Bearing Witness to Social Injustice as A Spiritual Practice: Moving from Pain to Taking Compassionate Action, (Part 2 of 3) by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. [The Dionysian Naturalist]

  …. continued from Part 1.

Spirit of Life,

Limitless Creativity of the Cosmos,

Mystery of Mysteries,

Be with us now in this time of grave need,

When our governments inflict suffering,

When they shatter dreams and destroy lives,

And do not encourage broad-based human flourishing,

But instead promote discrimination and hatred.

We must lift up our sacred traditions

That teach that diversity is a gift,

That encourage compassion to all things,

And remind us constantly of our ethical responsibility to all people and to the Earth.

As people of faith and of moral commitments,

We must join the forces of resistance to fight these unjust actions.

Our traditions demand that we welcome the stranger and the sojourner.

The message of love and of freedom is strong and unswerving.

We must reject these forces of evil

And stand against the soul-harming hatred

It breeds and join in movements to stop the harm.

As people of faith and of conscience

We must stand against these policies and uphold values

That celebrate the fullness of the human family

In all its glorious diversity.

There are many of us, our voices are loud, our commitments are strong,

our will is tough as steel, and our faith unswerving.

May it be so.  Blessed Be and Amen.

III.      There have been many times in my life when I saw horrible suffering and had no idea what to do.  One night while walking home I saw a woman crawling out of her wheelchair to take refuge in a doorway. She said she didn’t want any assistance. Her hair was matted together and she smelled of urine. Wanting to do something, I reached into my pockets, located some bills and gave her a couple of bucks.  For a brief moment a flood of relief washed over me, but I was left with a terrible feeling that I hadn’t really done enough.

We often are numb to the suffering around us, unconsciously avoiding facing the harsh realities of modern life.  To navigate through our hectic lives we routinely turn on what I call ‘autopilot’, a deadened form of consciousness which encompasses modes of being, ways of acting and experiencing one’s existence to which we have become heavily familiarized.  The habitual nature of autopilot can feel good, often generating feelings of security and comfort through its solidly predictable outcomes. Autopilot is a central element in what I have elsewhere called the “cynical cycle of mindless inaction”5.

When we engage with the cynical cycle of mindless inaction:

We are closed to knowing about injustices;

We are numb to all the suffering of the world which exists all around us;

We don’t think that we can make any difference;

We mindlessly do what we have done before.”

When we turn off the autopilot of everyday existence and take time to deeply reflect on the ethics of our actions, we break out of that cycle.  We can become optimistic about our ability to change the world through the concrete ways in which we are leading our lives. Actions such as these, which are fully conscious of alternative courses of action, and which put our ideals into practice, are called “praxis”.

When our observation of another person’s suffering is not treated as a spiritual practice, we often turn away to not face the ugly and upsetting realities of our world, thinking that we should not watch other people’s struggles. We try to avoid and dispel the flood of emotions that come over us. We don’t want to think about other people’s ordeals. If we do observe another person’s suffering, it is polite to offer to help. These offers are impulsive reactions often lacking the deep reflection required for critical analysis, and tend to be more akin to charitable acts than to structural transformations which address root causes.


Bearing witness to the suffering of others as a spiritual practice is an essential component in movements for social justice and transformational politics.  It is a methodology for acquiring knowledge about certain phenomena which remain unknown to parts of the public.  It is also a means to bring such knowledge into the public sphere through the testimony of eyewitnesses and to therefore influence public debates about moral issues.

A witness is one who was there and saw for themselves what happened.  Their ability to observe events and situations allows them to testify to others about what they saw. Because they are eyewitnesses with direct firsthand information their testimonies are recognized in courts of law as evidence.  As anyone who has watched televised courtroom proceedings knows, these accounts are not flawless and are subject to numerous problems, including the failure of memory, selective perception, and deception.

