Disturbing Stories and Bearing Witness

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.

Eli Weisel

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, when we are willing to listen.

Bearing witness means that we are showing that something exists; that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love and belief is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost.” To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Sometimes we are unable to bear witness in person. Sometimes the situation is far away and a writer or journalist brings it to our attention. This was the case for me recently when I read the horrific stories of abuse and torture that are taking place among the minority Uighur populations in China. The BBC is bringing light to these atrocities so that we might bear witness. So that we may not be silent. The headline reads “Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.” followed by a note that the reader may find the account disturbing.

More than a million men and women have been detained in what is described as a “vast and secretive system of internment camps” in China’s Xinjiang region. The camps are set up for the “re-education” of the Uighur people and other minorities in China. All freedoms have been taken away and these groups face detention, surveillance, forced “re-education”, and forced sterilization. Documents state that China’s president has given and edict to respond to Uighurs with “No mercy.”

A first hand account from a woman who was interviewed for the BBC special report revealed this:

“Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.”

Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.

Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.

“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.*

We should be disturbed and awakened by this. When we lose our ability to be distressed and disturbed we lose our humanity. That we as humans can perpetrate this kind of cruelty shows our desperate need for repentance and healing. That we can allow this cruelty shows the same.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering, and in our entering offering hope and healing. The account in BBC is not a story I want to enter, but it’s a story I must enter. I may be helpless to do something physically, but I am not helpless to pray all of God’s mercy on the women who have been so deeply hurt.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Or perhaps to a news story far away, that you may never enter in person, but you can enter through prayer with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on the Suffering. Have Mercy on the Hurting. Have Mercy on Your Creation.”

“But witnesses incur responsibilities, as anyone who has ever seen a traffic accident and had to go to court to testify, knows. In the new world of globally televised war crimes, the defence of ‘not knowing,’ or neutrality, will dissolve for everyone. To be a witness or bystander is not a value-free choice but, inadvertently, a moral position; and in this sense the ‘guilt’ of people who live with the memory of crimes committed by members of their families, or communities, has been unwittingly extended to everyone who watches appalling pictures on the news.” Erna Paris in Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History

[*Source: BBC News Special Report on Uighur Detention in China – © copyright 2021 BBC]

So Much at Stake – But No Vote!

A word about today’s post  — Communicating Across Boundaries is not a political blog, nor does it ever want to be. Today’s post is not endorsing a particular candidate! Rather, because over 50% of the readers of CAB are not from America, it is giving a perspective that will perhaps resonate with those readers. We look forward to having you weigh in through the comments about your perspective on politics in your country and politics in America.

If the World Could Vote….Fridays with Robynn

Lowell showed me an interesting poll yesterday. Taken by the BBC, the poll declares that if the world were voting for president—Obama would win by a landslide! Of the 21 countries they polled only one country, and that one dear to my heart and Marilyn’s, Pakistan, would vote Romney for President.  Pakistan is likely responding to Drone strikes and other policies toward Pakistan played out in the last four years. The other 20 nations would definitively choose the incumbent.

And as we know, the rest of the world can’t vote in an American election — this is a right reserved for those who hold citizenship.

As an American green card holder but not a citizen, I’m in the same situation. The only person who can vote in our family is Lowell. Recently he stated he’d let his vote be a family vote. We voted at supper time. Connor assigned how many votes we’d each get in our “electoral college”. The kids each get three. Lowell and I each get four. We held our own presidential debate on the issues that matter to us. Our ten-year old is inclined toward President Obama. She likes the emphasis he places on education. We have more talking to do. More praying.

But you can’t imagine how exasperating it is to not be able to vote! As a Canadian guest in this country I can only clench my fists, try not to panic and pray like crazy. I listen in on live broadcasts of Presidential debates like I’m listening in on a cell phone conversation. I hear one side of the conversation but it’s not my dialogue. I’m not invited in. I may react emotionally but I don’t get to weigh in.

As much as I hate to admit it, it really does matter to the rest of the world who the President of the United States of America is. The world, like me, has an interest, a stake in who the President is but they don’t get a vote. And neither should they.

Citizenship has its rights and responsibilities. Voting is one such right. Voting is also a responsibility.

