Being heard, being seen, being witnessed – these are essential to human dignity and survival.
In Genesis, an African slave woman stumbles in the desert, pregnant, with nowhere to go. God comes to her. She names him “the God who sees.”
In Hosea, the holy city – God’s city – is ravaged. Personified as a woman, the city cries, “Who will be a witness to my affliction?” God is utterly silent. Zion holds God to the name Hagar gave: “See, Yahweh, I am in anguish!”
Often we prefer to live in denial rather than witness.
Until, that is, something forces the world to pay attention, like the death of Mohamed Bouazizi or the death of George Floyd.
A primal need
A 26-year-old man, highly educated yet unemployed, sets up a fruit and vegetable stand. A policewoman confiscates it unfairly. He goes to the municipal building to request back his weights and scales, all he owns. He is told: go home. He is not given a hearing. Outside the municipal building, in the middle of traffic, he lights himself on fire and shouts, “HOW DO YOU EXPECT ME TO LIVE?”
This was Mohamed Bouazizi’s death on December 17, 2010, in Tunisia. His question, enacted in his death, fueled the Arab Spring, which swept through multiple countries and toppled dictators. Reza Aslan, speaking at The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict of Arizona State University, explains, “This wasn’t about anger at having something taken away from him. This was about a far more primal need – the need to just be heard.”
I heard a policeman condemn the killing of George Floyd, saying that above all, police must protect the voice of those they arrest – American law guarantees citizens the chance to give a defense. Floyd will never give a defense. The manner of his death forced the world to witness again a man unheard.
Movements followed these two geographically and politically distant deaths of Bouazizi and Floyd. These two are extreme examples, not exceptional ones. Both the Arab Spring and today’s mass protests like the recent March in Washington happen because countless individuals find in Bouazizi and Floyd a tangible symbol of their own experience of being unheard. This world is full of Bouazizis, Floyds and Hagars of every colour and in many contexts, all in need of a witness. Hope is survival. Hope is the curious occupant found in houses of despair. And hope starves without a witness.
The cost of witnessing
We are afraid of being a witness, preferring to deny even our own despair. Denial, says author Kathleen O’Connor, “refers to the refusal, perhaps even the psychic and spiritual inability, to see the horrible, to name it, to allow it space in the world. Denial means to live knowingly or unknowingly with lies.”
In her book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, O’Connor traces the change in the narrator of Lamentations. First he stands in denial as accuser of the city-woman. But as Zion anguishes over the murder of her children, the narrator comes closer. He speaks to Zion directly. He tells her to complain louder to God. The narrator asks, “How can I bear witness for you?” He acknowledges that her pain is without compare. As her witness, he becomes her companion in suffering. This is Zion’s only comfort, yet it affects the narrator so much that he becomes physically ill – eyes wasted with tears, bowels in ferment, bile poured out on the ground, “because of the breaking of the daughter of my people, as the child and the infant are fainting in the streets of the city.” Witness is costly.
Witness is essential work. Whether you are an observer (like the narrator in Lamentations) or a crushed sufferer (as Zion herself), our Scriptures offer laments. Laments are acts of faithfulness, says O’Connor: “Lamentations urges us to present to God all that prevents full human flourishing – the wounds, despair, hatred, anger and injustices of the world. It is prayer that is born in the deepest secrets of abandonment and loss. It expresses hungry, passionate yearning for God’s presence. It is, therefore, enabling prayer that leaves no barrier between us and God.”
Lament can flip the table on denial by demanding truth about pain – truth which becomes both a prayer to God and a voice in the world. Laments have been lost in North American churches but they still weave through our Scriptures, calling us back from denial to offer and receive the gift of witness in a broken world which longs toward wholeness.
We cannot simply apply witness and lament as band-aids to the widening cracks in our societies, made visible when people take to the streets in the U.S. and Canada to demand change. This is a call to a way of life following a God who himself laments, witnesses and responds. It requires a change of heart – repentance – and willingness to follow a wounded Saviour.
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