June 14, 1910, some twelve hundred delegates gathered in
the beautiful and blustery city of Edinburgh. They made
their way to the great Assembly Hall of the United Free
Church of Scotland. For the next ten days they would listen
as speaker after speaker bore witness to what they had seen
and what they had heard in the many strange lands where
they worked. In this process of listening, sharing, and
praying the delegates, drawn largely from the ranks of church
and missionary society leaders and veteran missionaries,
sought to discern how best to carry their message more effectively
to the world. It was the message that “Christ has died.
Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”
a century later and an ocean away, the American landscape
was being littered with the bodies of Civil Rights workers,
victims of fear and of hatred. This handful of Civil Rights
workers strove relentlessly against overwhelming odds to
aid thousands of African Americans who for nearly a century
had become increasingly disenfranchised as citizens in their
own land. The witness that these Civil Rights workers brought
to the American South was that things could change if these
disenfranchised people could only register and begin to
exercise their right to vote.
had been a very long weekend in Jerusalem. Jesus had been
crucified and buried. The crowds that had watched this dreadful
display unfold had finally dispersed. And the disciples,
now licking their wounds, had become private in their grief.
Come Sunday morning, though, curious reports began to surface.
His body was allegedly missing from the tomb. Some women
had gone there, among them Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary
the mother of James. But when they arrived they had found
his tomb empty, his body gone. They reported that two men
- or were they angels? - had met them there and told them
that He had risen, just as he had promised he would.
were those who said that they had seen him, too. Simon,
for one, though we don’t know the details. And Cleopas came
with that rather unlikely story that he and a friend had
walked with Jesus along the Emmaus Road, their minds still
numb from grief - numb to the point of not really seeing
the man who had joined them. They had talked, and finally
invited this remarkable stranger to spend the night B just
an act of ordinary hospitality from their perspective for
it was getting late. Yes, there was something different
about this stranger. Their hearts had burned within them
as he exposed the Scriptures to them regarding the Christ.
had taken his blessing and his breaking of bread for them
finally to recognize Him. And there He was! He had been there all the time - on the road,
in the discussion, and at the table!
It must have been a time of real doubt, of minds
that were in utter turmoil when they first recognized their
guest. Their disbelief of the stranger’s ignorance of recent
events had been followed by disquieting intuition, and then
suddenly, there was that flash of recognition! How can this
be? These things don’t happen in our day! Do they?
What good are they when no one believes them? If ever you
have sat on a jury in a criminal case, you will know that
witnesses play a very important role in the process of discovering
the truth. An accusation has been made. Someone has been
arrested. Charges have been filed. And
you must decide whether the evidence is sufficient to
find the defendant guilty of the crime that has been charged.
in the form of evidence may be largely intangible to the
jury, like the logic that finds a motive, or fingerprints
that signify a presence, or the mysteries of DNA that link
a person to something else. Witnesses in the form of evidence
can be more tangible if photographs have been taken, recordings
made, a body has been found, or a weapon that can be linked
both to the defendant and the crime are presented.
commonly, we think of witnesses as people. They come with
information and insight into the person on trial, or the
person harmed, or the scene of the crime, or the events
and circumstances surrounding the crime. Witnesses are critical
to the truth-finding process because they contribute knowledge
that cannot be obtained apart from the evidence they bring,
their word - first hand knowledge that has a direct bearing
on the case. So juries pay close attention to witnesses.
witnesses do not remember things as clearly as they might.
Memories are faulty. They are also subject to interpretation.
Some witnesses may need to refresh their memories, or be
prodded by certain questions. Sometimes, witnesses lie or
at least shade the truth in order to facilitate an outcome
of their liking, treating their memories like canvases on
which it is still legitimate to brush more color.
are aware of all of these possibilities, but they are also
concerned for justice. That is why rules have been developed
so that attorneys do not lead witnesses to speak in certain
ways, to certain conclusions. That is why laws have been
enacted to penalize witnesses who lie. The possibility of
a charge of perjury can be a strong deterrent even to those
who are strangers to truth.
is also why attorneys look for more than one witness to
back up certain points. The trustworthiness of evidence
can be destroyed if a single witness is impeached, but its
value is greatly enhanced if that evidence can be corroborated
by two or three witnesses. They may bring slightly different
responses, like the Gospel writers did with their assortment
of nuances embedded within their unique accounts of the
same event. But in the mouths of these multiple witnesses,
the basic narrative receives flesh and bones, their testimony
becomes clear, and juries are able to make informed decisions
that are consistent with the standards of justice that are
sought in each case.
then, even as the eleven and their friends listened to these
accounts, Jesus joined them, inviting their scrutiny, offering
them His hands and his feet as evidence that it was really
He who stood among them. Although he extended His peace
to them, one can imagine the tentative nature of that first
meeting with the One for whom they hoped, yet didn’t quite
dare to expect. Some may have gasped! In their initial fright and apprehension, some
may have stepped back sharply as though he were a ghost,
a distressed spirit, or some other apparition, while others
held their ground, unsure of what to do next. Then the ice
broke! There was
joy and wonderment as Jesus asked for something to eat! So they gave him some broiled fish.
the time Jesus had finished eating the fish, His friends
must have begun to settle down. After all, ghosts don’t
eat, do they? While they may still have harbored questions
or felt uneasy, at least they knew that now they were dealing
with something, someone they understood. Flesh and bones.