Recently, after the second Presidential debate, I was intrigued by a friend’s response on Facebook. This friend is from South Africa but he and his family live in North India. Christiaan passionately aired his views and opinions on Facebook. Here’s some of what he said:

There (seems to be a) quiet understanding between the pulpit and the market place. If you give money for our projects and my new sound system or car I will (close my eyes) on what you do to get your money! Instead we will find ‘real sinners’ to condemn–. Condemning them makes us look better… We choose to follow politically the most religious looking one. We call it ‘values’ and we vote for whoever will leave our hypocrisy alone and unchallenged. We will excuse our actions with phrases like, ‘look what THEY are doing’…this is the same phrase that propped up Apartheid and gave it a Christian backing.

Why do I talk about politics? Because my life in South Africa has been shaped by it. My religious thoughts carve through politics all the time and so do my prayers…

…I love politics because it shows me where I can be the one to bring reconciliation, where I can pray, where the weak ones really are in society, what to pray for and how to reach the ones not yet loved… [There is ] so much I as a South African can say about [my] nation’s politics, but because of who I am and what my people have done to my compatriots- I dare not say. In my own nation I dare not voice an opinion, not because it is not allowed but because it will only polarize further. It will only cause more pain. Instead the only voice I have is WHAT I DO for the ones I love and the ones I find abhorrent alike! And the rest is up to God…

I just cannot understand how Evangelical Christianity in the States has ended up in this bind when it comes to politics. It seems to me the whole thing needs to be reevaluated. Have we as Christians had a role in ostracizing people no matter what their convictions or leanings yet at the same time harbouring in our own hearts wrongs just as bad? 

This vote is not for or against God…God is grown up. He does not need our defense. He is not man-made, democracy though is! Our vote will not move us away from God, our actions though might…

My affinity with Christiaan is that we are both citizens of heaven, members of the same family. He is my Christian brother. We lived out our lives and our faith side by side in India. He has articulated with passion and with conviction. He has an opinion…a strong one at that, about who the next American President should be. And while he and I don’t vote, we do stand up for justice, we plead for Kingdom issues, we defend the poor and we pray. Perhaps both Christiaan and I can see through the political jargon and chaos to some of what’s right, and to some of what’s ridiculous. Perhaps we are freed up to pray with broader borders in mind. Perhaps living on the outside gives us a glimpse into what’s happening on the inside. Or perhaps we don’t have a clue how the American soul works and what it’s deep cultural needs might be.

I don’t want a president who sees America as the “hope of the earth”….but neither do I want a president who uses drone missiles to kill faceless innocent lives in far off places, nor a president who denies the realities of climate change, nor a president who lives in a fantasy land, nor a president that mistakes ruling the USA for governing the world. It’s such a hard decision. Maybe I’m glad, or at least relieved, that I don’t have to choose, that I don’t get to vote.

I trust in the True Hope of the world. And I take comfort that’s He’s in charge and not the electoral college, not the American electorate, not the President of the United States.

14 year-old Courage

Warning: This is a rant

Malala Yousafzai is 14. She lives in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, a place where our family spent many lovely vacations. And while Swat is lovely for vacationers, it’s not an easy place to live by any standard.

Malala is not your typical 14-year-old. At age 11 she was writing a blog diary for the BBC under a pseudonym and two years later she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize for her work promoting the right for girls in Pakistan to get an education.

And yesterday she was shot — shot in the head and the neck and is now fighting for life at a hospital in Peshawar. The Taliban proudly claimed the shooting; she has been on a hit list for over a year for her work promoting education and rights for girls. They saw her as a threat, a threat to an ideology and way of life, a threat to who they are. You can read about the shooting here.

It got me thinking about a lot of things. About courage — she stood so boldly for what she believed. About extremism — a 14 year-old girl is a threat in what universe? About apathy — the 14-year-olds I know are interested in boys, sex, Justin Bieber, and New Direction. I’ll take Malala any day of the week. Standing up for education is somewhat nobler than looking forward to getting birth control pills from your school nurse.

I know that’s harsh and I want it to be. 

Because I’m a little tired of this country and our whining. I’m tired of our apathy. I’m tired of watching teenagers and adults who don’t give a rat’s ass for the world they live in and I see it every day. I’m tired of us thinking we have all the answers for a world where 14 year-olds get shot for believing in education. I’m tired of the election and tired of not having worthy leaders. I’m tired of a world that condemns the attack one day, and goes back to being just as awful the next.

I’m tired of myself being a part of this because I’d like to be a little more like Malala. I’d like to be braver, I’d like to stand up boldly for what I believe, I’d like a good dose of 14 year-old courage.

How about you? What are you tired of? What do you want more courage to change? 

Readers – Thanks to CAB reader, Debbie Wood, here is a link to an interview with Malala and her father when she was eleven.