To bear public witness.
That’s one translation for it.
To speak forth publicly. That’s another translation for it. There’s a word I’m looking for here. When you hear it, you won’t think it belongs in a spiritual reflection. And yet those who participate in this public witness are not only doing something deeply spiritual, they are living out a rich tradition of other faith leaders who have made good use of this spiritual practice.
There is, in fact, a rich spiritual tradition that makes use of this action that doesn’t often attach to things spiritual. It gets lost in the mess of folk arguing that faith and politics don’t mix. I’ve never bought that argument; and certainly never behaved as if I bought it.
The same preacher who inspired us with his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he wrote about all God’s children being seen as equal, and freedom ringing from every berg, village, town and city spoke those words to a crowd that marched on Washington, organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, and threatened to undo an entire Presidency if it did not produce the Civil Rights bill he was fighting for.
The same woman who converted to Catholicism and later started the Catholic Worker Movement organized strikes and took a hard line pacifist stance when the US sought to enter the Second World War.
The same early American spiritualist that penned Walden and introduced a young country to Transcendentalism also wrote his landmark essay “On Civil Disobedience.”
All of them take as their model the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount, asked us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and then led a march into Jerusalem during which he cleared the Temple of the money-changers and so angered the Roman establishment they crucified him.
The word I’m looking for is protest.
We almost always see this word having negative connotations. Protesters stand against something. They only see the worst in things. They are troublemakers who rock the boat and stir up calm waters. They politicize matters that people of faith would be wise to avoid.
Well, to all of that I say hogwash!
Protest is a word that, from its latin roots, can mean either to bear public witness or to speak openly for – not against, but for – something.
And so it was that when in over 620 cities worldwide protesters gathered to march and give public voice to their frustration, fear, and anger – they were both acting out of and in good faith. They were taking up an important spiritual practice that we have seen utilized by some of the most admired heroes of our faith, among them Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Henry David Thoreau and Jesus himself.
They were not so much speaking against, but consistent with the true Latin root, speaking for: for justice, for love, for compassion, for human dignity and worth, for the rights of women of all races. Only in context do statements that speak FOR something come to be seen as statements AGAINST something. And when the context is one in which injustice, fear, degradation, and a frightening degree of disregard for basic human dignity are becoming the norm – then those who gather to protest – to speak for a better way – will be cast as the villians.
They are anything but. They are faith leaders giving voice to what they believe the gospel calls us all to: love, compassion, kindness, justice, peace. In protesting, in bearing public witness to these gospel values, the faith is kept alive and those who protest deepen their commitment to spiritual practices that matter.
There are times on our journeys when giving voice to something greater than ourself is called for; when to protest (to bear public witness) is to respond to deeply spiritual impulses the denial of which only threaten our spiritual well-being. Find your voice, gentle traveler. And when you do, you join a long line of others who found theirs and changed their world. You wont’ be alone on these sojourns Into The Mystic.
To bear public witness.