By Kevin Garrity, High Point University Student
Last week in my Contemporary Theology class I was reminded of what it means to be a witness to the miracle of Jesus Christ. We were learning about the famous theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who used an analogy for Christian witnessing in terms of a trial. The professor explained that there are various actors involved in a trial – such as a judge, the prosecution, and witnesses.
As an evangelical Christian, witnessing is a fundamental part of my faith. Oftentimes, I feel at odds when witnessing to, and identifying with, people from different religious traditions. I think this is because of the sensitivity required for sharing my faith in a non-abrasive way. Thinking about these different actors in a trial has given me a better sense of how to both honor my religious convictions, and identify with individuals who do not come from Christian backgrounds.
I will share what I have learned from Bonhoeffer’s analogy here. I hope that you too will find it a helpful guide to navigate interfaith engagement, and that you come away with a better understanding of what it means to be a witness of the Christian faith.
The role of prosecutors is to prove the wrongdoing of another, while the judge’s job is to make a decision on whether or not an individual’s actions are deserving of punishment. Scripture indicates, though, that we do not have the capacity to fulfill either of these roles: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
One should take notice that this verse is condemning judgment of one’s neighbors, not personal judgment. Of course it is necessary for Christian believers need to be the judges of their own actions, but no one is in a position to condemn the beliefs of others.
Abstaining from judgement or condemnation does not mean that doubt or criticism of other faith traditions should remain un-verbalized. It means that the doubt or criticism must not exist in the mind of a Christian believer at all.
For me, withholding judgment starts from my deep belief that the Christian faith is my ultimate truth. And, while I maintain this as a personal truth, withholding judgment ends through exercising a sense of humility – acknowledging that my personal truth, which is ultimate for me, may not be the only truth for everyone.
Having humility is necessary to be a witness. Witnesses are members of a trial who share what they have experienced. They do not speak to the experiences of others because their concern is only what they have seen, heard, and felt. And further, trial witnesses only share their experiences when they are called upon, or invited to do so.
The question is, how can Christians think about their role as witnesses in interfaith settings?
Christian faith is legitimized when the witness speaking about their faith, and telling their story, exudes a sort of character that makes a listener want to share the same faith as the storyteller. The convincingness of the witness then relies not on what they say they believe, but on how much the statements of faith seem to influence their life.
Witnesses are only as convincing as how well their story of faith aligns with their character. Rather than telling someone what they should or should not believe, Christians must focus on living out the faith they hope to share; a faith that tells us we are incapable of judging anyone but ourselves.