Speak and Act Boldly
"Hate groups grow steadily as the anti-immigration movement swells; 40% rise reported since the start of the millennium" (Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Spring 2007/Issue 125, page 48). There were, at the time, 844 domestic hate groups in the U.S., and over 2/3 of them have some public medium to tell their story or to put their beliefs to work. What does this mean to leaders and teachers who are devoted to the Prince of Peace?
Articulate the Faith
Evangelism, for some, conjures up visions of stammering to strangers about deeply felt, personal matters of faith that are promptly rebuffed. The evangel or good news of the early church is the foundation of the present church. We may feel we have to persuade or coax, when in reality, we simply need to know and tell the Story and what it means to us.
Why and how do we teach our children Bible stories? How do we teach others to tell the stories? Teaching the meaning of God's evangel is at the core of the ministry of Christian education and formation for all ages so that all may grow in faith and godly power. Establishing familiarity and comfort in faith-sharing can start early and form a strong foundation for bearing witness. With hateful propaganda on the rise, knowing and being able to tell the Jesus story takes on a greater urgency for all of us.
You don't know a Skinhead? Members of hate groups are not our only concern. Most of us could identify people whom we consider different enough to make us wary, even fearful. Consider the national angst over immigration, terrorism, and the enormous amount of rhetoric about who's to blame for what and about who our enemies are. Other "hot button" issues within the nation and church also elicit a stream of demonizing, divisive language and attitudes.
As Christian teachers and leaders, we do well to assess honestly our own fears, "isms," stereotypes, and "party lines." Who are we afraid of, and why? What assumptions do we hold about people whose culture, customs, and language we don't understand? How well do we help our students of all ages to be open to the divine image inherent in others as well as in ourselves? What can each of us do to replace fear with familiarity and then community? What obligation do you feel as a leader to model openness rather than fearfulness and to help your students examine how they define "stranger"?
Confront Notions and Patterns of Power and Authority
Bearing witness inevitably means confronting power and authority from both ends. For our purposes, power refers to the public, political, and social systems that order our life together. Authority refers to the positions we occupy within our systems and assumes that there is a hierarchy of accountability in which we enjoy some privilege. In that case, we have an obligation to examine the operating patterns of power and authority through the lens of Scripture. What unconscious beliefs and behaviors need to be brought into the light of Christ's love? How can we teach others to examine themselves and the systems through which we maintain power and authority? What can we do to help our students understand and use power and authority in a Christ-like way?
If we have little privilege or access, our witness to justice and mercy becomes all the more poignant, for our lives truly bear out that witness. Jesus, as one reviled, had to resist victimhood and to take strength from the integrity of his ministry to others, many of whom were also reviled or "undesirable." His witness and his life were in perfect alignment, which presented a potent witness to the powers and authorities of his day.
Learn Through Risk-Taking
It takes courage to bear witness as Jesus did, especially if we don't know the story well or fear ridicule. As teachers of that old, old, story, we have the opportunity to help our students stretch beyond their comfort zones where real learning can take place. First, perhaps, we might ask:"What, realistically, is the worst that could happen?" and then find age-appropriate ways to confront those potential risks or consequences. Who needs to hear our witness? How can we practice sharing it? What do we need to learn about ourselves and others before we do? What issues of justice and mercy call for our witness? What are the age-appropriate ways we can teach and reach out? What are the risks and consequences of failing to bear witness?
Demonstrate Radical Hospitality
We know that our actions usually speak louder than our words. As we bear witness to our faith, our commitment to radical hospitality is perhaps the most significant way we demonstrate that we are "walking the walk." Consider this real-life parable. In the Chicago area, a young architect worked for fifteen different churches to "make sure that people who don't belong, don't try to take advantage of the church." Using key fob-activated sensors on water fountains, uncomfortable slopes on benches, trashcans with "teeth" that "bite" extractors (but not depositors), electrified fences and doorknobs, and other unfriendly devices, she sees her ministry as "keeping undesirables out of the church" (Research Update Extra, Discipleship Ministries May 29, 2007. Used by permission.) What message will be more clear — a proclamation of love by the congregation or the hostile architecture?
Who in your congregation defines who "doesn't belong" or who is "undesirable" and how does that square with Jesus' commandments to be in ministry to all the world? If you have been labeled as the outsider, what keeps you interested in the church? What are the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we say "Unwelcome!" to others? When we do, how are we any better than the mongers of prejudice and hatred who are more obvious in their message? What would happen if every one of us measured our ministry by the question: "Would Jesus consider this to be loving?" What kind of story would we then tell and what kind of witness would we bear?