Witnesses, Martyrs, and Whiteness

By Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott, Analyst Westar Think Tank | 9-7-2020Red Lodge, Montana

A teen meets his mother at the door, shoving the cell phone into her hand to show her the video. My niece asks him not to show her horrific things like that. As angry as she has ever seen him, he responds: “That’s what’s wrong with our country. Everyone just wants to look away!”

My grandnephew has identified the essential power of witnessing, the willingness to look and to see. When millions of white people looked into the dispassionate, even cocky, face of Derek Chauvin, hand in his pocket, pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck as he cried out for help, some finally looked and saw. Witnessing is the power to look and to see.

CNN.com: Minneapolis Police Chief Comments on Murder of George Floyd

Something happened. White people took responsibility to look and to see, large numbers of white people. White people looked into the white face of Derek Chauvin and did not identify with him. We did not see ourselves in his white face. We heard George Floyd cry out and identified instead with the black man with the white knee on his neck. Mothers heard George Floyd cry out for his mama and heard his voice as the cry of their own child. White people looked and saw and heard. We witnessed.

This time, witnessing set something in motion. Why news and videos of senseless police murders of one black person after another, year after year, did not cause this outpouring is a question for historians to analyze. This time, however, white people looked and saw and heard.

White people witnessed and became witnesses. Thousands upon thousands joined in marches and protests. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the need was overwhelming to witness, to act, to manifest opposition and outrage at the devaluing of black lives. Mass actions in the cities drew enormous crowds, even in spite of tear gas and rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades, even defying curfews, even as looting and destruction broke out.

Many of the mass actions include a physical practice of witnessing by observing eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence, recalling the time that George Floyd had the officer’s knee in his neck until his precious life went forth from him. In one such action, mainly white protesters filled the half-mile-long Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon, lying face down with their hands behind their backs for nearly nine minutes. Even Portland, with its long history of racism, felt the need to bear witness.

Iconic Burnside Bridge Protest

In small towns like Red Lodge, Montana, where I live, white people felt the urgent need to manifest support for Black Lives Matter and showed up in spite of threats from armed white supremacists. Our town was hardly the only one. Pictures of lone demonstrators in small towns holding signs, facing the hostile attitudes of some of their neighbors, show an overwhelming need to be witnesses, to visibly show that we looked and we saw, to be the testimony visible in the street.

Our small-town march, now every Saturday, also observes nine minutes of silence with each person positioning themselves as they choose. Some lie face down, others take a knee, other sit or stand, all are silent together.

A white neighbor of mine mocked our action, implicitly claiming to be able to put on the mind of black people in this time. I thought about a response that would question her presumption to speak for all black people, a response that would include asking if she has had actual conversations with any black people about any of this. That is, of course, unlikely in our nearly lily-white town. I could have pointed out that nearly all of the people of color in our town were present at the first march and observed the time of joint silence.

Offensive, hurtful, and downright unfair and nonsensical as such comments are coming from someone who has done nothing in this moment to be any kind of witness, they still needle into something we need to recognize in ourselves in our witnessing.

Witnessing becomes a performative act.

As we look and see, as we witness the murder of George Floyd, we also see ourselves as white people. We see the cruel white face of Derek Chauvin, and we recoil at his whiteness and our own. We do not want to be white like that. We do not want to be racists, or perhaps more importantly, we do not want to be seen as racists. In being brought face-to-face with whiteness in its criminal form, we need to show that we do not support that criminality, that we are not “white like that.” We need to show that we are good even though we are white. The overwhelming need to witness to what we have seen becomes a performance, and too often we make that performance about us. We try to bypass the teachable moment when we can learn more deeply about systemic racism, how we participate in the violence of the whiteness that system creates, and how we can live in opposition to it. Instead we try to perform our own morality.

In a culture influenced by Christianity, martyrdom figures prominently. The impulse to perform morality has deep roots in the elevation of the martyrs as figures to emulate. The word martyr itself comes from the Greek word that originally meant, simply, “witness.” Early members of the Christ groups were witnesses to their faith.

