They only asked us to be mindful of the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

— Galatians 2:10

At points like this I can barely recognize Paul. When he says “Who will free me from this body of sin?” I say “Amen! Amen!”, but here, in passages like this, I do not know what he is talking about.

One thing I have not yet discovered – two things I lack: preaching the gospel and remembering the poor.

The gospel, as we all know, is the good news; it is new, it is good. I cannot find either of those things in this tired old argument I have with God. I have the impression of myself of that married couple that always seems to be bickering and you’re not quite sure why they haven’t divorced. It looks like some kind of twisted dependency, each validating their existence by their opposition to the other. If you ask me, point blank, I’ll insist there’s more to it: that, like Peter, I say to Jesus, “Lord, where else can I go? You have the words of life.” But from another angle “where else can I go” sounds a lot like that bitterly co-dependent couple, doesn’t it?

Friday Henry said something that resonated. He was talking about spiritual food being the word of God and spiritual exercise being sharing what God has given. We might feel that we have nothing good to say, he said, but we find that when we do start just telling whatever small thing we can say about what God has done, the telling of it awakens in our hearts gratitude for it. Like exercise, he said, it can seem unwelcome and onerous when considered in advance, but the doing of it is invigorating in the moment and beyond.

It seems a little too pat, yet, all the same, I have to admit I have experienced it myself – more often than not. I think Henry meant evangelizing, talking to the unbeliever, and there I have little experience to talk about, but quite often when I start to speak to other believers is when I am refreshed by an appreciation of God’s manifest movement in my life. So he has a point.

Why, then, when Matt asked if I wanted to go witnessing did I say “no thanks,” barely suppressing a shudder? Isn’t that only the same thing I would say if someone asked me if I wanted to go exercising?

Perhaps. It is more fair to say that is how I react when I suggest exercising to myself; when others are concerned, a certain infatuation with going along sometimes intervenes. Equally, when I clearly feel something ought to be done, as by the will of God, I do it. I do not mean always (don’t I wish), but in ways sometimes big and sometimes small I have at times felt a clarity approaching inevitability, and I know what I ought to do. It might almost be said that this is how I recognize God “speaking.” That way of describing it is not wholly adequate, but by way of contrast I have also often felt an anxious-ought, a feeling that I am less that dutiful if I don’t do this or that thing; and this anxious-ought has led to regret every time that I can recall. Top of mind: I volunteered once to help supervise some children at Christian conference once, because it seemed like the kind of thing someone ought to do. It would allow the women some time of their own, they said. A worthy goal. And by oughting myself into it I wound up awkwardly trying to deliver some prescribed moralization about the importance of obeying rules to a bunch of kids I didn’t know. Although I’ve done plenty of things for which I would be more embarrassed if they were publicly found out, I think that episode may have a lifetime seat in my private hall of shame – to be spewing such self-serving legalism, a blend of truth and lie too subtle for many adults to tease out, seemed to me the opposite of what one really ought to do for children.

And the spirit of this self-serving indoctrination is what springs to mind when someone speaks of evangelizing or witnessing. Christianity, so called, has managed to obscure the meaning of words like baptism and church by leaving them untranslated; equally, it has heavily obscured the word “witnessing” through extensive misuse. In any court of justice the responsibility of the witness is to honestly describe what he or she saw. Honesty is the paramount concern. Whether a single witness can describe the whole truth, in any particular detail (let alone all relevant details), is not to be taken for granted; the whole genre of “whodunit” is based on the well-recognized fact that many seemingly contrary accounts could actually be true. Totality of truth is not the burden of any individual witness, but each has a solemn duty to be unswervingly honest.

Also relevant is the idea that a witness is called upon, even if not always explicitly. One might be explicitly called to give witness, of course, but the notion of justice also places an implicit burden on anyone who hears false testimony brought in accusation, if they have witnessed the truth and there is no one else giving it. But, one way or another, a witness speaks because someone needs to hear it. This is at odds with the connotation that contemporary evangelism has given the word “witnessing,” which, in my mind at least, implies telling everyone whether or not anyone is the least bit interested.

I certainly do not mean that a witness speaks only to a uniformly willing crowd. Every courtroom witness is at odds with one party in the dispute, having been called to give witness by the other. But, for all the times when Jesus gave witness, he had nothing to say to the court that judged him in secret – where there was only one party present. It was of the same crowd that he said no sign would be given them.

I always perceive myself to be among such a crowd. I do not suggest that I am comprehensively right. But if the duty of the witness is to be honest about what he has seen, and equally honest about what he has not seen, it seems perverse to the cause to start delivering a witness when you haven’t seen any need for it. Of course, the fervid evangelist will point out that all have need of the gospel. But I return to my earlier point: Jesus said nothing to the court that condemned him, not even what he later said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Surely those in the courtroom did not need the forgiveness less than those at the cross.

If we are witnessing of spiritual things spiritually revealed, it is possible that some with spiritual sight recognize a need where others have not been given the same vision. Not every prophet in Israel went to Ninevah.

This does sound, even to me, like a bunch of excuse-making and rationalization. Yet in the end I am stuck with the truth that I’ve never felt a burden to “witness to the lost” that felt genuine, and not some noblesse oblige reinforced by an anxiety to do well in the eyes of people who pontificate about what is well done. And such motivations have never borne fruit of contentment and joy; only various degrees of awkwardness, climbing toward abhorrence.

Yet what to do with this admonition to be “mindful of the poor”? I do not like to be around the poor; it arouses in me contrary impulses. A similar thing happens in zoos, when I feel like I ought to feed the animals, or free them, and at the same time that I ought to do neither of those things. It is not exactly the same thing, of course, where people are concerned; the similarity lies in the tension between what my empathy says and what my reason says. One striking thing I have noticed is that the people who spend the most time around the poor have less empathy for them. Not a lack of sympathy, which is different, but a lack of empathy. You see the same tendency in doctors and nurses.

I do not like to be around poor people because I want to give them all my money and to scold them on their irresponsibility, their self-harm, their repetition of activities proven worse than useless. The most “unfortunate” people I have known personally, over time, have shared a tendency to see their misfortune as the result of conspiracy, to make reckless use of aid given, and to spin every tale into a tragedy of Greek proportions. They misrepresent the necessity and inevitability of their own choices and discover malicious plots in ordinary incompetence. This is surely not true of every poor person; just as surely, I have not met every poor person. But, if we reverse the direction of this connection, it does tend to follow that when you have this conspiratorial and victimizing view, it is difficult to achieve much progress.

And, in the very, very limited conversation I have had with people who dedicate their labor to aiding the poor, this observation is borne out in they way I have seen them serve. There is in them a gentle cynicism about the tales of woe, or even a careless disregard. It is, as I have said, a lack of empathy but not of sympathy. One cannot be too concerned with bleeding and accomplish a surgery. When the patient is ill in the mind, as there are so many ways to be and to so many different degrees, credulity is not effective aid.

In whatever (again) very, very limited way I have given help to someone poor — to the same person more than once, more than an anonymous impulse escaped as quickly as felt and done — it has shown me that the greatest need is for patience and for steady, small, continuous help. It should be no surprise, because small and steady is so much of what goes in to raising a child or loving a spouse.

And it all still seems like a disingenuous sophistry to annul and avoid the the basic facts of what Jesus and his apostles did: responding to the cry of the beggar on the street.

But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever you would have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift committed to God), he is no longer permitted to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by the tradition you have handed down. And you do so in many such matters.”

— Mark 7:11-13

It is true that it never anywhere says definitely that Jesus or his disciples responded to every beggar. It is possible that, consistent with my theologizing, they responded to some cases and not others, according to spiritual sight and not any obvious distinction. It does say, here or there, that all who were brought to them were healed; but there is a larger context in those cases. The bringing signifies a belief in the power to heal, and the healing is a ratification that God is with the healer. The healing is, arguably, a needed witness: Yes, this man speaks as one sent from God.

There is no definite record that for all of his life Peter was always healing every lame man, or that in all of his travels Paul gave alms to every beggar.

The climate here favors the homeless. They are everywhere more visible than anywhere I have lived before. They camp on highway exit ramps with signs: Homeless vet; Lost my job; Anything helps; God bless you. They amass on sidewalks palaces of debris that have a striking resemblance to various nests and fortresses I and my siblings built in our childhood — in which everything has a place, even things that have no purpose. Can it really have been any different sort of beggar that Jesus and his disciples helped?

One Comment on "Witness"

  • Arlan Post author

    Author’s note: I found this lingering in my drafts folder, years old. I’m not sure if I originally meant to go on further. It seemed good enough as is, so I published it.

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