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

  … continued from Part II.

Be the one who rises above the crowd,
Who sets aside daily life,
Who pushes past fears and transcends doubts, 
Who blazes the path of justice,
Who maintains a vision of the Beloved Community,
Who helps to heal the hurts of the world.
Help us to stand unswerving
Against hated and discrimination
With humble courage for truth and compassion
To serve humanity by loving our neighbors.
Together we will get to the Promised Land.
Many have dreamed of this destiny.
Some have given their lives for the promise of a new life.
Our struggles will not be in vain.
Together we can do anything.  Blessed be and Amen


Roshi Bernie Glassman, a founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order, is drawn to places of great suffering. Bearing witness to situations of overwhelming pain brings this Zen practitioner to a place of ‘unknowing’12. For Glassman “not knowing” does not mean lacking information. Instead it refers to the ability to remain fully open to a situation without any pre-conceptions about your potential role in “fixing” things. It demands detachment and the ability to listen deeply. Buddhists refer to this as “entering a space of nondualiity”.

Preconceived answers can block our ability to truly enter a situation. It is questioning that is the key to not knowing. We must enter situations without knowing what is right and what is wrong. We should bear witness to what is happening without expectations. We must let go of our ideas about what needs to be done and any notion of what compassionate action will look like. Bearing witness from this perspective necessitates that we “become the situation”, letting go ‘of our notion that we will remove suffering.

Glassman finds that when we take the time to truly bear witness to the suffering of others we eventually find that we are bearing witness to aspects of ourselves. Those demons who inflict suffering are, in essence, a part of us. We are reflected in both the victims and the villains. We must acknowledge that both are a part of us. Only then can we take care of the other, who is none other than our self.

We often become complicit to the system by our routine patterns of thinking. I see you suffering and I want to help. The two roles and two practices—sufferer and suffering, helper and helping—may lock us into cognitive traps which limit our openness to a deeper reality. To liberate ourselves and thus attain enlightenment, we must discard what we think we already know and expect to happen. Rather than witnessing suffering and feeling that we want to help, what if we escape the “helping” thinking pattern. Perhaps the one originally seen as the “sufferer” turns out in the end to help the original “witness” more than the other way around. These old stories we tell ourselves—such as those in which one person witnesses another’s pain—must be gently set aside.


Henry Giroux observes changes in the stories we tell about ourselves12. Today corporate media spins stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all with a veneer of infotainment: “A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in–or compassion and responsibility for–others (p .9).” Through these corporate-circulated cultural narratives we are urged to spend more, consume more and focus on personal gain. Public discourse can thus undermine our solidarities and notions of the common good, and simultaneously promote cynicism, indifference, and passivity.

To bear witness to injustice is to tell a story about our world based upon firsthand observation of real-life circumstance, fueled by moral outrage, concerned for the common good, and promoting social change. The stories we tell about our world certainly do matter. When these stories interweave moral outrage and visions of justice they can inspire us to imagine a better world. When our stories provide a sense of history, social responsibility and concern for the common good, they can foster a democracy rooted in the public interest and promote a society that embraces an inclusive social contract.

Especially in these times (The Era of Trump) we need to promote stories that uphold community, shared values and democracy itself. We need public spheres that circulate historical narratives of structural impoverishment, that tell the truth about how our social system fails so many. We can create alternative narratives and visions of the common good. The American public needs to develop a culture for producing a language of critique, possibility, and social change. Such a culture would promote a vision that informs political struggles to inform our citizenry about our current reality, which for many people is getting worse, with more suffering and social injustice.

In bearing witness to injustice we invoke stories as a form of public memory that challenge the misinformation of the corporate media. By confronting harsh realities such stories provide an alternative narrative of how our world works. These narratives critique the dominant discourse of mainstream media promoted by elites which often denigrates those who have been marginalized, displaced, and silenced. A radical individualism and callous culture are celebrated throughout much of this dominant media culture. During 2016, members of the “Black Lives Matter” movement consistently did the work of providing such an alternative narrative through exposing the racism behind the murder of African American people at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Often through the use of cellphone video clips by bystander – witnesses, the whole nation, including most white people, had to confront the harsh reality that white supremacy is alive and well and clearly manifest in the massively disproportionate rates of police killings of young African American men compared with white men.

Bearing witness to social injustice is a collective process, not just an individual act. It is a dialogue between survivors, bystanders and listeners. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to listen and survivor and bystander testimonies are often met with resistance in society. This resistance happens because bearing witness exposes the atrocities in our midst, and challenges both those in power and those that remain silent witnesses.

