Can I Get a Witness?

Scott Black Johnston
Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta

Isaiah 25:6-9
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Hebrews 12:1-2, 12-15a
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.  14 Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.

1 Thessalonians 2:5-8
5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

So, have you heard the news?  I am talking about the rumor that has been racing up and down the corridors of the literary world, the gossip that has bloggers popping caffeine tablets just to keep up with the torrent of internet posts, the revelation that has been tying cable news pundits in befuddled knots:  Dumbledore is gay!  Yes, that’s right; about ten days ago J. K. Rowling, the author of the wildly popular series of books chronicling the adventures of Harry Potter, boy wizard, took questions from a Carnegie Hall audience about her work.  In responding to an inquiry about the love interests of Albus A. Dumbledore, the headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling revealed that she had always imagined that the world’s most powerful wizard was gay.  On hearing this news, the crowd gasped, and then a smattering of applause broke out.  Reactions over the last ten days have followed a similar pattern; some are gasping, some are applauding.  On the Harry Potter fan website, TheLeakyCauldron.org, one concerned person wrote, “Thanks for permanently staining my view of Dumbledore.”  Another, a woman from nearby Gwinnett County, who has been trying to have the books removed from public school libraries for years, wrote that, “This proves Rowling’s anti-Christian agenda.”  To be fair, there were posts that called the author’s actions “courageous.”  These numbered about the same as the skeptical posts which accused the author of staging a publicity stunt; although it’s hard to imagine that this series has ever suffered from a lack of attention.  Many posts, however, simply seemed puzzled, leaving at least one fan to ask why the author had decided to “politicize” the series at this late date. 

Then, two days ago, on the editorial page of the New York Times, cultural critic Edward Rothstein had this to say about the controversy:

[T]here seems to be no compelling reason within the books for her after-the-fact assertion. Of course, it would not be inconsistent for Dumbledore to be gay, but the books’ accounts certainly don’t make it necessary. The question is distracting, which is why it never really emerges in the books themselves. Ms. Rowling may think of Dumbledore as gay, but there is no reason why anyone else should.

Maybe Rothstein is right—there’s no good reason for this.  It’s a distraction.  We should probably laugh and dismiss the furor as simply another bizarre attempt to sexualize a fictional character.  Remember Tinky-Winky, the purple Teletubby, or, further back, the rumors about Bert and Ernie.  How silly was that?  Of course, in those cases, it was clergy from the religious right who were worried that public television was sneaking hidden agendas into the antics of asexual puppets.  In this case, the situation seems different; for it is not a critic, but the author herself, Ms. Rowling, who has “outed” her creation.  Now, why would she do that? 

In 1963, Motown great Marvin Gaye, with members of both the Supremes and the Four Tops doo-whopping in the background, produced a song that climbed all the way to #3 on Billboard’s R&B chart.  The popular tune was about love gone wrong, and Gaye entitled it, “Can I Get a Witness.”  In the ensuing years, the song was so popular that numerous other artists covered it, including Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and Rod Stewart.  More recently, the title phrase in Gaye’s hit song has become a catchy refrain in American hip-hop.  Can I get a witness?  If you are at all familiar with the roots of Rock and Roll, it probably won’t surprise you that Gaye’s inspiration for the song came (as was so often the case) from a less-famous gospel number performed by the Swan Silvertones; and, yes, their music is on I-Tunes.  What you may not know, depending on the amount of time that you have spent in African-American worship services, is that the Silvertones took as their inspiration a question that is often asked by black preachers in the midst of their Sunday sermons:  “Can I get a witness?” 

