Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Acting in Faith: Public Witness
distributed 3/14/14 - ©2014

This Lent, Eco-Justice Notes is exploring a variety of ways that we can act in our community and the world -- individually, as congregations, or in other settings.

On Monday, a couple dozen US Senators kept the Senate in session overnight, and they talked non-stop about climate change. Sheldon Whitehouse, a senator from Rhode Island who organized the session, said "Tonight is not about a specific legislative proposal." Rather, it was intended to be a start toward making climate change part of the main political conversation.

According to the definition of issue activism in last week's Eco-Justice Notes, an "issue" is a matter where a specific choice can be presented to a single decision-maker for a clear-cut answer. An issue is defined by your ability to declare a win (or recognize a loss) within a short period of time. What happened in the Senate this week doesn't qualify as activism. So what is it?

The Senators talking to each other, and seeking to get their message out into the news cycle, is a good example of a different way to act. I call it "public witness," and it is a valuable strategy in the toolbox for faithful action.

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I don't think there's a single, tight definition for this kind of action, but there is broad agreement -- as the office of public witness of the Church of the Brethren says -- that "public witness is larger than legislative advocacy. Public witness points to working to find coherence between congregation life, service, advocating on policy, and questioning the values that undergird our politics." It is a prophetic act, speaking truth to the broader community, critiquing problems and lifting up new visions. Witness may involve resistance against a policy or a way of life, as well as advocacy in support of a cause.

This sort of witness is often necessary as a prelude to activism on a specific political issue. Without public witness, there is no community awareness of what needs to be changed, no shared language to talk about the problems, and no vision of where we might be going that is more faithful, more just and more sustainable.

A strong example comes from the fall of 2009. Leading up to the climate talks in Copenhagen, coordinated their huge International Day of Climate Action, with gatherings in "iconic" locations all around the world. Many of those events simply gathered a crowd of people who were photographed with the number 350. (Seeing the importance of this kind of public witness, Eco-Justice Ministries helped organize dozens of those events in Colorado.)

The goals for the day included a vivid demonstration that lots of people care about global warming, and planting the number 350 in the public mind as the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere. It was to boost energy and awareness about the "Hopenhagen" talks, and to engage concerned folk with a global movement -- and it succeeded brilliantly on all fronts. Like Sen. Whitehouse said, the events in 2009 were not about a specific legislative proposal or negotiating point, but they were powerful action. The public witness of multitudes around the globe laid a philosophical and strategic foundation for the more issue-oriented work that is now doing on topics like Keystone XL, power plants in India, and divestment from fossil fuels.

Public witness can be closely tied to issue advocacy. Tom Cordaro, of Christian Peacemaker Teams, describes public witness as "any public act done for the purpose of influencing public policy and/or articulating or challenging social, religious and political values. Some examples ... include passing out leaflets, participating in a public prayer vigil, holding signs on a picket line, collecting signatures on a petition, marching in a demonstration or risking arrest by breaking a civil law." The CPT website has a wonderful collection of resources for this kind of witness and direct action.

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Not all public witness is so strategic, or tied to larger campaigns. Sometimes, people of faith and conscience are compelled to witness simply by a driving need to speak up about what is going on in the world.

You might see this in letters to the editor that simply name a matter of concern -- the irresponsible folk who over-water lawns during a drought, or dangerous drivers (Denver had a serious problem a few years ago with people running red lights; the problem diminished after a public outcry in the media), or a fixation on sports at the expense of other more substantial community issues (another ongoing Denver issue). You'll see it, sometimes, when a group of clergy call a press conference to decry urban violence. Speaking out in a public forum, simply saying "this is wrong" or "I'm worried" has an impact of what we collectively think of as important, and shapes the values that we highlight in addressing issues.

A classic case of this kind of public witness emerged in Billings, Montana, in 1993. The city had seen a number of anti-Jewish hate crimes. In a particularly egregious case, a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old child. The reason? A menorah was stenciled on the glass as part of the family's Chanukah celebration.

As a response to the violent act, a concerned Christian woman started a project involving several Billings churches -- mirroring the Christian support of Jews in Denmark during World War II -- where Sunday School kids made paper cut-out menorahs for their own windows. Picking up on the idea, the local newspaper published a full-page drawing of a menorah, along with a general invitation for people to put it up. By the end of the week at least six thousand homes (some accounts estimate up to ten thousand) were decorated with menorahs.

The public witness of putting a candelabra in the window allowed the community to express values of inclusion and non-violence. The act of solidarity built stronger interfaith relations and greater mutual understanding. The act of community witness, house-by-house, helped build a culture of care and respect that led to a reduction in hate crimes.

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Public witness -- by individuals or congregations, locally and globally -- provides an essential and effective way of acting when there are no legislative solutions, and where there is no gathered constituency to act on issues. Public witness is what is most needed when the problems are rooted in dysfunctional systems and distorted worldviews. Public witness is a primary strategy for deep social and cultural transformation.

The impacts of public witness may be long-term and diffuse. It may be harder to measure the precise outcomes, the wins and losses, compared to issue activism. But public witness is a necessary way of acting, and it is a strategy that can be especially suitable for people of faith who feel called to address matters of values and ethics.

This week, remember occasions when you have been involved in public witness, and consider how your congregation can speak publicly about eco-justice principles.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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