This post is the sixth in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.
“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”- Cardinal Suhard
I’m in the middle of reading a book called The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s the most engrossing non-fiction book I’ve read in a long time. It details the migration of blacks from the South to the North during the 20th century, and why they left. The ‘why they left’ part is, needless to say, pretty horrific.
I happened upon that book when I read an article in The Atlantic recently about why we should really address this national history of racism we have.
Now, as a white person, I don’t need to read those things. I can lah-dee-da my way through life just fine without ever having to think about my privilege.
But as a person who follows Jesus, I need to be drenched with the facts of the world. I need to be confronted with a reality that I have not experienced. It is my responsibility to not be a Jackass for Jesus. The story of the Good Samaritan is great for learning how to treat your enemy. But it’s also a good reminder for me to learn how not to be a good religious person.
Activism as a spiritual practice for me is about trying to find ways to be a witness to the world.
“I don’t think she’s a bleeder, she’s just compassionate,” someone once said about me. But what is so wrong with being a bleeder? There’s a verse in John about laying down your life being the greatest form of love. I’m not literally dying for people, but I should be willing to die, at the very least, to my reputation. I need to lay down my ignorance and give up my false claims of innocence. I need to seek discomfort so that even if I am unable to right the wrongs, I can at least do my best not to repeat them.
It’s so easy to think that my normal is the normal. I have to open my eyes to what is unfamiliar. I’m coming to think that it’s essential for people, especially Christians, to be intentional about seeking out experiences, beliefs, and people that are different from us.
I can’t separate activism from following Jesus when loving others is a top command. I find it easier to love people – and love them well – if I know them, even abstractly through books and movies. It is crucial that I learn to engage my imagination on their behalf. I am an ineffective lover of people if I don’t have a general understanding of what their worlds are like.
Being a witness is to remind myself that Jesus isn’t white, American, or straight. It’s a spiritual practice because Jesus cares about issues I’ve never heard of, involving people I’ll never know, in places I’ll never visit, and the least I can do is learn about them.
Seeking out the uncomfortable truths of our world is a way for me to confront my biases and fears. When I read a memoir or a news article, or get involved with an organization, or watch a documentary, it is as if God is taking my chin in his hand, gently but firmly turning my gaze away from the mirror, over to the window, and saying ‘Look and see. Fall in love with my people.’
Disrupting my normal means watching movies and reading books where I cover my eyes so I don’t have to take in the horror, and then removing them, choosing to look and look again, to be a witness to all the histories we’ve inherited.
How can we change our world if we don’t know how it was made? How can we dismantle the systemic issues if we don’t inspect the foundations?
Being an activist for me is not about waving banners and showing up on courthouse steps or calling legislators. But I can quietly activate as I insist that my reality, your reality, is not the only one. I can volunteer with seemingly unrelated organizations, always on the lookout for new realities, new stories that I don’t know.
The torch that lights my passion is knowing that this is fixable. Racial discrimination. Gun violence. Private prisons buying inmates. Sexual discrimination. Maybe we can’t all kum-bah-ya around the fire, but we can stop enshrining fear in our public policies.
We are better than this! Why can’t we live in a world of what-ifs? What if we addressed our discriminatory past? What if we lived in a world where everyone was free to pursue life and liberty and happiness? What if we invested money equally into our schools? What if people had the ability to live up to their potential?
We were designed for so much more than fear, ignorance, and greed. But we can only find wholeness when we open our eyes wide enough to see past our own experiences. Justice can only be had after we see the world the way it really is.
This quiet activism of being a witness was never taught to me growing up in church, and it ended up being the root of my faith and church crises. If God so loved the world, and we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and do unto others – how do you love people if you are ignorant of them?
It doesn’t make sense to get myself so worked up over other people’s problems. But following Jesus compels me to grapple with the unfairness of the world, to chase the tail of justice and freedom, clinging to an inch of it and refusing to let go. The restorative work of Jesus demands that I refuse to be content with a broken and unfair world.
Caris Adel is passionate about recognizing the image of God in everyone and is continually looking for ways to disrupt her status quo. After spending 32 years near the shores of Lake Michigan, she’s a recent transplant to the Tidewater region of Virginia, where she lives with her pacifist leanings in a military community. Raised in a primarily white environment, she now lives as a minority in her neighborhood, and after a lifetime spent in conservative evangelical churches, she is quickly falling in love with the Episcopal Church. Caris has been married for 12 years to her civil-engineer high school sweetheart, and they have 5 kids that she educates at home.