The narrative of their heroic deaths in the arena often began with their testimony before magistrates that, yes, “I am a Christian.” (Ego Christianus sum.) Martyrdom became associated with Christian identity.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gerome, France, 1824–1904The resulting heroic deaths transformed the meaning of the word martyr from being a witness, one who testifies to what they have seen and heard, to being one who dies for the belief they affirm. The narratives of their martyrdoms recount not simply a death, however, but a performance of death as a spectacle in front of a huge audience in the stands of the arena and often a celestial audience with God and Christ seen to be looking on from above the stands as well.

As the word martyr became more associated with death, this performance displaced the content of their testimony. While their declared allegiance to an alternative emperor and empire provoked the Roman empire to execute them, the narratives of their performance of death became a focus of Christian identity. While their deaths revealed the violence at the root of the Roman empire, the narrative became about them. The tales of their heroism displaced any potential focus on the rest of the massive slaughter in the arena with a focus on their courage in death. When the narratives point beyond the martyrs, the crucified Christ and God as the true rulers are the focus, not the other victims of the empire’s violence.

We don’t seek death as those Christian martyrs of the early centuries did, but the impulse to perform our own morality continues the legacy of elevating them. We carry this legacy in the impulse to make it about us. A different response is possible, carrying a different story in another way to witness to what we have seen and heard. A first step is to stop caring about being a “good white person.” Who does that help? What purpose does that serve? I realize this is not easy. The impulse is strong. Performing and posturing is not helpful, however.

We need to return to witnessing as looking and seeing and hearing. In the moment of witnessing, we can respond not with the individualist performance that the martyr narratives have come to promote but with a willingness to recognize our place in a collective movement of empathy.

Acting as witnesses, we elevate the names and voices of black and indigenous people and people of color, lifting the names of those who have been killed and amplifying the voices of those who have been silenced. When we speak, especially to other white people, it should be to affirm the importance of those lives and those voices. When we witness and feel pain, we will focus on their pain. When we look at lives lost, we will lift up the dignity and worth and human story of those who have been killed. As our nation seeks solutions, we look to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, listening to their plans, affirming their leadership, and recognizing that real solutions may not be comfortable for us.

On the street, we stand ready to position ourselves as white people to buffer black marchers and indigenous people and people of color. In all of our activity, we do the same by taking responsibility to speak to other white people, for example, as witnesses asking others to witness in empathy. We do not make it about us. We do not seek a shining moment of courage in the arena. We seek an end to the killing and real repair for stolen lives and stolen lands. We use our lives to witness to that greater common purpose.

A compelling vision of this shift in what it means to witness was offered in the central image for the closing worship of the most recent Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A prose poem, “Three Dreams in a Desert,” by Olive Schreiner (1855–1920) depicts a dream that shows locusts crossing a river, an image that may characterize army ants more accurately in the waking real world. The figure of Woman long sleeping, advised by the figure of Reason about crossing the river to reach the Land of Freedom, hears the sound of thousands upon thousands of feet. The old man Reason tells her that these are “the feet of those that shall follow you. Lead on! Make a track to the water’s edge.” He speaks of how locusts cross a stream. “First one comes down to the water-edge, and it is swept away, and then another comes, and then another, and then another; and at last with their bodies piled up a bridge is built, and the rest pass over.” Woman asks about those who come first and receives the answer that “they are swept away, and are heard of no more.” The response to the repeated question “and what of that?” is that “They make a track to the water’s edge.” Woman then asks who will pass over “that bridge which shall be built with our bodies.” The answer, “The entire human race.”

While the loss of individuality portrayed in this image may be disturbing to some, the vision offers an antidote to the posturing that is a legacy of the martyr narratives. The focus is not on personal heroism or even personal sacrifice so much as it is on participation in creating a better future. To witness in this way means to look and to see the prize of a future we may never experience ourselves, to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

That prize of a better future is a vision that we are unable to see clearly with our white eyes. No one person and no single group can see it alone. To look and to see the prize requires a collective vision, a multiple vision. As white people, we know that our clouded vision must be cleared by others who can see with the eyes of experiences we do not share. The eyes of the experience of black and indigenous people and people of color see the vision. We can glimpse it in the poetry and metaphor that has strengthened generations creating the bridge towards the prize, the eyes of those who have gone before. We must witness to the prize based on others’ testimony.

