Being the Church: Witness
Hard to know what to protest.
Everywhere we look, something clamors for attention—loudly. Racism. Gender discrimination. Police violence. Misinformation campaigns. Border patrols. Climate change. International politics. Gun violence. Economic inequities. Each item on this list represents a genuine, life-altering, probably life-threatening emergency. And that’s to say nothing of less-visible, or less-approachable, threats to justice: mathematical algorithms, gerrymandering, dark money in politics, and (at least in the United States) Christian nationalism.
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God—what does that look like nowadays?
There’s no shortage of people expressing themselves. I see actual protests, or videos of protests, multiple times a day, every day, protesting everything under the sun, and many of these are warranted. Each protest involves a group of people holding up signs, chanting or shouting. Some involve considerable shouting. A few involve property destruction or violence. Many involve identifying and dehumanizing one or more enemies. There’s a lot—a lot, a lot—of anger.
I see anger on social media, too, sometimes explosive but more often preemptive. A friend posts a meme, tersely phrased, all of twelve words to “sum up” an enormously complicated and highly emotional issue. The meme itself will be plain-spoken and absolutist, with no room for discussion, and it’s often accompanied by commentary from the person who posted it: “If you don’t agree with this, unfriend me right now.”
If we’re truthful, we must confess that almost nothing can be fully expressed in twelve words. Things are nuanced. Even something we believe to be a moral absolute most often cannot be expressed in a meme or a protest sign; when we try, we have to oversimplify or use coded language that creates an insider-outsider dynamic. And when we decline to engage with the other—“if you don’t agree with this, unfriend me right now”—we put an end to any potential for relationship. Change doesn’t happen in the absence of relationship.
What I see happening on both ends of the political and cultural spectrums is something that feels like idolatry of purity, as if our continued moral righteousness depends absolutely on never mixing with anyone whose viewpoints differ. Some of us fear being influenced by the other. Some of us fear appearing to approve of the other. In either case, it feels neither productive nor loving.
Sometimes I wonder whether our faith communities are feeling called to change hearts or change the rules. Obviously, what governments dictate matters. But it’s not all that matters, and it’s not what matters most. I suspect that God would prefer we be transformed by Spirit than forced to behave in certain ways by a legal system. Both matter—but I want to talk about transformation first.
Transformation, or the changing of hearts, simply doesn’t happen at scale because big groups of people get really loud about it. Protests, hate speech, and expressions of anger are all extremely unlikely to change hearts. When I think back to the times when I have been changed, I realize it usually hasn’t been the result of a single dramatic experience; rather, it’s the accumulation of many surprising acts of love.
When someone I disagree with (or fear) demonstrates love and care for me personally, and when that happens repeatedly over a long period of time, then my point of view might be changed. It’s about relational contact, and it has to happen more than once. Quippy slogans, harsh words, and even logical arguments cannot do what sharing a dinner can do.
This is one good argument for faith communities to seek relationships with each other, with faraway faith communities. In the United States, most people don’t live in places where political views are mixed. Most people live in places that are either solidly Democrat or solidly Republican. If we hope to engage meaningfully with fellow human beings about social or political matters of the day, we have to escape the echo chambers. Can your faith community seek relationship with a faith community that’s physically and culturally different from your own, but still within your same country? Can you do it seeking genuine, long-term relationship with mutual listening and worship and prayer? Or can you consider encouraging the individual members of your congregation to seek and maintain such relationships?
All this is not to say that protest and witness are unimportant. One-on-one relationship can change hearts, but not laws—at least not quickly—and sometimes what’s needed is a change of law. But again, this doesn’t happen as a result of social media posts.
Strikingly, in the past year, people (at least in the United States) don’t trust their government or nonprofits (including religious groups) as much as they trust business. That’s right—business. The corporate sector has a higher trust rating than any other sector in the United States. People trust businesses to make moral decisions and enact them effectively. Moreover, there’s data to indicate that a statement on an ethical issue that comes from a high-level CEO has as much effect on public opinion as a statement coming from a politician or celebrity.
On the one hand, this feels utterly bizarre as we draw the natural conclusion: groups attempting to influence public policy might have a greater effect if they lobby the C-suite instead of government officials. (And of course, nothing says you can’t do both.) But on the other hand, if we’re looking at this as members of faith communities, that’s not so strange, historically. Have faith communities not always had a responsibility to minister to all people, including those in positions of tremendous economic power? Whether we’re happy about today’s trust and power landscapes or not—and most of us are not—can we acknowledge the dynamics and speak loving truth to those who hold power?
The church has always had a place in the broader questions of society, both in terms of speaking to individual lives and in terms of speaking to laws and societal norms. Faith communities don’t get to make laws, and that’s crucial, but they do have a responsibility to lovingly, consistently articulate truth as best they can, even (or especially) in times of radical social change.
But the tools of people of faith must differ from the tools of the world. Though God is very much with us in moments of righteous anger, that anger, if separate from love, generally doesn’t provide openings for someone else to change. Though God is unlikely to insist we engage with someone whose words or actions harm us, complete and categorical refusal to engage provides relative safety but not potential for transformation. We cannot forget that God changes hearts, but God most often does so through human interactions.
So what does God ask of us?
How do we witness now?