"Can I get a witness?" Our pastor, the Rev. Darryl Aaron, asks that question at least once in every sermon, especially when he wants the congregation to join him in response to a particular gospel imperative. The phrase sharpens our thinking about the current state of religion in American culture, especially among Baptists. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit the word "witness" and its meaning for the future.

By Bill Leonard

For our 17th century Baptist forebears the idea of witness seemed inseparable from dissent -- declaring who they were in an official religious culture that denounced and often harassed them as purveyors of a false gospel. That initial witness led them to insist that all church members must affirm a direct experience of God's grace and to resist the mandated baptism of infants, as well as allegiance to a state-privileged church controlled by a ministerial hierarchy.

Their "believers' church" was also something of a "peoples' church." One early confession of faith (1611) notes that believers "ought, when they are come together, to Pray, Prophecy, break bread, and administer all the holy ordinances, although as yet they have no Officers, or that their Officers should be in Prison, sick, or by any other means hindered from the Church." (They apparently took it for granted that a Baptist witness would land their church "officers" in jail.)

Later Baptists often used the word witness to describe their evangelical and missionary "duty" to declare the gospel locally and globally, from one-on-one evangelism to a worldwide missionary strategy. Others, however, (Primitive and Strict Baptists, for example) believed that their witness was to uphold the sovereignty of the God who without need of human efforts would save those elected before the foundation of the world. While Baptists may claim a common commitment to the gospel of Christ, they differ considerably on its meaning and implementation.

Not every Baptist witness has been positive. Historically, certain Baptist individuals and groups generated a negative witness in their support for such culture-bound issues as slavery and segregation, complete with their own biblical proof texts.

A more recent case in point involves members of the infamous Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church whose self-absorbed "witness" treats grieving people with abject cruelty in the name of a god who not only "hates the sin" but abhors both sinner and innocent alike. In fact, Baptists across the racial and theological spectrum are increasingly concerned that the Westboro church's crude, media-obsessed practices are negatively impacting the public perception of Baptists throughout the country. Many worry that a genuine Baptist witness of care and compassion is severely compromised in the public mind by the hateful activities of one Kansas congregation. In response, Baptists must extend their efforts to return good for evil inside and outside the Body of Christ.

In every era, the witness of the church remains a work in progress as congregations celebrate their shared identity through worship, instruction and care for those who are hurting, while refining other ministries in response to location, conscience or a specific historical moment.

The recent shootings in Arizona, perpetrated only days before the Martin Luther King Memorial, offer a terrible reminder that we remain a violent society with killing fields that stretch from a Memphis motel to a Tucson Safeway 43 years later. It compels us to ask, what kind of Christian witness is required in a culture where citizen-children can be martyred while participating in "democracy in action?"

Reflecting on all that I found hope in the witness of Highland Baptist Church and Forest Missionary Baptist Church, two Louisville, Ky., congregations that responded together to a rash of drive-by shootings that struck their community awhile back. For two years, members of those faith communities, one predominately European-American, the other predominately African-American, gathered for prayer at the site of each shooting. They also identified the dead with crosses spread across their respective church yards. It was a shared witness against violence expressed at a particular time and place.

In a way, it is also an implicit, grace-filled alternative to the compassionless actions of the Westboro Baptist Church members at the funerals of AIDS sufferers, American soldiers and North Carolinian Elizabeth Edwards. Only elaborate negotiations kept them away from Tucson. Those Louisville Baptists may not have stopped the violence in their community, but at least they challenged it, standing with, not against, the victims.

This week, at a breakfast honoring the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the speakers quoted this statement attributed to the slain Civil Rights leader and Baptist preacher: "True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one, but in the silence of the many." If Dr. King was correct, then an answer to the question "Can I get a witness?" is required of us all.



OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.