Illustration by Kadir Nelson in Kwame Alexander, The Undefeated (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Screenshot from a reading by the author.

Another poetic vision from a first-century Christ group articulates an alternative to the performative witness portrayed in the later martyr stories. Oft-quoted verses in Hebrews 11–12 offer a different image, a cloud of witnesses of people presented as heroes, men and women who lived courageously “by faith.” Like the first locusts to the water, they died “without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (11:13). As in the later martyr narratives in the arena, the “cloud of witnesses” form an audience for the race set before the present generation to “run with perseverance” (12:1). If the race is a performance for this cloud of witnesses, then, how is it different from a performance that follows the pattern of the martyr stories to place ourselves at the center of the arena?

What if we call to our mind’s eyes, what if we look and see with a poetic sight, those who have gone before. What if we see the millions of black people who endured slavery and its aftermath and who struggled passionately to maintain connections and culture as family and community? What if we see the millions of indigenous people who were killed and displaced and who held fiercely to cultures and traditions that were being forcibly erased? What if we see the millions of others who have suffered from racism as people of color and have worked diligently to make decent lives and maintain strong communities for their families and descendants? What if we see them and recognize, with the poetic sight of the author of Hebrews, that they see us? In the moment of looking and seeing, the moment of witnessing the murder of George Floyd, we can become aware that we, too, are being seen.

As witnesses we do not posture and perform. We see.

We see with the vision of that cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before. We see what is happening now with eyes informed by learning about Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) people’s experiences. We see a future for those who will come after us with vision informed by them. We run the race of our own lives seeing our world and the future while being seen by them. While this audience may be mystical and poetic, this “cloud of witnesses” is the audience for our actions.

We do not perform for them. We see with them. We witness.

Susan M. (Elli) Elliott is a writer, lecturer, workshop leader, and environmental activist based in Red Lodge, Montana. She began her doctoral work after years in urban ministry in Chicago where she served a local church, directed human rights organizations, worked in grassroots economic development, and organized direct actions on local and international justice issues. For several years, she managed construction companies and a mailing service as ventures to employ and train urban young people in Chicago. She also spent a year in a village in Mexico assisting with the economic development work of the Arizona Farmworkers Union.

Elli Elliott's scholarly work focuses on the pagan and Roman Imperial backgrounds of early Christianity, including Greco-Roman mystery cults—particularly the cult of Cybele—and central Anatolian popular religiosity. Her first book explores Paul's letter to the Galatians and the relation of the circumcision controversy to the practice of ritual self-castration. Her current book project is based on a lecture series offered in local churches and uses George Lakoff's work on the family metaphor in political discussion to understand early Christian family language in the context of the Roman Empire She is the author of scholarly articles and reviews that have appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Biblical Research, Semeia, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and Listening, and a contributor to Eerdmans' Dictionary of the Bible and The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.


Academic Credentials

  • B.A. equivalent, The Institute at Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona
  • M.Div., Jesuit School of Theology at Chicago
  • Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago

Academic Appointments

  • Adjunct Instructor, Humanities Department, Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming, August , 2010 to present
  • Faculty Member in New Testament, Lay Ministry Institute, Montana Association of Churches, August, 2008 to closure of institute
  • Faculty Member, Theological Education Institute of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1999–2003
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1997
  • Lecturer of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1993-1996

Professional Service

  • Minister, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fairmont, Minnesota, 2005–2007
  • Minister for Faith & Learning, Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2003–2005
  • Pastor, Zion United Church of Christ, Sterling, Colorado, 1997–2003
  • Director, Justice and Peace Network of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1990–1992
  • Pastor and Community Program Director, Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, 1987–1990
  • Director, Interfaith Coalition for Justice to Immigrants, Chicago, 1981–1982
  • Coordinator, Alliance to End Repression, Chicago, 1978–1980

Membership in Professional Societies

  • Society of Biblical Literature
  • Westar Institute
  • Catholic Biblical Association
  • North American Patristics Society
  • Chicago Society for Biblical Research
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