For those who are not reading the comments, whether at the blog site, or through the “Comments RSS,” I was asked last week, in response to my last posting, what the difference was between “bearing witness” and “simply observing something.” It’s a thoughtful question, and I responded too quickly and on the run. I have since been giving the question a lot of thought.
Observing something – what witnesses do in court, for instance – is to report on what one experienced with the senses. I saw something; heard something; tasted something; smelled something; touched something. In each situation, the “something” was outside of myself, and had some sort of objective measurability. The witness, if they are simply reporting on what was observed, can than walk away with no further thought to the experience, as though they were, let’s say, a camera. (Factoring out, of course, the notorious unreliability of eyewitnesses.) There is no necessary personal connection to the event to which they give witness.
But to bear witness requires a personal connection, a perspective from the inside of the witness. My cousin Michael stood up in the Church and said, in effect: “From my perspective as his son, this is who my father was.” And because he was my uncle’s son, we listened. Likewise, Bernard Layfayette, Jr., was one of the actual freedom riders. He was there. He can talk from the inside about what we (as a society) witnessed only from the outside. So when he speaks of his experience, we listen.
But while these two guys were articulate in their bearing witness to their respective experiences, it is not articulateness that is required in order to bear witness. It is experience.
And which of us does not have experience? A beaten battered baby bears witness to the abuse he or she suffered, even if the baby is dead. Bearing witness connects – if it connects, if we allow it to connect – to the decency within us. And then we find ourselves saying “yes” both to the witness bearer and to the decency to which they bear witness. No baby – and if we connect, we’d all agree – deserves the abuse that the body of that battered baby bears witness to.
Each of us, because of our experience of each of us, bears witness to each of us. That is our power, and that is our responsibility. [And it is really not complicated. In the end, for instance, it underlies why our parents taught us that if we have nothing good to say about someone, then we should say nothing.] If we didn’t automatically bear witness to each other, then it wouldn’t matter what we say, not say, do or not do. But we each know better: it matters. And oftentimes it matters more, sometimes far more, than we realize.
How much bearing witness matters to those kids who have no parents to bear witness to their singular importance can be too easily measured by counting those homeless, those prisoners, and those mentally ill, who grew up in, and then aged out of, foster care. The numbers are terrible.
Doesn’t every human being need a parent, or at least an adult, to stand up for them; to bear witness to them that they matter? An adult who puts himself or herself on the line for the child? An adult who insists that the needs of the child must come first?
I believe that. I was also given that experience: by both Aunt Rita and by Msgr. Huntington. It’s why I am such a believer in adoption for people, like Ted (see earlier posts), who have no parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents – any adult – who believe in their own responsibility to stand up for him; an adult who chooses to bear witness to Ted’s value. How on earth do we as a society allow any one of our children to grow up in essential abandonment like that?
If I’m right, then whether we like it or not, we bear witness every day. And – if I’m right – and our witness is always to what we believe is decent, then we can find out a lot about ourselves by looking at what we stand up for. But – again, if I’m right – we can find out a lot about ourselves also by looking at what we don’t, and/or won’t, stand up for.
If I’m right.