From Witness to With-ness

Becoming flesh and blood admittedly sounds grotesque.

The shock of the statement’s morbidity is however, appropriate for understanding the scandal of Jesus’ restorative work within our world. Defying our natural sensibilities, this act that Jesus invites His followers to embody is one of particular presence. Meaning, Jesus did not haphazardly meander through our world. Instead, by putting on skin God the Son fully embraced the humanity, rhythms, culture, struggles, and celebrations of a specific people. This embodiment is what we call being Incarnational.

In the same way theory informs music, the Incarnation informs mission. In his essay titled “What I Mean by Incarnational,” Alan Hirsch writes, “Incarnational mission requires that we contextualize the Gospel in ways that honor the particular cultural and existential situations of various peoples without compromising on the mission itself.” The mission of God is always one where relational and spatial distance between people is removed. This then suggests two crucial implications. First, if cities are defined by the lack of space between people, then the mission of God is, at its core, an urban mission. Second, this means that mission—modeled by Jesus—cannot occur detached from people and the world. In other words, being incarnational implies a sense of with-ness.

Connected to this withness is the concept of “witness.” Christians love to use the term witness—and rightly so! Scripture speaks often and favorably about the concept of witness. But the connotation the Bible depicts is starkly different from how Evangelicals, in particular, use the term. While it may be a crude description, witness—often expressed in verb form (i.e. “witnessing”)—is understood by many as proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is a hollow proclamation if its only attempt is to convince a person to agree intellectually to an ideological statement.

David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw write “the ‘proclamation’ of the gospel to our neighbors and friends can become more about ‘proving the truth’ and getting them to believe what we do. But such a ‘stand for truth’ can reduce people to disembodied minds (as if the most important part about them were their brains) and reduce the gospel to a transfer of information.” What is the alternative vision of witness that the Bible shows us?

Don’t tremble; have no fear!     Didn’t I proclaim it?     Didn’t I inform you long ago? You are my witnesses!     Is there a God besides me?     There is no other rock; I know of none.”—Isaiah 44:8 CEB

 

Isaiah portrays witness to be understood as people mirroring the goodness of God into the world through their presence. This implies that in the incarnational life, proclamation cannot be divorced from demonstration. The idea of withness to our witness is underscored by the fact that “witness” in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word martys—the very word that “martyr” is derived from.

This picture of a suffering witness, while unpleasant, further corroborates being incarnational, not just as a concept, but as a model. Holistic community revitalization is rooted in compassion.  “The word compassion,” the late Henri Nouwen writes, “is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean ‘to suffer with.’ Compassion asks to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, anguish.” Nouwen eloquently connects the prognosis of broken communities with the diagnosis of relocation and incarnation. The remedy for ailing cities is withness.

If this is true, then every moment we avoid the suffering and struggles of other people, we move further away from our purpose in this world. The more we disengage from the physical world, the more we detach ourselves from mission—and thus, meaning in life. Every time we inoculate ourselves from the concerns and pain of people in our own pursuits of safety, stability, and security, we are not only distancing ourselves both from the people whom Jesus has called us to—but even Jesus Himself!

Take a moment to let that reality sink in.

This notion is amplified when we consider Jesus. Jesus did not simply avoid shirking off struggling people that He happened to meet incidentally. Instead, Jesus made it His life’s mission to seek them out! In doing so, Jesus completely dismantles and then redefines our understanding of compassion. “Compassion,” Henri Nouwen writes “means full immersion with the condition of being human.” In other words, compassion is synonymous with incarnation. Therefore, the principle action in compassion is not a passive sense of pity; rather, it is deliberate relocation. The act of voluntary habitation immediately begins to break down barriers previously built (often due to isolation), by communicating value and dignity while establishing relationships.

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