The Role of a Witness

If one considers a witness in a court of law what qualities make for a faithful witness, and what role do witnesses play? A faithful witness is one who testifies to the truth with integrity and without regard for the outcome. While his or her testimony is essential to the process, the outcome of the proceedings is not in the hands of the witnesses. Similarly, our role as witnesses to Christ is to testify to the truth, by our lives and our words. And the outcome of our witness is, similarly, neither within our control nor within the realm of our responsibility.

There is an assumption in modern consciousness that the purpose of our lives and witness to Christ is to “change the world” or to “make the world a better place.” This idea is so pervasive that some consider it almost an article of faith that ‘success’ in the life of a Christian is measured by the observable difference he or she makes in the world. It inclines us to judge ourselves and the Church by the degree to which our witness to Christ makes the society around us more moral, more just, more merciful to the poor, more family-friendly, or other similar (and desirable) improvements to the common life of human beings in this world. And because no one, including Orthodox Christians, denies that this world would indeed be a better place if these things were true of our society, to maintain a perspective to the contrary can at first glance seem to be isolationist, unloving, or even scandalous. After all, who wouldn’t want the world to be a better place for everyone? Are we not commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves? Is it not true that the early Christians “turned the world upside down” by their witness to Christ?1

First and most importantly, neither our Lord, his apostles, nor our God-bearing Fathers ever taught, commanded, or even hinted that our primary task as Christ’s witnesses is to make this world a better place. Even when we read, for example, St. Basil who says, “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need,”2 seeming to refer to what we in our day might call ‘social justice,’ we should understand what he intends. Although there is no denying that if this were to occur, the world would be a better place in which to live, St. Basil is preaching on Matthew 19:16–22, the story of the Rich Young Ruler. He is concerned here with the frivolous use of wealth and material overabundance, and the way in which they blind his hearers and detour them away from the Kingdom of God. We must resist the temptation to conflate such teaching with the idea that our lives in Christ can or should primarily be about changing this world.

Who is our neighbor?

When the Fathers speak of justice, they have our neighbor in view. ‘Humanity’ or ‘society’ is not our neighbor, for neither humanity nor society have any existence apart from, concrete, specific human persons with names and faces. Our neighbor is not an abstraction whom we can love with ideas, social policies, better laws, or coercion of any kind. Our neighbor is a person —– the person we encounter directly. He or she is our brother or sister in Christ, our relative, our friend, our enemy, our coworker, our nextdoor neighbor, the clerk at the store. He or she is the Lazarus who sits at our gate3 and the one who lies wounded at the side of the road on which we are traveling.4 Cartoonist Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts Gang, once had his character Charlie Brown confess, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” The insight expressed is profound. Feeling love toward humanity, desiring to improve society, or feeling compassion for the poor are good; but the opportunity for real love and witness to Christ comes when we encounter specific people who, like us, have irritating weaknesses and besetting sins. Real people can prove far more challenging than ‘humanity’ in the abstract when it comes to our being faithful witnesses to the love of Christ.

There is yet another, more poignant understanding of who our neighbor is. We are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan—so familiar that we may overlook how it is that Christ answered the expert in the Law of Moses who asked him, “And who is my neighbor?” Our Lord addresses his question in a way that turns the question on its head. He does not ask, “And who is the neighbor in this story?” Instead, He asks, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”5 Who, then is our neighbor? The Archimandrite (now Saint) Sophrony writes of the spiritual insight he gained as a personal disciple of the Starets (Holy Elder), Saint Silouan:

‘Our brother is our life,’ the Starets often said. Through Christ’s love all men are made an inseparable part of our individual, eternal existence. The Starets began to understand the commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, as something more than an ethical imperative. In the word as he saw an indication, not of a required degree of love but of an ontological6 community of being.7

Although it is true that we are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves and treat him or her accordingly,8 we enter into the fullness of the witness of Christ’s love when we love our neighbor as our self, when we recognize ourselves in our neighbor because he or she is a part of us, indivisible from who we are. In the parable, Christ says the Samaritan had compassion which literally means that he fully identified himself with the man he saw lying wounded and half dead, recognized himself in him, and was thereby moved to take his suffering upon himself and to do whatever was necessary to restore him to health—precisely what Christ did for us.

Witness Beyond our Immediate Neighbor

None of this is to suggest that our witness can never extend beyond our immediate neighbor or that we should never concern ourselves with the those outside our own personal sphere. Missionaries, for example, can reach those whom we cannot, and we do well to support them. Yet even the witness of a missionary is as a neighbor to those to whom he or she is sent.

Our political support for laws that serve to make our society more just can sometimes also make this present life better for many. But while civil law has the capacity both to enforce and to teach that which is acceptable to society (whether it be good or evil),9 in terms of behavior it cannot witness to the love of Christ. Moreover, unless we are in positions of direct authority ourselves, our actual witness in such things is limited primarily to our prophetic voice and to our vote as citizens. Any more than these is a distraction from our primary calling to witness to our neighbor and only serves to submerge us in the evils and conflicts of this world.