Perpetrators ask nothing of bystanders and appeal to the universal desire to speak no evil. In contrast, survivors ask bystanders to share the burden of the pain and to be willing to help change the situation. While it takes courage to speak out about the injustices seen because of the dangers of resistance, not speaking out can be a form of bondage that affects one’s physical and mental health, jeopardizes interpersonal relations and stifles the soul. Remaining silent reinforces that very system of power that makes the survivor powerless. By bearing witness survivors and bystanders collectively re-write the accepted narratives by challenging the denial of abuse. Speaking out about social injustice is a claim to power and thus is an overtly political act.

Debates about whether graphic accounts and photos of atrocities serve the public interest often hinge on whether the potential public outcry and intervention outweighs or offsets the physical revulsion and emotional distress inflicted upon survivors. To bear witness to injustice is to state: “I will not forget what happened here on this day!” Historical events unavoidably affect our lives today and our communities and our nations. Individual memories combine to create shared representations of the past that are often contested, fluid, fragile and inadequate. The trauma that these have caused can be re-ignited through the memories and their contested circulation.

Witnessing calls for action. A witness has learned to see in a different way than a spectator. Witnesses have affective encounters with unthinkable victimization which evokes painful feelings. Part of the pain occurs as one’s previous naive worldview is shattered. Witnesses are fundamentally transformed by the process of witnessing.

Bearing witness moves people from individual acts of observation to public statements about the injustices they have seen. In publicly narrating the suffering they observed, people take responsibility for history and the truth of the matter. By bearing witness individuals appeal to community and join with others in a collective response to the events.

Essentially to bear witness to social injustice is a spiritual practice to pass on news about things that need fixing. We have the ability to open people’s eyes to the world around them, drawing attention to things they might not have observed themselves. When we bear witness we try to get someone to see events from our perspective. We tacitly invite them to step outside their own lived experiences and perceptions of the world. We must persuade them with facts about situations they might not have seen firsthand and with our compelling analysis of root causes and possible remedies. We must provide them with a sense of agency so as to allow them to cope with the bad news we’ve presented. We must make hope possible. The goal is to change things, to remove a bit of the unnecessary suffering of our world, to create what Martin Luther King referred to as “the Beloved Community”. We must believe that we can make a difference. To change the “system” necessitates a change of will in which we acknowledge our complicity with the status quo and decide to no longer silently go along with the way things are. Instead we decide to live our values, speak our truth and do what must be done.


What to do if you are called upon to bear witness to social and environmental injustice:

  1. Take a deep breath and feel your connection to the Earth and all that surrounds you. Know that your life makes a difference and that you are in part responsible for the state of our world. Know that you are good enough to do this holy work.
  2.  Allow yourself to enter a spiritual state of consciousness. Saying a prayer can set your intention and focus your attention. The opening prayer to this paper helps me to see that my actions in this setting are holy work. Fully experience the sacred and bring to mind your ideals of justice and the common good. Turn off the “autopilot” mode of existence which dominates our lives and become fully present, mindful of all that is happening before you. All of your senses are alert and oriented to the situation you are witnessing. Your attention is focused on the particular details of the situation You have set the intention to never forget what is happening here and to become actively engaged in efforts to change this circumstance.
  3. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions which may flood your mind and body. Anger, rage, shame, fear, sadness, and revulsion are not uncommon emotions. It’s okay to be momentarily overcome by what is happening but know that you can regain composure and maintain a dignity that shines out to the world.
  4. Explicitly imagine what it would be like to be in the place of the victim. Step outside the confines of your own mind and attempt to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. What would it feel like to have that happen to you? Allow yourself to fully empathize with this fellow human (or with other life forms if you are witnessing environmental atrocities) so that you fully identify with them. What thoughts go through your head?
  5. Is there something you can do immediately to stop what is happening? Is there any way to be of assistance to the victim? Strategic interventions during the event are wrought with risk. They may bring more harm to the victim and bring harm to the witness. In public settings you may find allies in the crowd to stand with you. Publicly shaming the perpetrator may get them to re-think their actions. Be careful about doing anything that might bring you harm and carefully evaluate the risk. If the wrong you are witnessing is severe, it may well be worth risking self-harm. This is heroism.
  6. Take time to reflect upon what you have observed. Gather more information about the issue. Perhaps unbeknownst to you this is happening all around you all the time. Seriously research the issue, its history, its prevalence. Talk to others who have witnessed such suffering. Most importantly, listen to the stories of those who have suffered.
  7. How can you best assist sufferers to change these circumstances? Allow the victims to lead the movement to eliminate such circumstances. Sometimes they can feel disempowered and you can help them to find the courage, strength and ability to become active change agents.
  8. Share your testimony with your faith community and then with others. Your faith community is an excellent resource for affirming your shared values, deciding which issues to tackle and by what means to tackle them.
  9. Undertake direct action to change the structural determinants of event or circumstances in question.
  10. Action is followed by reflection which leads to refined and continued action. Evaluate what you have done and get ready to do more. Never give up!


