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The Witness Workshop, Part One: Secular Origins

Posted on Friday, September 1, 2006 at 10:15PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | CommentsPost a Comment

ew cameo.jpg Ideally, the workshops I give on “The Ancient Discipline of Witness” — such as the one I gave at Baltimore Yearly Meeting — become clinics of a sort, like tennis or investment clinics, where we participants (myself included) can work together on improving our skills.

In real life, we don’t usually rise to that high level. Usually, when I’ve given this workshop, most of the participants are unfamiliar with the understandings that underlie practices like witness. And even those who grasp the understandings and have experiences of their own to draw on, often lack the vocabulary they need to discuss what they were doing and why it worked — or didn’t work — in any depth.

And so these workshops usually wind up being bare introductions to the tradition.

Our witness workshop at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, though, was a lot less introductory than most. We had a couple of dozen participants, and a good proportion of them were people who had already been engaged in risky and important social actions, had struggled to find ways to succeed, and had done a good deal of thinking afterward about what exactly they’d been trying to do and what they’d wound up doing./

What’s that wonderful old Quaker line? “Come to worship with mind and heart prepared.” Well, they certainly did — and we had great discussions because of it!

I won’t try to give a blow-by-blow account of the workshop. It wouldn’t work — it would need far more words from me than a blog site can support, and even then, my words would often seem unclear. There’s a good reason why I do these workshops in person and not over the Web!

But I can do the next best thing here, which is to share with you the way I customarily introduce my witness workshops. This will be the rough equivalent of you getting to sit in on the first forty-five minutes or so of a workshop without having to travel anywhere or pay any fees to do it. (Hurrah for the Web!) And I’ll try to say something about how these workshops typically unfold from that point on — and how this particular workshop fit into the larger pattern of what I was doing at Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

So, dear Friends: it seems to me that the easiest and best place to start in understanding the discipline of witness, is with the history of the thing. For the spiritual discipline of witness seems to have evolved in a very straightforward way out of the secular practices by which the ancient Hebrews settled their disputes. And thus the secular practices shed a good deal of light on the nature of the spiritual dynamic.

The Hebrew word for “witness” is ‘êd, and his/her function — just as you might expect — is to provide testimony, ‘êdûth, in a dispute, clarifying the facts so that the judge or judges can judge rightly.

You can see just from the similarity of the two Hebrew words, ‘êd and ‘êdûth, how closely these two ideas were connected in the ancient Hebrew mind.

In the ancient days, when the discipline of witness was first taking shape, the justice system was very primitive indeed. There was no established system of forensics, for example; no one knew how to determine guilt or innocence by looking at fingerprints or testing DNA. All that was yet to come in the far distant future. So when there was a dispute that needed to be judged, it wasn’t expected to be settled by examining physical evidence; it was expected to be settled by questioning the witnesses. Everything depended on the testimonies the witnesses could provide.

Rules arose to guide the judges who were working with the witnesses. For example, a single witness could not settle a case; it was only “by the mouths of two or three” that “all things shall be established.” (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, quoted by Christ in Matthew 18:16.)

Then, too, the character of the witness made a big difference: a person who was known to be a good observer, consistently honest and truthful even when it worked to his disadvantage, and careful in his speech, was far more highly regarded than one who was none of these things. (Cf. I Samuel 12:1-5; Josephus, Antiquities,, IV.viii.15; I Thessalonians 2:3-5)

Witnesses didn’t testify under oath, for the Hebrews and Jews, like modern Friends, didn’t regard oath-taking as a reliable means of extracting truth from liars. The truth of a witness’s assertions was something that the judge had to discern or establish in some way.

But there were incentives to be carefully truthful, and not to make any accusation without a very solid reason. The most serious of these incentives was the fact that any witness who was caught bearing false testimony against an accused party in a criminal case, had to suffer the same penalty that the accused party would have had to suffer had the false accusation been believed — so that someone who falsely accused a person of murder or adultery had to suffer the penalty reserved for murderers and adulterers.

Many of the principles of witness as a secular practice are illustrated in the story of Susanna and the Elders, which is told in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Daniel — a part of the book that is excluded from Protestant Bibles, though included in Catholic ones. The story goes that Susanna, a young Jewish woman, was bathing (nude) one day when she was seen by two male elders of the community. The elders approached her and demanded that she have sex with them. They threatened that if she did not, they’d accuse her of adultery with a young man, which in that time and place was a capital crime.

Nevertheless, she refused to do as they asked.

And so they accused her, and the case was heard by the gathered community of Jews in that area (equivalent to the Meeting for Business, in Quaker terms). And things would have gone fatally for Susanna, because there were two witnesses testifying against her and they were both regarded as weighty in the community — except that Daniel, then a young boy, intervened on Susanna’s behalf.

Daniel insisted on questioning the two elders separately. With each of them, he asked where Susanna was supposedly doing the adulterous act with the unidentified young man. One elder said it was under one kind of tree; the other said it was under a different kind. And of course, the whole community realized that the elders would not be in disagreement about such a basic point if they hadn’t been making the whole thing up!

And so the elders suffered the fate that would have been Susanna’s: they were taken out and stoned to death.

I think one can see how this approach to justice gave every member of the Hebrew community a strong reason to live a life of integrity — so that, if he or she ever found herself in court, perhaps accused wrongly of some crime, her testimony would be respected. There was a real incentive in this system to become the sort of person who could speak as a witness and be believed.

And what is maybes equally significant, this system also trained every member of Hebrew society to be alert for the sound and the signs of integrity, in the voices and actions of people around her or him.

It was in these circumstances that the practice of witness was born. Perhaps this is not surprising.

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