Spirit Alive: The Difference Between Being a Bystander and a Witness


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.

September 18, 2018

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

What Do You Do When Something Just Doesn't Feel Right Inside?

"'If you don't find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further."

Mohandas Gandhi

Recently I witnessed something that just didn't feel right to me inside.

Should I just let it go? Should I say something? What should I do? I didn't want to make a fuss about things. I didn't want to hurt people's feelings or make the group feel bad. But I also knew that I have to live with myself as well. So I choose to speak up. It felt awkward, messy, and uncomfortable.... and I felt uneasy, embarrassed, and inadequate. But I spoke up anyway, and I'm glad I did. In fact, I don't think I could have lived with myself afterwards, if I'd remained silent.

Given the realities of our times, I think many of us live with these kinds of feelings frequently. When we see someone treat another person unfairly, what should we do? When a racially offensive comment is made, what should we do? When we witness unjust public policies taking place, what should we do? These are all primarily spiritual questions that cut to the core of who we are as individuals...and as Christians.

I remember years ago serving a church in which there was a group of men who met regularly, and there were a few of the members in the group, who would tell jokes told that were...well, let's just say, they were clearly culturally insensitive and/or gender offensive. Enough said...

One day, after one of the meetings, the only African-American member of that group came to my office. He looked deeply troubled and wanted to talk. I invited him in, and this is what he said: "Lowell, I feel terrible about what happened at the meeting last night and want to apologize to you. At the men's meeting, I told a joke in the group that spoke badly about the Chinese, and I am very sorry I did that. I feel terrible. Will you accept my apology?" Then he went on to say: "I've noticed that when those kinds of jokes are told in the group that you never laugh, and I'm sorry that I said what I said."

I told my friend that when inappropriate jokes were told in the group, I always felt very uncomfortable... and I also said that I forgave him for what he said that night and deeply appreciated that he had come in to talk with me. But I also knew that he must have felt bothered personally by some of the things that were said in the group over the years as well, even though he was a respected friend of everyone there.

Since then, I've often thought about that church group and this church member's conversation with me  that day:

  • Was the best I could do with that group of men just not to laugh...or to simply change the subject?
  • Knowing how I felt about what was being said at the time in those jokes, couldn't I have spoken up and challenged what was happening? 
  • As the spiritual leader of the church, couldn't I have figured out some better way to create a teaching/learning environment for everyone to see what was happening and to help us all grow spiritually from the experience?

For whatever reason, I ended up being a "bystander" to these events...rather than being a "witness" for Jesus Christ. I wish during that time that I'd been able to find my "better angels" and figured out how to let them fly in that situation.

Some of you may be thinking right now, "Oh no, he's making a case for political correctness. Can't people just tell jokes without being judged?" But here's my response: If something that is said or done ends up diminishing the divine image of another human being, then maybe it is spiritually damaging to the entire community long before it is politically incorrect.

So...maybe when you see things that are disturbing to your spirit it is because Justice Stewart had it right in 1964 when he wrote about obscenity and pornography by saying that "I know when I see it."

It's important to listen to the spirit within, and when you see something that feels wrong, the question is: Will you be a bystander or a witness?

And here's the difference:

...a bystander is "a person who is present at some event without participating in it." And...if you want to learn more about what bystander behavior looks like, view this video that we saw at annual conference a couple of years ago. It will tell you what this means in a pretty straightforward manner. Click here.

...a witness is "someone who furnishes evidence," "one who is called upon to testify," "one who attests to what has taken place."

Of course, in the Christian tradition, being a witness has even greater meaning, because we talk about "witnessing to one's faith," which means finding ways to share the love of God through one's life and to help awaken the world through one's personal and public actions.

These two things are not the same. One is passive...the other active. One doesn't require anything of a person. The other demands that we find a way to live publicly that reflects the essence of our faith.

As E. Stanley Jones reminds us: "Jesus revealed God from within the process of life." It had to do with his total life...how he acted, what he did, how he treated others, what stories who told, how he intervened when people were being neglected or abused, and how he made his presence known among people, even when it would have been easier to be a bystander. For Jesus, "life was of one piece."

I think about it in terms of the difference between an American parade and Brazil's Carnival. In the former, you sit and watch from the sidewalk, unless you happen to be involved somehow in the parade itself. But in Brazil, you don't go just to watch Carnival. You go to experience and be a part of it.

Life is like this as well. We are called to participate. In fact, I don't want to be a bystander to life...I want to engage and live it fully, even the awkward, uncomfortable parts, when I have no choice but to stand up and do something with my life.

It makes me think about what must have gone through the hearts and minds of several of our pastors recently when they made the difficult decision to be arrested in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Portland for their non-violent action. You see, 21 faith leaders from the area were arrested on August 30th for peacefully protesting against the detention of 124 asylum-seekers, who are being held in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan,Oregon. For details on this story, click here. Sometimes you see something taking place, and your faith tells you that it is time to stand up and be a witness, not a bystander...and that isn't an easy thing to do.

And...I think about May 26, 2017, when Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche died because they decided to stand up and be witnesses for their conscience and try to stop the verbal abuse being directed at two teenage girls (ages 16 and 17) on the MAX train that day. They saw the ugliness of racism and simply couldn't remain bystanders. I don't think that Ricky and Taliesin thought that May 26th would be their last day of life, but through their actions....and witness...they demonstrated who they really were as human beings.

But let me close with this word of hope. Our "witness" always makes a difference...and I think about this given the rich array of summer experiences I've had and how they not only have touched my spirit, but have also reminded me about the multitude of opportunities we have to connect with others, share our common humanity, and witness to the hope-filled message of our faith.

It has been remarkable to participate in the Nez Perce Land Return at the Wallowa Lake Camp, to be a part of the planning team for the "Listening with Open Hearts" global event that the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and the Love Your Neighbor Coalition held in Portland, to travel to Kenya as a part of a Volunteers in Mission team, and to host African and Brazilian guests in our home. 

There are many signs of hope and joy from these settings and encounters that I could share. Let me close with this illustration from the Nez Perce land return...

On August 1, at our Wallowa Lake Camp, over 100 people gathered to witness the return of a small parcel of land to the Nez Perce Tribe. This group included approximately 40 Nez Perce youth who were part of the 19th Annual Nez Perce Culture Camp.

Those present witnessed an amazing event. In this moving ceremony, our church took a small step in the direction of healing an historic wrong. And as Mary Jane Miles, a member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said: "I never thought I would see a day come when we would have a hand of friendship from the larger community to the Nimipuu." And  Miles went on to address the 40 Nez Perce youth who were present, saying: "As you become our leaders, you're going to lead us into some more wonderful things that are going to happen just like this. Because I know that you have a heart for the Nimipuu, and a heart to return us to where we belong."

You see, when you are witnesses to someone else's act of witnessing, it gives you courage and hope and belief that the world can be a better place. This is why it is so important to be a witness rather than remaining a bystander.

At the close of the ceremony at Wallowa Lake Camp, Bishop Stanovsky said it so well: "We experience the power of small acts to heal and transform us. Today was one of those moments."

When I stood up recently when something seemed wrong to me, it didn't cost me my life...and I wasn't arrested, but in the process of standing up, I found my inner voice and used it publicly...and I can sleep better at night knowing that I didn't lose my soul when it was being asked to do something.

Let us walk in the light of God's love,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.





Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org