1 Since 2014 I have been exploring my personal theology, Dionysian Naturalism (DN), in a series of essays published on the Humanistic Paganism website (Mellinger 2014, 2015a 2015b, 2015c, 2016a, 2016b). As a form of Religious Naturalism (RN), DN maintains a central role for reason and science in the worldview it embraces and rejects belief in the supernatural. Yet in contrast to the Apollonian character of much RN, which tends to be overly abstract, theoretical, and “up in the head”, DN is grounded in the body, the sensual and lived experience. The term “Dionysian” invokes the transgressive states of consciousness at the heart of ecstatic religions. DN reclaims the shamanic heritage of the first Nature Religions. Specifically, it embraces the entheogenic mysticism of our ancestors, who celebrated the holy in ecstatic rituals, often involving mind-altering sacred plants. In reaction to the unprecedented environmental catastrophe our planet faces due to climate change, DN is revolutionary in its political orientation, critiquing the dominant narratives of our culture and insisting that the destruction of Nature is desacralization. It offers a practical theology of social change in which all people of faith and moral conviction take direct actions to transform the structural conditions which create injustice. This essay elaborates on aspects of that practical theology of social change.

2 In October 2018 the laws preventing people from sleeping outside changed due to a ruling of the Ninth Circuit. Now people without homes can sleep outdoors on some public properties.

3 I participate with two governmental boards (the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Commission and the HUD-mandated Continuum of Care which plans and implements housing policies for our neighbors on the streets), and two non-profit boards (one brings together interfaith clergy and other religions leaders to mobilize local faith communities around issues of economic inequity and the other provides shower services for the unhoused. A wealthy philanthropist, who owns the former Beach Boy compound on a bluff overlooking a gorgeous stretch of coastline has held monthly “Homeless Activist Luncheons” for over two decades. These vegan-fed come-togethers of politicians, philanthropists, advocates, bureaucrats and concerned citizens have been a key generator of innovative solutions to local concerns. I am one of just a few formerly homeless people who regularly attends. Two contributions I have made that I am most proud of are: (1) I founded and for a number of yeas lead the Santa Barbara Homeless Foot Washing, now in operation for about a dozen years. Held on Maundy Thursday, the day in which Jesus supposedly washed the feet of his disciples, this interfaith celebration gives away over 250 pairs of shoes, sneakers and work boots each year and provides outreach teams an opportunity to make contact with those in need; (2) I also founded Longest Night: A National Memorial Day for People Who Have Died on the Street, an interfaith candlelight vigil and prayer service held on the steps of the Courthouse on winter solstice commemorating our friends and neighbors who died while unhoused during the previous year.

4 See Susan Sontag (2003)

5 “Habit Can Be Hell” Mellinger (2013)

6 Rev. Julia Hamilton, my parish minister at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara provided this insight. She visited the Lakota Sioux with a group of interfaith clergy protesting the Keystone Pipeline. I have greatly benefitted from her thoughts on “bearing witness”, especially the notion of “building a container”.

7 See Paul Rasor (2012)

8 See Cornel West (1999, p. 141).

9 See Abraham Joshua Hescel (1962, p. 4)

10 See Marcus Borg (1989).

11 See Glassman (1998). Roshi Bernie Glassman (January 18, 1939 – November
4, 2018) died as this essay was going to press and I dedicate it to his memory.

12 See Giroux (2014).


Hescel, Abraham Joshua
1962. The Prophets.

Borg, Marcus.
1989. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperCollin.

Giroux, Henry.
2014. The Violence of Organized Forgetting.

Glassman, Bernie.
1998. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace.
New York: Belltower:

Mellinger, Wayne Martin
2014. “The Amethyst Path: Shamanism, Dionysian Spirituality and Recovery from
“Addiction”. Humanistic Paganism (blog).
A shorter version of this appears In Noozhawk September 13, 2012.
2013 “Habit Can Be Hell” Noozhawk (May 28).
2015a ”Steps Toward A Dionysian Naturalism”. Humanistic Paganism (blog)
2015b “Our Universe is a Sacred Living System”. Humanistic Paganism (blog)
2015c “Enchanting Naturalism”. Humanistic Paganism (blog)
2016a “Dancing With Dionysus: Ecstasy and Religion in the Age of the
Anthropocene”. Humanistic Paganism (blog).
A briefer version also appears in John Halstead (Ed.) Godless Paganism:
Voices of Non-Theistic.Pagans.
2016b. “Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change: Advancing a
Practical Theology of Spiritual Activism”. Humanistic Paganism (blog).
A version also appears in the blog Gods&Radicals: A Site of Beautiful

Paul Razor
2012. Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square.
Boston: Skinner House.

Susan Sontag.
2003 Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

West, Cornel.
1999. The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic


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.

%d bloggers like this: