I think I first heard the phrase “bearing witness” sometime in Sunday School as a child, in the context of one of the commandments to “not bear false witness” against my neighbor. I don’t know that I heard it in any other context until I was listening to my dissertation advisor, many years later, talking about her experience in South Africa and being present during part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bearing witness to the atrocities and the trauma, on community and individual levels, shaped her both personally and professionally.
There is power in bearing witness in the systemic sense. We have seen that in other countries, such as in South Africa with the TRC. We saw that in increasing measure in the US in 2020 particularly in the area of racism and violence, (https://theievoice.com/bearing-witness-to-injustice-from-ron-settles-to-george-floyd-nothings-changed/) and also in the area of poverty (https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/) .
I have also seen in my own community the importance of bearing witness to the stories, including deaths, of people who are unhoused (https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/21145256/paying-tribute-to-those-who-passed-in-the-homeless-community)
There is also power in bearing witness in the individual therapeutic sense, such as in a formal helping relationship or an abiding and committed relationship https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meaningful-you/201312/the-power-and-strength-bearing-witness)
We are all called to be witness bearers, especially as we work on building the “Beloved Community”. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote in God, Death and Time (2000), “Bearing witness is not expressed in or by dialogue but in the formula ‘here I am’. ” However, we may not always be prepared to bear witness, to be present for people, especially when we are witnessing pain, suffering, and the recounting of trauma.
I came across the website of The Witnessing Project last year, and was especially interested in their concept of “witness positions” (http://www.witnessingproject.org/archives/the-four-witness-positions)
As you can see if you look at the 2×2 image, a person in position 1 is both aware and empowered. This person can bear witness most effectively because they know the importance of listening, of being present and of paying attention, AND they know what resources to bring into play and/or they know how to take action to help promote healing or (at least) an end to the pain. This is the position I want my students to be in, as well as the position I want to be in. If we operate from any of the other positions, we are either going to miss opportunities to bear witness, be ignorant about what to do, or feel overwhelmed.
I plan on using this image and some scenarios as an exercise to help my students think through their own ability to bear witness, and for us to think together about how we can be better witness bearers, in both our professional work and in our personal and communal lives.