The Cost of Witness — Luke 24:36b-49
In Luke 24:48, according to the best manuscript evidence, the verb is implied. Literally, the verse reads, “YOU – witnesses of these things.” The emphasis is on the disciples as the particular witnesses best equipped by history, experience, and now training, to give testimony not only to what they have seen but also to what “these things” mean.
“These things” include the scriptural testimony to the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. And “these things” include the proclamation to all nations of the repentance that leads to forgiveness in the name of Jesus. The disciples are thus witnesses not only to the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth but also to the work of the promised Spirit in and through the mission and ministry of the Church.
I focus a bit on this in order to examine and complexify the content and nature of this “witness.” The events reported in the gospel accounts are part of this witness. But notice that the witnessing itself is also one of the “events” that make up the revelation contained in this witness. “The Bible offers itself, and has normally been treated by the church,” N. T. Wright suggests, “as part of God’s revelation, not simply a witness or echo of it” (Simply Christian, page 182). Christian witness is not simply a record but is rather an ongoing event and process.
One of the marks of American evangelicalism is a deification of the Christian Bible. Words that would more properly be attached to Jesus have become attached, in militant and even violent ways, to the Christian holy book. People say they “believe in” the Bible. They say they regard the Bible as “infallible” and “inerrant” (neither word appears in the Bible, by the way).
These concerns are relatively recent inventions in Western Christianity. “It is no accident that this Protestant insistence on biblical infallibility arose at the same time,” Wright observes, “that Rome was insisting on papal infallibility, or that the rationalism of the Enlightenment infected even those who were battling against it” Simply Christian, page 183). Isolating the written text of the Christian Bible (and particularly that of the King James translation) as what Luther called a “paper pope” is not an historic theological position. Rather it is in response to modern cultural and political concerns and agendas.
“The Bible is there to enable God’s people to be equipped to do God’s work in God’s world,” Wright reminds us, “not to give them an excuse to sit back smugly, knowing they possess all God’s truth” (Simply Christian, page 184). Part of our witness is the proclamation of the Good News that leads to repentance in the name of Jesus. I would suggest that such repentance must always begin with the proclaimers.
Our first task as witnesses is to understand that we serve the proclamation. The proclamation does not serve us, our interests, or our concerns. It is far more likely that both the content of the proclamation and the act of proclaiming will challenge us to change in ways we will find deeply disorienting and uncomfortable. We are not at the heart of Christian scripture. Jesus is.
“It is impossible for Christ-followers to understand the Hebrew Scriptures apart from Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection,” Jacob Meyers writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “This does not mean that Christians have a monopoly of biblical hermeneutics, but that a properly Christian hermeneutic demands a Christocentric horizon of interpretation.” When we read Scripture and when we proclaim the Good News, we are first called to hear the voice of Jesus, opening our minds to what is really being said.
Jesus addresses contemporary Christians in this text as well: “YOU – witnesses of these things!” Now we must exercise some care. How easy it is for “witness” to become colonization and for colonization to become violence. The history of the Western church (at least) is filled with examples of how a particular kind of Christian witness has been used to justify African slavery and Indigenous genocide. Witnessing has been and continues to be an act and tool of colonization. Invitation becomes assimilation – or erasure.
There has been a cost associated with Christian witness in the Western world. That cost has not, for the most part, been paid by European Christians. Rather, it has been extracted from the bodies and the land regarded as empty vessels to be filled with the “truth” and exploited for the benefit of the colonizers.
When we assume that the space we enter is uninhabited and ours for the taking, that’s colonizing. When that space is inhabited by people and filled with meaning, the result is cultural erasure and genocide. We can pretend a land is empty and “discover” it. But, as Mark Charles insists, “You cannot discover lands already inhabited. That process is known as stealing, conquering, or colonizing” (page 14).
Much of our “witness history” as American Christians has been stealing, conquering, and colonizing. Kaitlin Curtice labels this sort of Christianity as “settler colonial Christianity.” The proclamation of the gospel becomes a tool for white cultural triumph and domination. “Settler colonial Christianity puts itself at the center of everything as the sole power,” she writes in her book, Native, “and evangelism becomes a tool used to erase other cultures and religions from the people whom Christians are meant to serve” (page 35).
I have not even touched the ways in which Christian “witness” was used to serve the interests of slaveholding whites on this continent. That really deserves a post all its own. In short, the purpose of that witness, as was often publicly stated and written, was to pacify the enslaved converts and to use Christianity as a means of enforcing docility in the face of the horrors of the American enslavement system.
“It seems to me someone needs to write a book on decolonizing evangelism,” Bishop Michael Rinehart noted a few years ago. “In the context of the Americas, evangelization has a history of being a forced reality of colonization. It was considered enculturating and civilizing the natives. We all too easily treat others as objects for conversion, or people to be assimilated into our unchanging religious institutions,” he concludes, “rather than as fellow-travelers on the journey of life, in need of grace, love, hope.”
Jesus commissions the church to witness from a place of powerlessness and vulnerability. If there was a cost associated with that witnessing, it was to be paid by the witnesses themselves. Luke’s story of that witness, what we call the Acts of the Apostles, is filled with early Christians paying that cost over and over. We read stories of death, imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, public recrimination, rejection, and ridicule. Early Christians were in no position to threaten anyone with their cultural and political power. Therefore, their witness was not a threat.
We American Christians are in a far different position. I understand that certain American Christians are sure they are part of a persecuted minority. From an evidence-based perspective, that’s false. We American Christians have been able to impose, through various violent methods, our views on others for centuries. Now that this position of power has been de-stabilized, panic is setting in. Loss of privilege always feels like loss, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have been and are still privileged and powerful in this society.
Contemporary witness, for white American Christians, therefore, must be much more listening than speaking. It must be much more learning than teaching. It must be much more following than leading. Sometimes this is framed as listening to and learning from “the margins.” While I appreciate that sentiment, I find that this is the first concept that has to die in my frame of reference. My white, male, supremacist theology is not the “center” of anything. Other voices may be marginalized by the current domination system, but we are all centered in God’s system of life.
This is why I find it so helpful to see that listening, learning, and following are part of the “these things” in Luke’s text. Listening, learning, and following are witnessing activities for those of us who need to do them. They are part of the work of repentance – getting a “different mind,” a new worldview where the risen and ascended Jesus is Lord and Messiah. The cost of witnessing, to me, is the sacrifice of a way of thinking and viewing the world that puts me at the center. That’s painful but life-giving.
That’s all well and good from a forty-thousand-foot view. But does it mean anything in practical terms? I think it does. Every church I’ve served has described itself as a “welcoming” congregation. Of course, that’s not really been true. Others were welcome if they were sufficiently “like” the current members to create a minimal disruption in the existing system of relationships and practices. And others were welcome if they were willing to be assimilated fully to the existing system of relationships and practices.
That’s witness as colonization on a personal scale. I’m not describing any malice aforethought in these congregations. Most of the folks had the best of intentions and genuinely thought they were being hospitable. But we all know that we were inviting people to come on our terms, not theirs. We were, for the most part, not interested in the changes and challenges that new people might bring to our settled (Settler) and comfortable realities. Whether we knew it or not, our welcome included a subtle form of violence that resulted in a certain amount of erasure of the Otherness of the Other.
That’s not welcome. That’s assimilation. Become like us or be gone.
Yet, that has not been the whole story in some of those congregations. In some places, the Other has been viewed as more than either a Bother to be banished or a resource to be exploited. I have been in places where the Other has been regarded as bringing value, meaning, and hope to places where those experiences were in short supply. “Come and make us better” is a superior invitation to “come and be like us.” It’s also a superior witness to the love and life of Christ.
In a few cases, folks have even heard the apostolic part of Jesus’ commission to the first disciples – that we are sent out with the proclamation. Jesus describes this earlier in Luke as he sends the disciples and then the seventy-two missionaries into the field. They carry with them no self-sustaining, self-protecting resources.
They are sent like “sheep among the wolves.” They are thus stripped of any delusions that might make them colonizers. That’s the really scary part. But that’s the vocation described here.
References and Resources
Behr, John . The Mystery of Christ. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.
Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Downers Grove, ILL.: IVP, 2019.
Curtice, Kaitlin. Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2020.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Journalen JJ:167 (1843), http://homepage.math.uiowa.edu/~jorgen/kierkegaardquotesource.html].
Lose, David (1). http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/.
Meyers, Jacob. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-3.
Rinehart, Michael. https://bishopmike.com/2021/01/17/fishing-for-people/.
Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-4.
Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press.
Wright, N. T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2006.