Here’s a quiz about time travel posed by a friend of mine: Suppose you had a time machine but it only went back in time to specific events. If you used the time machine, you could only be a witness; you could not influence the events in any way and no one would be aware of your presence.
Would you use it?
Would you use the time machine if it would return you to a Cape Cod whale hunt, where you would observe – but could not interrupt – the harpooning and slow death of a whale? Could you tolerate that?
Would you watch Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in the Second Punic War, which resulted in the tortuous death of war elephants? Or Julius Caesar's death by betrayal?
It's an interesting proposition: bearing witness to significant but uncomfortable moments in world history. Changing nothing, but seeing the truth of it play out.
Given the opportunity, do you think you would take advantage of this imaginary time machine?
Bearing witness is an act of compassion, of empathy, of solidarity, and of justice. Bearing witness is holy. Humanity is at its most powerful and transformative when we experience the truth of one another.
Some of you may be thinking to yourselves that you don't need to see pain up close and personal to feel empathetic or to understand injustice. None of us here needs to observe from the edges of a slave auction to know how terrifying and depraved those auction were. We don't need to spend a day at any of the 40,000 extermination and concentration camps from World War II to know what happened in them is unspeakably horrific.
Except it isn't just about knowing that these things were wrong: it’s about understanding, in our bones, what it means that the history of genocide is now built into every Jewish family’s DNA, and slavery into every African-American’s. It’s about facing our sins against humanity. It’s knowing the crimes of which are capable.
Every day, news headlines are filled with evidence that we, as a country, have failed to fulfill the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” We are a nation founded on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of men, women, and children of Africa.
(optional, on the fourth of July): For many, the 4th of July is a celebration in, at best, irony and, at worst, of willful ignorance.
In the two extreme examples I’ve mentioned already -- American slavery and the Holocaust -- there have been two vastly different outcomes. After the Second World War, Germany, as a country, faced what it had done. They looked at it squarely, without excuses or failed reasoning, and began to rebuild their country on the foundational premise that they could never let it happen again. In fact, this is where the simple phrase "Never forget" came from: it began as an admonishment to themselves to keep them from returning to path of their vilest acts.
Germany bore witness.
America has not yet faced our history of slavery, nor the malicious colonization and oppression of the Indigenous peoples. We did not come out of that time and acknowledge what we'd done. Instead, we made excuses or tried to compromise with racism in other ways; some looked away in apathy; others have looked away in discomfort. We cannot yet make it right because we do not yet bear witness to our truth.
Every week, Black Americans are murdered because we haven't been able to reconcile our past and rebuild from it.
Children are being held in cages in camps because we have not yet bore witness to our own concentration camps of WWII. We still want to call them internment camps and justify that they weren't the death camps of Auschwitz or Dachau.
(optional, on the fourth of July): On the Fourth of July, most Americans will light up the sky in celebration of a land proclaiming to be free; we'll hear talk of liberty and justice for all and our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is easy to look away right now. This is hard and uncomfortable and terrifying. Bearing witness to what is happening around us now is hard. It is also easy to feel hopeless. We are on a path bloodied with our past violence and walking towards war and genocide.
I implore you today, do not turn away and do not lose hope. Face what we are doing and have done. Find hope that there are more and more voices rising against our sins. And if you cannot find hope, then become it. Ready your lives to be the sanctuary for others.
Pray with me now.
God of our Hearts, Spirit of Life,
We humble ourselves before Love. We take to our knees in protest of the violent acts against humanity and we commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.
We face ourselves as individuals and as a people. We acknowledge our complicity in racism, xenophobia, and the brokenness which allows them to flourish in these lands. We see the harm we are inflicting on others and the new cycles of brokenness we cause. We commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.
We do not turn away from our victims of mass incarceration, police brutality, depraved immigration policies, oppression of human rights and freedom. We hold the entirety of the experience – their suffering and our responsibility – and we commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.
We see each other's tears and know we play a part. We commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.
We humble ourselves to each other, knowing we cannot change the past but we can build a different future. We commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.
God of our Hearts, Spirit of Life, we commit ourselves to the work of abundant love and healing.