Prophetic Voice

Our prophetic voice serves as a call to repentance toward God and neighbor that must never be conflated with advocacy for political or social change.10 The will of God and the breaking in of His Kingdom can never be enacted by law. It is only made manifest within those who desire it.11 When the prophetic voice of John the Forerunner was heard in the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, his reply to those who asked, “What shall we do then?” was unconcerned with social or political revolution in society. Rather, it was personal and focused upon Christ and our neighbor:

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”12

A prophetic voice is addressed to the heart in the hope that the hearer will desire to repent of his or her own volition. Coercion of any sort is alien to the Gospel. If we consent to ‘change the world’ by any means other than personal repentance, we do violence against the freedom of our neighbor which is both the antithesis of the love of God. As faithful witnesses to Christ in this world, our prophetic voice must reflect God’s own love and absolute respect for human freedom. The response or the outcome is nether in our control. Only the Spirit of God in Christ can change human hearts.

Voting

The forms of government under which we live in North America also afford us the opportunity to vote. Human government is ordained by God,13 and just laws that protect our neighbor from evil are better than unjust laws. In this sense our vote, however insignificant it may seem, matters—both to God and to our neighbor. Yet by failing to keep political considerations in proper perspective, many overemphasize their value in terms of our witness. Human government can help to restrain evil behavior and encourage or enforce the good, but this is its only role.14 Our opportunity to vote for the various levels of elected representatives comes once a year at most. The amount of time and energy we invest in political considerations ought therefore to reflect this reality. If we allow ourselves to be drawn into more than this, we may be unwittingly drawn into the lie that we can somehow ‘change the world’ for the better by means of political action, something neither we nor any political leader is qualified to do.

On Holy Saturday, we joyfully sing from the Psalm,

Arise, O God, judge the earth for to Thee belong all the nations!15

Let us therefore be mindful that only Christ our God is worthy, not only deserving but capable, of judging the earth in righteousness and truth. Only He can set right all that is wrong with the world and its inhabitants. Let us not allow anything in our minds to usurp the competence that belongs to Christ alone. And let whatever votes we cast reflect as godly a witness as possible in this world without putting our trust in princes or sons of men in whom there is no salvation.16

The Hidden Nature of our Witness

Much like the leaven hidden in the measures of meal,17 the effect of our witness to Christ is often hidden—even from ourselves. Our results-oriented culture measures everything by visible outcomes, and this can tempt us to judge ourselves (or the Church) only by what our eyes can see. The truth, however, is that we cannot always know what effect our witness to Christ has…or will have.

Let us consider the Saints whom we venerate, and whose lives we seek to emulate. What were Abraham’s, Isaac’s, or even Jacob’s ‘accomplishments’ in terms of what they could have observed with their own eyes? Jeremiah and all the other prophets who faithfully witnessed to the truth and called the people of Israel to repentance were abject failures if seen only in the light of what they appeared to have ‘accomplished’ by their witness. Saints John Chrysostom and Maximus were cast out, persecuted severely, and died in exile. For every Saint who saw the fruit of their witness during the course of their earthly life there are just as many, if not more, who did not. Yet their faithful witness has borne an abundance of fruit that remains to this day.

In much the same way, our witness is like seed sown in the hearts of others.18 This is true whether we perceive it or not, whether it takes root or not, or whether we are there in person to observe it if it does. How many of us can recall a seemingly insignificant (at the time) word or act of kindness from a faithful witness with whom we have since lost contact or who is now reposed? The seed they planted in our hearts lay dormant until God sent events or other faithful witnesses into our lives to water it and bring it to fruition.19 Like a farmer who sows in faith though he himself is unable to cause the seed to germinate or bear fruit, our God calls us to be faithful in our witness and entrust the outcome to his faithfulness.20


Footnotes

  1. Acts 17:6

  2. St. Basil, “Homily to the Rich” in Roman A. Montero, All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017), 122

  3. Luke 16:19–21

  4. Luke 10:25–37

  5. Luke 10:36

  6. Something that has to do with the very nature of our being and existence.

  7. Rosemary Edmonds, The Monk of Mount Athos (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 31.

  8. Matthew 7:12

  9. Laws against racial discrimination, for example, not only compelled citizens to comply, but also largely succeeded in teaching the citizenry that racial discrimination is an evil they desire to avoid. Likewise, laws allowing abortion on demand taught the citizenry that abortion rights are a good (or at least not an evil), resulting in a dramatic increase in both the acceptance of abortion and the actual number of those who choose it.

  10. John 18:36

  11. Luke 17:21

  12. Luke 3:11–14

  13. Romans 13:1–7

  14. Romans 13:1–7

  15. Psalm 82:8

  16. First Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy (Psalm 145)

  17. Matthew 13:33

  18. Matthew 13:3–9

  19. 1 Corinthians 3:6

  20. James 5:7–8