Living in Eastern Ohio I can easily remember the dramatic sight of the Nike billboard that used to be seen near the stadiums in Cleveland. The picture was LeBron James hands outstretched, captioned with the phrase “we are all witnesses”. Nike’s campaign was launched in June of 2007 when the Cavs made the NBA Finals; the message was simple, James will display his greatness and the world will collectively watch. In many ways Nike was right, we were all witnesses to that NBA Finals because it entered the collective consciousness. Of course, I recognize that some of you might not remember the 2007 NBA Finals, and given some of LeBron’s more recent comments there will be some who want to criticize my using him as an illustration. But the truth is all of that proves my point, we are collectively witnesses to LeBron James whether we want to be or not. Such is the case with every major event in our lives– JFK, MLK, Nixon, Challenger, Desert Storm, Lewinsky, hanging chad, 9/11, & so many more. Probably most everyone reading this had a reaction to each word in that list, and if you lived through them you are a direct witness to how those events shaped our culture and consequently us as people. Each item in the list excited your memory and worked on a large historical, cultural, and personal narrative.
I lived through the last five items on the list, and the last three are especially vivid for me. The Challenger explosion and Desert Storm were events I witnessed from a distance through TV, they were hardly real to my young mind. But the last three events have shaped me and how I relate to American politics and society. The Clinton scandal forces me to critic those in office asking if those individuals have the kind of character which will improve our nation. The election of 2001 reminds me of the divisions in this nation and forces me to think about how I handle the divides whether I am in the majority or minority opinion. And of course, 9/11 stands as a monument to how we treat outsiders, how we handle crises, and how we care for people. What these event highlight for me is the two definitions of witness. Yes, I was alive and watched the Challenger explosion, the scenes from Desert Storm shown on the news, and even the 2007 NBA Finals; but I am a poor witness to those events. I can describe events I saw on the screen, but I cannot do more than that. There are certain environments where this type of witness is especially desirable, like a courtroom; however when it comes to helping society we need a different type of witness. A truly good witness is a person who can describe both what happened and what to make of the happening. A good or faithful witness is someone who can describe the events which happened and how they impacted those around the event and what the ongoing significance has been.
I think the temptation for many Americans is to be the first type of witness, a person who can identify that something happened. We experience events in the moment, but fail to continually reflect on these events, drawing lessons from them. And such laziness also drifts into the Church. Many Christians do not realize a simple fact– we are all witnesses to the major events of the New Testament. We are witnesses to the Resurrection, and to the coming of the Holy Spirit; not in the sense that we were there when these events happened historically, but we carry a testimony of a living and vibrant God who is present in our lives individually and collectively. The whole of Western society is in some sense a witness to the events of the New Testament, authors like Tom Holland have done a fantastic job in demonstrating this fact. But Christians are much more witnesses (like it or not), we claim by our title to be witnesses; the question which plagues us is, “Are we good witnesses or nor?”
The fundamental Christian claim is that Jesus is alive at God’s right hand and our proof is that we are in the process of becoming more like Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit. If that is our central claim then our lives witness to Jesus every day. And since the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, to the extent my life does not reflect Jesus, I am a poor witness. If my life does not show any real distinction from those outside the Church then my claim looks false. Notice the word “real” in the previous statement it is important. I grew up around some very conservative people who thought the distinctive marks of a Christian needed to be: doesn’t drink, smoke, use curse words, doesn’t go out on Sundays, and doesn’t watch R-rated movies. Now some (and perhaps all) of these characteristics might follow from a person living more like Jesus; but these are not the measure of being a good witness. A good witness is someone who models: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, merciful, humility, generosity, and self-control in all situations and with all people. My ability to show these characteristics in my life are what prove my message to the world. To the extent that I do not represent these qualities in my own life I am a poor witness to what I believe. I can say God changes people, but if I do not change then my words ring hollow. I am the life transformed, I am the medium and the messenger, the truthfulness of my message depends on my living out what I proclaim. This is a difficult proposition yet it is the essence of faith. Intentionally trying to live like Jesus even in the most difficult and draining situations.