autopilot', a deadened form of consciousness which encompasses modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing one's existence to which we have become heavily familiarized. The habitual nature of autopilot can feel good, often generating feelings of security and comfort through its solidly predictable outcomes. Autopilot is a central element in what I have elsewhere called the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction”5.
When we engage with the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:
We are closed to knowing about injustices;
We are numb to all the suffering of the world which exists all around us;
We don’t think that we can make any difference;
We mindlessly do what we have done before.''
When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence and take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle. We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we are leading our lives. Actions such as these, which are fully conscious of alternative courses of action, and which put our ideals into practice, are called “praxis”.
When our observation of another person's suffering is not treated as a spiritual practice, we often turn away to not face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world, thinking that we should not watch other people's struggles. We try to avoid and dispel the flood of emotions that come over us. We don't want to think about other people's ordeals. If we do observe another person's suffering, it is polite to offer to help. These offers are impulsive reactions often lacking the deep reflection required for critical analysis, and tend to be more akin to charitable acts than to structural transformations which address root causes.
Bearing witness to the suffering of others as a spiritual practice is an essential component in movements for social justice and transformational politics. It is a methodology for acquiring knowledge about certain phenomena which remain unknown to parts of the public. It is also a means to bring such knowledge into the public sphere through the testimony of eyewitnesses and to therefore influence public debates about moral issues.
A witness is one who was there and saw for themselves what happened. Their ability to observe events and situations allows them to testify to others about what they saw. Because they are eyewitnesses with direct firsthand information their testimonies are recognized in courts of law as evidence. As anyone who has watched televised courtroom proceedings knows, these accounts are not flawless and are subject to numerous problems, including the failure of memory, selective perception, and deception.
Vision and truth have been linked to each other in Western Civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks. Westerners supposedly assume that the truth isn't readily apparent: it lies beneath the surface and things must be observed to be really understood. With the rise of the natural sciences, vision becomes increasingly regarded as a central method for acquiring knowledge. In the social sciences, approaches to objective reality range from more social constructionist concerns for how our mind's use of interpretive practices frame the issues, to social positivists' confidence in their ability to accurately capture the nature of objective reality. It is the objectivity of the data collection process that is up for debate. A problem inherent in observational approaches is validity, where observers rely exclusively on their own perceptions of situations and events. Another problem common in observational approaches is reliability, that the occurrence observed might be due to chance.
The information gathering aspect of bearing witness is similar to a qualitative research methodology. As a way of knowing it is based upon a technique that is similar to what is frequently called “naturalistic observation”. While vision is crucial, naturalistic observation refers to a family of data collection techniques that are based upon the use of all of the human senses. In observing we employ all of our senses to gather impressions of our surroundings. Archives across the globe contain important historical documents in which people give firsthand testimony about tragic events that have observed.
To be a rigorous methodology for researching empirical reality, naturalistic observation should be systematic, intentional, unobtrusive, sustained, non-interventionist, and take place in the natural context of the occurrence. Two of those qualities which might be absent for bearing witness as a methodology are that it is typically unsystematic and usually not sustained over an extended period of time. The unsystematic quality is due to a lack of formal training for those who witness and the absence of repeated professional experiences in the practice of collecting qualitative data. However, witnesses can play specialized roles in unjust settings and thus are able to have sustained observation: consider the nurse who bears witness to brutal battlefield injuries in scenes of modern warfare. The moral imperative to speak truth to power based upon eyewitness testimony offsets any weakness in the efficacy of bearing witness as a research method. For the people who become witnesses, they were there and saw for themselves what happened. They do not care about whether their account upholds the demands of social scientific rigor. They saw for themselves the look of horror on the face of the abused.
The information is formulated into an descriptive account, a story in support of a political agenda. It is a selective process that takes complex events and reduces them into more simple form, allowing us to use them for current political agendas. How we tell the story about what we've witnessed is important. The kind of context we invoke determines the meaning of the event and its reception. We must carefully consider what types of information are needed to have these events advance specific agendas. What might be relevant details to the social scientist attempting to capture the nature of objective reality, might be extraneous matter the witness selects to eliminate because it does not serve the particular agenda being advanced.
Bearing witness enables us to publicly testify about the suffering of our world based upon firsthand observation. It informs our actions to change the world and to alleviate suffering. When possible we must remain committed to empowering those who suffer to play vital roles in the structural transformations required to end the suffering. We must resist the tendency to take over and know that meaningful change must come from below.
As a formerly homeless person I understand just how challenging that can be. For about a year I did community organizing on the streets and ran a “homeless” empowerment group. People on the streets are often in “crisis” mode—so overwhelmed with their situation and just getting by that advocacy work seems impossible. The work of cultivating a committed group of informed and empowered activists who were without housing and able to show up and testify at the public meetings of policy decision-makers was formidable. Yet when “real people” passionately tell their story the impact cannot be underestimated. Without the empowerment of those who suffer we end up with a bureaucratic paternalism in which nice people who have never been there feel entitled to speak for us.
While structural changes which address the underlying issues leading to suffering are our ultimate goals as social justice activists, we must acknowledge the need for charitable acts. People sleeping outdoors in cold winter months need warm sleeping bags and those who are hungry need food. While some dismiss such acts as “mere band-aids” as they don't change the circumstances, they are compassionate actions desperately needed for survival.
People who have been there know things that people who have not been there do not. The quality of their knowledge is very high as it is based upon being an eyewitness to the events. This disparate epistemology comes with burdens and obligations. If you have important information needed to make the decisions made by your community you should not keep it to yourself.
To bear witness to unnecessary suffering is to see that which should not exist —the tragedy, the sorrow, the misery. One does not look away, avoiding discomfort. Quite the opposite, to bear witness one must pay close attention to what one is seeing, staying with the sight, allowing our minds to thoughtfully probe the situation, noticing details about what is occurring. One must be fully present, and enter a state of mindfulness without distraction. As a spiritual practice bearing witness is an act of intention and an act of attention. While what we are seeing may be ugly and uncomfortable to experience we willingly stay with the situation. We cultivate a mental framework of religiosity—openness, centered, respectful, compassion-filled--feeling our connection to the something larger than ourselves.
Spiritual practices, such as rituals and meditation, may allow participants to enter into a 'spiritual' state of consciousness. With the mind intensely focused on the holy work confronting it, we are able to fully experience the sacred. In this frame of awareness we are able to focus on different phenomenon, including the interdependent web of existence, inner sources of wisdom, the common good, and the ideals of justice. This special state of consciousness is an essential aspect of bearing witness.
For the Lakota Sioux this spiritual consciousness is initiated through the ritual use of “making a prayer”6.In contrast to the Protestant notion of prayer as a personal conversation with the Holy, the Lakota Sioux employ prayer as a means to initiate this state of spiritual awareness. A spiritual schema, or “container”, is thus created which frames all that follows, infusing all actions with reverence, allowing a depth of purpose to permeate the occasion. Maintaining this spiritual state of consciousness is no easy matter, and demands significant levels of concentration.
What makes bearing witness a spiritual practice is the enactment of such a container. I have found that I can more readily enter this spiritual state of consciousness through the regular use of prayer (such as the one opening this essay). In this state one can observe another's suffering with a sense that one is doing holy work, able to continue looking at that which is hard to look at, maintaining a dignity which shines out to the world. By creating a spiritual container, everything is held together and the focus required for the purpose can be sustained. The strength and courage needed to bear witness are enabled.
Cultivating bearing witness as a spiritual practice becomes easier through repetition. As a 'practice”, we repeatedly do it again and again, developing our own personal style. While our minds are too fully present to use the word “habit”, the exercise becomes second nature. Consistent repetition is essential to transforming observing suffering into bearing witness. But should we remember? Perhaps in the name of reconciliation we would be better off if we simply forgot and moved on. By socializing children to historical traumas we lock them into past loyalties and prescribed scripts. Memories of injustice can be dangerous as disruptive to the status quo, even if that status quo is not the same perpetrator of the initial wrongs.
Along with the use of a spiritual state of consciousness, bearing witness becomes a spiritual practice when we take the time to deeply reflect upon what we have seen, allowing ourselves to be changed. To witness massive victimization or a catastrophic event is painful because the experience can shatter our worldview, thus radically transforming us. When we fully empathize with another, gather more information about the issue, and share our experience with our faith community, it allows us to examine how our privileges are cut from the same cloth as these people's pains. Rather than seeking immediate “band-aids” we seek structural transformations which address the root causes. We contrast the “way things are” with “the way they should be” and consider spiritual practices which might allow us to change the circumstances. This is prophesy.
Bearing witness is prophetic --a faith-based spiritual practice with religious commitment and values. Liberal theologian Paul Razor in argues that there is a growing misconception that conservative Christianity is the only valid religious voice in our public debates about social policy7. He insists that liberal religions need to re-engage with the spiritual practice of bearing witness to speak and act for justice complementing and strengthening secular voices.
Social critic Cornel West often uses the term “prophetic” invoking the Jewish and Christian traditions who “brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day”8. West observes: “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may'. West also links the term “prophetic” to the tradition of Karl Marx and the critical social theories which substantively deal with Marx's critique of oppression and his emancipatory moral vision. Abraham Heschel speaks of “their breathless impatience with injustice” and affirms that prophets experience “moments that defy our understanding”9.
I used to think that a “prophet” was someone ranting about the impending apocalypse, the coming “End Times” or some other dire prediction of the future. It was from theologian Marcus Borg that I learned that Biblical prophets were involved with social justice, and of their essential role in transformational politics10. Grounded in a profound experience of the sacred, prophets have a particular mission and message. They offer a radical critique of “where we are” and promote a vision of “where we need to be” and tell us the spiritual practices that can transition us from the former to the latter. Their accounts of their experiences of the sacred take the literary form of visions and ecstatic states. With them they muster the courage to deliver very unpopular messages.
Be the one who rises above the crowd,
Who sets aside daily life,
Who pushes past fears and transcends doubts,
Who blazes the path of justice,
Who maintains a vision of the Beloved Community,
Who helps to heal the hurts of the world.
Help us to stand unswerving
Against hated and discrimination
With humble courage for truth and compassion
To serve humanity by loving our neighbors.
Together we will get to the Promised Land.
Many have dreamed of this destiny.
Some have given their lives for the promise of a new life.
Our struggles will not be in vain.
Together we can do anything.
Roshi Bernie Glassman, a founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, is drawn to places of great suffering. Bearing witness to situations of overwhelming pain brings this Zen practitioner to a place of 'unknowing'12. For Glassman “not knowing” does not mean lacking information. Instead it refers to the ability to remain fully open to a situation without any pre-conceptions about your potential role in “fixing” things. It demands detachment and the ability to listen deeply. Buddhists refer to this as “entering a space of nondualiity”.
Preconceived answers can block our ability to truly enter a situation. It is questioning that is the key to not knowing. We must enter situations without knowing what is right and what is wrong. We should bear witness to what is happening without expectations. We must let go of our ideas about what needs to be done and any notion of what compassionate action will look like. Bearing witness from this perspective necessitates that we “become the situation”, letting go ‘of our notion that we will remove suffering.
Glassman finds that when we take the time to truly bear witness to the suffering of others we eventually find that we are bearing witness to aspects of ourselves. Those demons who inflict suffering are, in essence, a part of us. We are reflected in both the victims and the villains. We must acknowledge that both are a part of us. Only then can we take care of the other, who is none other than our self.
We often become complicit to the system by our routine patterns of thinking. I see you suffering and I want to help. The two roles and two practices—sufferer and suffering, helper and helping—may lock us into cognitive traps which limit our openness to a deeper reality. To liberate ourselves and thus attain enlightenment, we must discard what we think we already know and expect to happen. Rather than witnessing suffering and feeling that we want to help, what if we escape the “helping” thinking pattern. Perhaps the one originally seen as the “sufferer” turns out in the end to help the original “witness” more than the other way around. These old stories we tell ourselves—such as those in which one person witnesses another's pain—must be gently set aside.
Henry Giroux observes changes in the stories we tell about ourselves12. Today corporate media spins stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all with a veneer of infotainment: “A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in–or compassion and responsibility for–others (p .9).” Through these corporate-circulated cultural narratives we are urged to spend more, consume more and focus on personal gain. Public discourse can thus undermine our solidarities and notions of the common good, and simultaneously promote cynicism, indifference, and passivity.
To bear witness to injustice is to tell a story about our world based upon firsthand observation of real-life circumstance, fueled by moral outrage, concerned for the common good, and promoting social change. The stories we tell about our world certainly do matter. When these stories interweave moral outrage and visions of justice they can inspire us to imagine a better world. When our stories provide a sense of history, social responsibility and concern for the common good, they can foster a democracy rooted in the public interest and promote a society that embraces an inclusive social contract.
Especially in these times (The Era of Trump) we need to promote stories that uphold community, shared values and democracy itself. We need public spheres that circulate historical narratives of structural impoverishment, that tell the truth about how our social system fails so many. We can create alternative narratives and visions of the common good. The American public needs to develop a culture for producing a language of critique, possibility, and social change. Such a culture would promote a vision that informs political struggles to inform our citizenry about our current reality, which for many people is getting worse, with more suffering and social injustice.