Vision and truth have been linked to each other in Western Civilization since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Westerners supposedly assume that the truth isn’t readily apparent: it lies beneath the surface and things must be observed to be really understood.  With the rise of the natural sciences, vision becomes increasingly regarded as a central method for acquiring knowledge.  In the social sciences, approaches to objective reality range from more social constructionist concerns for how our mind’s use of interpretive practices frame the issues, to social positivists’ confidence in their ability to accurately capture the nature of objective reality. It is the objectivity of the data collection process that is up for debate. A problem inherent in observational approaches is validity, where observers rely exclusively on their own perceptions of situations and events. Another problem common in observational approaches is reliability, that the occurrence observed might be due to chance.

The information gathering aspect of bearing witness is similar to a qualitative research methodology.  As a way of knowing  it is based upon a technique that is similar to what is frequently called “naturalistic observation”.  While vision is crucial, naturalistic observation refers to a family of data collection techniques that are based upon the use of all of the human senses.  In observing we employ all of our senses to gather impressions of our surroundings. Archives across the globe contain important historical documents in which people give firsthand testimony about tragic events that have observed.

To be a rigorous methodology for researching empirical reality, naturalistic observation should be systematic, intentional, unobtrusive, sustained, non-interventionist, and take place in the natural context of the occurrence.  Two of those qualities which might be absent for bearing witness as a methodology are that it is typically unsystematic and usually not sustained over an extended period of time.  The unsystematic quality is due to a lack of formal training for those who witness and the absence of repeated professional experiences in the practice of collecting qualitative data.  However, witnesses can play specialized roles in unjust settings and thus are able to have sustained observation:  consider the nurse who bears witness to brutal battlefield injuries in scenes of modern warfare.  The moral imperative to speak truth to power based upon eyewitness testimony offsets any weakness in the efficacy of bearing witness as a research method.  For the people who become witnesses, they were there and saw for themselves what happened.  They do not care about whether their account upholds the demands of social scientific  rigor.  They saw for themselves the look of horror on the face of the abused.

The information is formulated into an descriptive account, a story in support of a political agenda.  It is a selective process that takes complex events and reduces them into more simple form, allowing us to use them for current political agendas.  How we tell the story about what we’ve witnessed is important.  The kind of context we invoke determines the meaning of the event and its reception.  We must carefully consider what types of information are needed to have these events advance specific agendas. What might be relevant details to the social scientist attempting to capture the nature of objective reality, might be extraneous matter the witness selects to eliminate because it does not serve the particular agenda being advanced.

Bearing witness enables us to publicly testify about the suffering of our world based upon firsthand observation.  It informs our actions to change the world and to alleviate suffering.  When possible we must remain committed to empowering those who suffer to play vital roles in the structural transformations required to end the suffering.  We must resist the tendency to take over and know that meaningful change must come from below.

As a formerly homeless person I understand just how challenging that can be.  For about a year I did community organizing on the streets and ran a “homeless” empowerment group.  People on the streets are often in “crisis” mode—so overwhelmed with their situation and just getting by that advocacy work seems impossible.  The work of cultivating a committed group of informed  and empowered activists who were without housing and able to show up and testify at the public meetings of policy decision-makers was formidable.  Yet when “real people” passionately tell their story the impact cannot be underestimated.  Without the empowerment of those who suffer we end up with a bureaucratic paternalism in which nice people who have never been there feel entitled to speak for us.

While structural changes which address the underlying issues leading to suffering are our ultimate goals as social justice activists, we must acknowledge the need for charitable acts.  People sleeping outdoors in cold winter months need warm sleeping bags and those who are hungry need food.  While some dismiss such acts as “mere band-aids” as they don’t change the circumstances, they are compassionate actions desperately needed for survival.

People who have been there know things that people who have not been there do not.  The quality of their knowledge is very high as it is based upon being an eyewitness to the events.  This disparate epistemology comes with burdens and obligations.  If you have important information needed to make the decisions made by your community you should not keep it to yourself.

To bear witness to unnecessary suffering is to see that which should not exist —the tragedy, the sorrow, the misery.  One does not look away, avoiding discomfort.  Quite the opposite, to bear witness one must pay close attention to what one is seeing, staying with the sight, allowing our minds to thoughtfully probe the situation, noticing details about what is occurring.  One must be fully present, and enter a state of mindfulness without distraction.  As a spiritual practice bearing witness is an act of intention and an act of attention.  While what we are seeing may be ugly and uncomfortable to experience we willingly stay with the situation.  We cultivate a mental framework of religiosity—openness, centered, respectful, compassion-filled–feeling our connection to the something larger than ourselves.


Spiritual practices, such as rituals and meditation, may allow participants to enter into a ‘spiritual’ state of consciousness.  With the mind intensely focused on the holy work confronting it, we are able to fully experience the sacred.  In this frame of awareness we are able to focus on different phenomenon, including the interdependent web of existence, inner sources of wisdom, the common good, and the ideals of justice.  This special state of consciousness is an essential aspect of bearing witness.

For the Lakota Sioux this spiritual consciousness is initiated through the ritual use of “making a prayer”6.In contrast to the Protestant notion of prayer as a personal conversation with the Holy, the Lakota Sioux employ prayer as a means to initiate this state of spiritual awareness.  A spiritual schema, or “container”, is thus created which frames all that follows, infusing all actions with reverence, allowing a depth of purpose to permeate the occasion.  Maintaining this spiritual state of consciousness is no easy matter, and demands significant levels of concentration.

What makes bearing witness a spiritual practice is the enactment of such a container.  I have found that I can more readily enter this spiritual state of consciousness through the regular use of prayer (such as the one opening this essay).  In this state one can observe another’s suffering with a sense that one is doing holy work, able to continue looking at that which is hard to look at, maintaining a dignity which shines out to the world.  By creating a spiritual container, everything is held together and the focus required for the purpose can be sustained. The strength and courage needed to bear witness are enabled.

Cultivating bearing witness as a spiritual practice becomes easier through repetition.  As a ‘practice”, we repeatedly do it again and again, developing our own personal style.  While our minds are too fully present to use the word “habit”, the exercise becomes second nature.  Consistent repetition is essential to transforming observing suffering into bearing witness. But should we remember?  Perhaps in the name of reconciliation we would be better off if we simply forgot and moved on.  By socializing children to historical traumas we lock them into past loyalties and prescribed scripts.  Memories of injustice can be dangerous as disruptive to the status quo, even if that status quo is not the same perpetrator of the initial wrongs.

Along with the use of a spiritual state of consciousness, bearing witness becomes a spiritual practice when we take the time to deeply reflect upon what we have seen, allowing ourselves to be changed. To witness massive victimization or a catastrophic event is painful because the experience can shatter our worldview, thus radically transforming us. When we fully empathize with another, gather more information about the issue, and share our experience with our faith community, it allows us to examine how our privileges are cut from the same cloth as these people’s pains. Rather than seeking immediate “band-aids” we seek structural transformations which address the root causes. We contrast the “way things are” with “the  way they should be” and consider spiritual practices which might allow us to change the circumstances.  This is prophesy.


Bearing witness is prophetic –a faith-based spiritual practice with religious commitment and values. Liberal theologian Paul Razor in argues that there is a growing misconception that conservative Christianity is the only valid religious voice in our public debates about social policy7. He insists that liberal religions need to re-engage with the spiritual practice of bearing witness to speak and act for justice complementing and strengthening secular voices.

Social critic Cornel West often uses the term “prophetic” invoking the Jewish and Christian traditions who “brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day”8.  West observes: “The mark of the prophet is to speak the truth in love with courage—come what may’. West also links the term “prophetic” to the tradition of Karl Marx and the critical social theories which substantively deal with Marx’s critique of oppression and his emancipatory moral vision.  Abraham Heschel speaks of “their breathless impatience with injustice” and affirms that prophets experience “moments that defy our understanding”9.

I used to think that a “prophet” was someone ranting about the impending apocalypse, the coming “End Times” or some other dire prediction of the future.  It was from theologian Marcus Borg that I learned that Biblical prophets were involved with social justice, and of their essential role in transformational politics10. Grounded in a profound experience of the sacred, prophets have a particular mission and message. They offer a radical critique of “where we are” and promote a vision of “where we need to be” and tell us the spiritual practices that can transition us from the former to the latter.  Their accounts of their experiences of the sacred take the literary form of visions and ecstatic states. With them they muster the courage to deliver very unpopular messages.

To be continued …

About the Author

lSslgGSWayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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