Now, when this inquiry is uttered in worship (Can I get a witness?), it is important to know that it is not intended as a serious question; it is not something that you are meant to ponder through the coming week.  It is a question that, in the call-and-response rhythm of African-American preaching, the congregation is supposed to answer in the moment, from the depths of their faithful hearts.  Where did it come from?  It is difficult to pin-point, but the first written record that we have of this memorable phrase comes from the late 1800’s and the writings of an African-American educator, Nannie Helen Burroughs.  Burroughs was a native Virginian, a devout National Baptist, an educator, and an early civil rights leader.  Her father also happened to be a preacher.  All of this contributed to Burroughs’ work, calling for a stronger role for women in the church that she loved.  In a speech to her denomination entitled, “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” Ms. Burroughs described the way in which the request “Can I get a witness?” would arise in a sermon.  It usually comes right after the preacher has told a story.  In posing this question the preacher asks if anyone in congregation can affirm what has just been said, with an “Amen” or the clapping of hands or maybe even verbal testimony that what is being said in the pulpit is true.  “Can I get a witness?”  Amen.  Yes, preacher, that’s the way it is.  I bet Ms. Burroughs got a lot of Amens that day, because in the aftermath of her speech, women were welcomed more fully into the mission work of the National Baptist Church.

There’s a whole lot of theology packed into the question, “Can I get a witness?”  It implies that the gospel that we share is alive and active, that the God we worship is busy knocking about in the world today.  It also places the community at the heart of Christian proclamation.  For with this question, one of the faithful says to the other, “this is how I am experiencing God,” in order to ask, “Are experiencing this, too?”  On the road to Emmaus the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, opens the scriptures to them, and then in the breaking of bread is revealed to them.  Before they have finished chewing, Jesus vanishes.  As these befuddled, wide-eyed souls resume their journey, they turn to each other for confirmation of what has just happened.  “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as we walked along, listening to him open the scriptures?”  You experienced what I just experienced; didn’t you?  Can I get a witness?

Now, all this talk of experience (while biblical, to be sure) is enough to get a true-blue Presbyterian worried.  After all, one of the strengths of our Reformed tradition is the recognition that human experience can be a source of moral rot.  We never want to imply that just because people can point to a “common” experience means that they have latched onto God’s truth.  We have seen too many cases when demagogues have used similar-sounding rhetoric to goad people into pooling their prejudices.  Consider the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi party, or any of history’s hate-mongers; they, too, have experiences that they want to hold up as the truth.  They spew their vitriol, and then ask if others haven’t experienced blacks, Jews, women, Roman Catholics, immigrants, homosexuals, Bosnians, and Native Americans that way, too.  Their awful “witness” reminds us of the old Methodist adage: taken alone, human experience is a one-legged stool that cannot stand as an authority.

So, is the question, “Can I get a witness?” theologically appropriate?  Does it elevate raw experience over other sources of God’s truth?  In a book that I read to my children this past week, a young boy, who has been planning to go trick-or-treating, discovers that his mad scientist costume (a white lab coat) has been dyed pink.  It had taken on this new color after being swirled in hot water with clothes that belonged to other members of his family.  It occurs to me that our inner lives could be compared to that clothes-washer.  We have all sorts of stuff tumbling around inside of us: secular stuff with sacred stuff; our family history being tossed around with the history of God’s people; our reasoning mind coloring our emotional hearts; a few memorized snippets of the creeds inking the same waters in which a depressing e-mail swims; the vivid recollection of a cold stare and a question about our commitment to Jesus spinning in the wash with a memory of a gentle Sunday School teacher pushing paper figures across a flannel landscape.  Somehow, all these things (and so much more) are at play inside of us; somehow, all these ingredients are tumbling around together, coloring each other.  So that, when we give testimony in front of the community of faith, we are always (inevitably) wearing pink lab coats.  When we dare to speak, to give witness, to point to God in the world, we are sharing both the gospel and ourselves in some strangely tinted, holy amalgam.

When the Apostle Paul writes to Christians in the bustling city of Thessalonica—a city where he and his sidekicks Silvanus and Timothy had planted a church—he writes with great affection.  It is a love letter.  Listen again to his language: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”  Also our own selves!  These words are striking.  In this section of the letter, scholars like Beverly Gaventa, who will address us tomorrow, see Paul describing what it means to be a true apostle—a witness.  In this, Paul claims that sharing the good news of God requires more than a disciple armed with a profound subject; it insists that apostles do more; that they share their lives, their selves, their energies, their stories with each other.  Isn’t this, after all, the message of the incarnation?  God didn’t send us a textbook on faithful living; God came, sharing God’s own self with us, for us. 