In bearing witness to injustice we invoke stories as a form of public memory that challenge the misinformation of the corporate media. By confronting harsh realities such stories provide an alternative narrative of how our world works. These narratives critique the dominant discourse of mainstream media promoted by elites which often denigrates those who have been marginalized, displaced, and silenced. A radical individualism and callous culture are celebrated throughout much of this dominant media culture. During 2016, members of the “Black Lives Matter” movement consistently did the work of providing such an alternative narrative through exposing the racism behind the murder of African American people at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Often through the use of cellphone video clips by bystander - witnesses, the whole nation, including most white people, had to confront the harsh reality that white supremacy is alive and well and clearly manifest in the massively disproportionate rates of police killings of young African American men compared with white men.
Bearing witness to social injustice is a collective process, not just an individual act. It is a dialogue between survivors, bystanders and listeners. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to listen and survivor and bystander testimonies are often met with resistance in society. This resistance happens because bearing witness exposes the atrocities in our midst, and challenges both those in power and those that remain silent witnesses.
Perpetrators ask nothing of bystanders and appeal to the universal desire to speak no evil. In contrast, survivors ask bystanders to share the burden of the pain and to be willing to help change the situation. While it takes courage to speak out about the injustices seen because of the dangers of resistance, not speaking out can be a form of bondage that affects one's physical and mental health, jeopardizes interpersonal relations and stifles the soul. Remaining silent reinforces that very system of power that makes the survivor powerless. By bearing witness survivors and bystanders collectively re-write the accepted narratives by challenging the denial of abuse. Speaking out about social injustice is a claim to power and thus is an overtly political act.
Debates about whether graphic accounts and photos of atrocities serve the public interest often hinge on whether the potential public outcry and intervention outweighs or offsets the physical revulsion and emotional distress inflicted upon survivors. To bear witness to injustice is to state: “I will not forget what happened here on this day!” Historical events unavoidably affect our lives today and our communities and our nations. Individual memories combine to create shared representations of the past that are often contested, fluid, fragile and inadequate. The trauma that these have caused can be re-ignited through the memories and their contested circulation.
Witnessing calls for action. A witness has learned to see in a different way than a spectator. Witnesses have affective encounters with unthinkable victimization which evokes painful feelings. Part of the pain occurs as one's previous naive worldview is shattered. Witnesses are fundamentally transformed by the process of witnessing.
Bearing witness moves people from individual acts of observation to public statements about the injustices they have seen. In publicly narrating the suffering they observed, people take responsibility for history and the truth of the matter. By bearing witness individuals appeal to community and join with others in a collective response to the events.
Essentially to bear witness to social injustice is a spiritual practice to pass on news about things that need fixing. We have the ability to open people's eyes to the world around them, drawing attention to things they might not have observed themselves. When we bear witness we try to get someone to see events from our perspective. We tacitly invite them to step outside their own lived experiences and perceptions of the world. We must persuade them with facts about situations they might not have seen firsthand and with our compelling analysis of root causes and possible remedies. We must provide them with a sense of agency so as to allow them to cope with the bad news we've presented. We must make hope possible. The goal is to change things, to remove a bit of the unnecessary suffering of our world, to create what Martin Luther King referred to as “the Beloved Community”. We must believe that we can make a difference. To change the “system” necessitates a change of will in which we acknowledge our complicity with the status quo and decide to no longer silently go along with the way things are. Instead we decide to live our values, speak our truth and do what must be done.
What to do if you are called upon to bear witness to social and environmental injustice:
1 Take a deep breath and feel your connection to the Earth and all that surrounds you. Know that your life makes a difference and that you are in part responsible for the state of our world. Know that you are good enough to do this holy work.
2 Allow yourself to enter a spiritual state of consciousness. Saying a prayer can set your intention and focus your attention. The opening prayer to this paper helps me to see that my actions in this setting are holy work. Fully experience the sacred and bring to mind your ideals of justice and the common good. Turn off the “autopilot” mode of existence which dominates our lives and become fully present, mindful of all that is happening before you. All of your senses are alert and oriented to the situation you are witnessing. Your attention is focused on the particular details of the situation You have set the intention to never forget what is happening here and to become actively engaged in efforts to change this circumstance.
3 Allow yourself to feel all the emotions which may flood your mind and body. Anger, rage, shame, fear, sadness, and revulsion are not uncommon emotions. It's okay to be momentarily overcome by what is happening but know that you can regain composure and maintain a dignity that shines out to the world.
4 Explicitly imagine what it would be like to be in the place of the victim. Step outside the confines of your own mind and attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. What would it feel like to have that happen to you? Allow yourself to fully empathize with this fellow human (or with other life forms if you are witnessing environmental atrocities) so that you fully identify with them. What thoughts go through your head?
5 Is there something you can do immediately to stop what is happening? Is there any way to be of assistance to the victim? Strategic interventions during the event are wrought with risk. They may bring more harm to the victim and bring harm to the witness. In public settings you may find allies in the crowd to stand with you. Publicly shaming the perpetrator may get them to re-think their actions. Be careful about doing anything that might bring you harm and carefully evaluate the risk. If the wrong you are witnessing is severe, it may well be worth risking self-harm. This is heroism.
6 Take time to reflect upon what you have observed. Gather more information about the issue. Perhaps unbeknownst to you this is happening all around you all the time. Seriously research the issue, its history, its prevalence. Talk to others who have witnessed such suffering. Most importantly, listen to the stories of those who have suffered.
7 How can you best assist sufferers to change these circumstances? Allow the victims to lead the movement to eliminate such circumstances. Sometimes they can feel disempowered and you can help them to find the courage, strength and ability to become active change agents.
8 Share your testimony with your faith community and then with others. Your faith community is an excellent resource for affirming your shared values, deciding which issues to tackle and by what means to tackle them.
9 Undertake direct action to change the structural determinants of event or circumstances in question.
10 Action is followed by reflection which leads to refined and continued action. Evaluate what you have done and get ready to do more. Never give up!
1 Since 2014 I have been exploring my personal theology, Dionysian Naturalism (DN), in a series of essays published on the Humanistic Paganism website (Mellinger 2014, 2015a 2015b, 2015c, 2016a, 2016b). As a form of Religious Naturalism (RN), DN maintains a central role for reason and science in the worldview it embraces and rejects belief in the supernatural. Yet in contrast to the Apollonian character of much RN, which tends to be overly abstract, theoretical, and “up in the head”, DN is grounded in the body, the sensual and lived experience. The term “Dionysian” invokes the transgressive states of consciousness at the heart of ecstatic religions. DN reclaims the shamanic heritage of the first Nature Religions. Specifically, it embraces the entheogenic mysticism of our ancestors, who celebrated the holy in ecstatic rituals, often involving mind-altering sacred plants. In reaction to the unprecedented environmental catastrophe our planet faces due to climate change, DN is revolutionary in its political orientation, critiquing the dominant narratives of our culture and insisting that the destruction of Nature is desacralization. It offers a practical theology of social change in which all people of faith and moral conviction take direct actions to transform the structural conditions which create injustice. This essay elaborates on aspects of that practical theology of social change.
2 In October 2018 the laws preventing people from sleeping outside changed due to a ruling of the Ninth Circuit. Now people without homes can sleep outdoors on some public properties.
3 I participate with two governmental boards (the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Commission and the HUD-mandated Continuum of Care which plans and implements housing policies for our neighbors on the streets), and two non-profit boards (one brings together interfaith clergy and other religions leaders to mobilize local faith communities around issues of economic inequity and the other provides shower services for the unhoused. A wealthy philanthropist, who owns the former Beach Boy compound on a bluff overlooking a gorgeous stretch of coastline has held monthly “Homeless Activist Luncheons” for over two decades. These vegan-fed come-togethers of politicians, philanthropists, advocates, bureaucrats and concerned citizens have been a key generator of innovative solutions to local concerns. I am one of just a few formerly homeless people who regularly attends. Two contributions I have made that I am most proud of are: (1) I founded and for a number of yeas lead the Santa Barbara Homeless Foot Washing, now in operation for about a dozen years. Held on Maundy Thursday, the day in which Jesus supposedly washed the feet of his disciples, this interfaith celebration gives away over 250 pairs of shoes, sneakers and work boots each year and provides outreach teams an opportunity to make contact with those in need; (2) I also founded Longest Night: A National Memorial Day for People Who Have Died on the Street, an interfaith candlelight vigil and prayer service held on the steps of the Courthouse on winter solstice commemorating our friends and neighbors who died while unhoused during the previous year.
4 See Susan Sontag (2003)
5 “Habit Can Be Hell” Mellinger (2013)
6 Rev. Julia Hamilton, my parish minister at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara provided this insight. She visited the Lakota Sioux with a group of interfaith clergy protesting the Keystone Pipeline. I have greatly benefitted from her thoughts on “bearing witness”, especially the notion of “building a container”.
7 See Paul Rasor (2012)
8 See Cornel West (1999, p. 141).
9 See Abraham Joshua Hescel (1962, p. 4)
10 See Marcus Borg (1989).
11 See Glassman (1998). Roshi Bernie Glassman (January 18, 1939 – November
4, 2018) died as this essay was going to press and I dedicate it to his memory.
12 See Giroux (2014).
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