About nine months ago a friend said to me, “Scott, I think that the legislative period in the life of our troubled denomination is drawing to a close and we are entering a judicial season.”  I asked him to elaborate.  “Well,” he said, “it’s like this.  We have fought and fought and fought over the Book of Order.  We have battled ourselves into a bloody stalemate, and now I think, with the passage of the PUP report, we are not going to have as much energy for the next charge onto the legislative fray.  Instead, we are going to move to a time when individual cases are being decided on the floors of presbyteries, and at session meetings, and in front of the Permanent Judicial Commission.  This means that our church’s conflict will no longer be focused on a generic issue; it is going to be about specific candidates.”  I think his analysis was pretty good, although it remains to be seen whether this change of venue will move us (as a denomination) a single step closer to the kingdom of God.  What I do believe is that if we are, in fact, entering a judicial season in sorting through the church’s current turmoil, if we are entering a time then these issues will be considered in the context of ecclesial courts, then, it is the time, my friends, for witnesses.  

I don’t know about you, but the first things that come to my mind when people start talking about court proceedings and witnesses are John Grissom novels and Hollywood trial movies.  My favorites include Grissom’s “A Time to Kill,” and “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise playing a Navy JAG and Jack Nicolson a colonel in the Marines.  Their final courtroom confrontation is a classic, as one circles the other, jaws set, neck veins throbbing, voices bellowing…  “I want the truth!”  “You can’t handle the truth!”  Still, as much as I like that kind of thing, probably because it gives me the visceral sense that justice is happening, it ain’t the church.  At least, not the way Paul sees it.  In Thessalonica, Paul knew that the Christian community had been visited by philosophers who gained an edge in arguments (and received financial rewards) by appealing to people’s base emotions and by ridiculing their opponents’ morals and motives.  In today’s text, Paul seems momentarily tempted by this image when he says “we might have made demands as apostles” (“I want the truth!”), but then he pulls back, offering an alternative perspective that is so tender it may well make us blush (well, at least half of us).  “We were gentle among you,” writes the apostle, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”  According to Gaventa, this image evokes the most primal way in which a nurse cares for her own children: by breast-feeding them, nourishing them, sustaining them with her own flesh.

Ok, so back to J. K Rowling and her world-famous wizard.  Is it, as author Edward Rothstein suggests, “irrelevant” that Dumbledore is gay?  On one hand, I would have to say, “yes.”  Having read the entire series, it’s true, that Dumbledore’s sexuality doesn’t seem to be a factor as the wizard administers a school for magical young people, honing their minds, developing their skills, challenging their ethics, and eventually leading them in a larger fight against the powers of darkness and death.  On the other hand, Rowling’s disclosure makes a clear point.  While a person’s sexual orientation is never irrelevant to that individual, is it ever a determining factor in predicting who will and who will not run the good race?  So, far from being the distraction that Rothstein suggests, Rowling’s comments come as a revelation, moving these popular books from the category of escapist fiction to that of gentle witness.

I love the cover of this evening’s bulletin, Fra Angelico’s fresco of “All the Saints.”  When you look at them, whom do you see?  What do you see?  Do you wonder, in that great cloud of witnesses, how many were gay?  How many were straight?  Does it matter?  I used to argue that it didn’t matter at all: that it was irrelevant to God, and therefore ought to be irrelevant to us; but now, as we enter into this judicial season, I am changing my mind.  I think we all need to sit in small circles and tell the tales that strike us as relevant to our faith, and then boldly pose the old, old question, “Can I get a witness?”  I think we in the church need to stop writing position papers and start sharing our stories… honest stories, painful stories, goofy stories, until the gospel stains us pink with its gentle grace and we find ourselves standing with all the ordinary folks at the end of the race.

Edward Rothstein, “Is Dumbledore Gay? Depends on Definitions of ‘Is’ and ‘Gay’,” The New York Times, October 29, 2007.

©Scott Black Johnston

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