They were ready to hear Jesus speak to them, to bear witness
to or explain what they were experiencing. So Jesus opened
turned them once again to the Scriptures. He repeated the
things he had told them long before he had been taken so
cruelly from them. He reiterated that it was necessary for
all that had been prophesied regarding Him, to be fulfilled.
He reminded them again that he had predicted his suffering
and resurrection, something that they still had difficulty
believing. He restated, too, the message he had brought
repeatedly throughout His ministry among them. It was a
message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
this was the Jesus they knew! He stood now in their midst,
engaging them in discussion just as He always had. As He
reminded them of all that had transpired, they recognized
the truth of his words. So Christ moved on from reminding
them of the past and turned their attention to the future,
beginning in Jerusalem. “You are witnesses to these things,”
things? Would they become witnesses to the Old Testament
prophetic texts? To the place of suffering? To promises
of resurrection? To the Good News of repentance required
and forgiveness bestowed? To all of these things?
the coming days they would, indeed, become compelling witnesses
of “these things”, Once they had received the Promise of
the Father, “power from on high,” they would carry the message
of repentance and forgiveness to the ends of the earth.
As the Apostle Peter would shortly inform the crowd on the
Day of Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of
you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your
sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
That message, the message of Jesus, would be proclaimed
time after time by the Apostles (Cf. Acts 3:13-26; 4:10-12;
5:30-32; 10:34-43; 13:17-39).
the years since Jesus walked the land with His disciples,
the message of repentance and the forgiveness that is available
only through Christ Jesus has not changed. Over the centuries,
many more witnesses have joined that initial and ever billowing
cloud of witnesses that urge us on to the finish line. The
mandate remains the same, though those who are called upon
to take the role of witnesses in our own generation have
changed. The challenge is now ours!
the Apartheid era in South Africa, the world watched on
tiptoes as the “Truth and Reconciliation” process unfolded.
In that process, the quest for truth resulted in stories
told of horrendous acts that had previously gone unresolved.
Until they were brought to light in the court overseeing
the process, these acts, like infected sores, had festered
below the surface of the land, bringing violence and retribution.
Mistrust, hatred, and retaliation, like angry red marks
on an infected body marked the territory.
confessions were made and repentance was obvious, grace
through forgiveness was granted. This process did not deny
that the horrendous acts had taken place. Nor did it attempt
in any way to hide them or explain away either these acts
or their consequences. What came from this reconciliation
process were knowledge, understanding, and ultimately forgiveness.
Losses were calculated, but in many cases guilt was pardoned.
Truth was spoken, and absolution was conferred. In the end,
the facts made visible through confession and repentance,
helped to provide closure for those who had been suspended
between hope and despair. In the end, repentance led to
new possibilities for healing and true reconciliation.
the same way, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a witness
to the need for repentance and the fidelity of forgiveness.
Africans and African Americans had experienced two
hundred fifty years of slavery at the hands of other Americans,
and another hundred years of prejudicial treatment and discrimination
after they had been declared citizens. Dr. King bore witness
not only to the evil nature of these acts, he pointed to
their consequences. He warned of patience grown thin, of
tempers on edge, of the potential for violence, and lost
opportunities that come when repentance is refused.
King did not revel in threats or grovel in appeals for repentance.
He constructed an imaginary screen onto which he projected
vivid images through his carefully chosen words. He shared
a vision whose foundation was repentance and forgiveness,
a vision in which the forgiver and the forgiven would build
something new - together B one by repenting, and the other
is King’s vision, rooted in repentance and forgiveness that
inspired those young Civil Rights workers to travel to places
like Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere throughout the
American South to see that African Americans were properly
registered to vote. It was the pride of repentance refused
or the conceit of repentance withheld, that led eventually
to the murders of several young Civil Rights workers, and
to “collateral damage” among those they tried to empower.
It was the arrogance of repentance repudiated that led to
the deaths of innocent children attending Sunday School
in Birmingham, and through their deaths, to the witness
that “we must substitute courage for caution.”
was King’s vision that prompted the U.S. Congress to respond
with new voting laws that made it easier for those who for
a century had endured a modified form of slavery when they
were denied access to the ballot box. It was this vision
that captivated the hearts and minds of millions of Americans
when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a Dream”
and then proceeded to invite all of us to participate in
that dream in a profoundly utopian vision of the future.
King made that dream viable not on the basis of might, or
through a display of power, or by keeping the truth about
ourselves, hidden from view. He did it by demonstrating
that people must take responsibility for their actions,
answer for their culpability, and repent or turn away from
their current trajectory of actions. King invited us into
that dream, constructed not from the explosive displays
of dominance. It was a dream fabricated from the much more
fragile threads of humility, generosity, and ultimately
Are Witnesses of These Things.” Repentance and forgiveness
are at the heart of Martin Luther King’s legacy. Repentance
and forgiveness formed the basis of the “Truth and Reconciliation”
process that enabled South Africa to move through a turbulent
time with minimal violence. Repentance and forgiveness are
still at the heart of what the Church proclaims. That is
why those who attended the 1910 Missionary Conference in
Edinburgh gathered in that imposing assembly hall. That
is why they listened intently to the stories told, the discussions
that ensued, and the final proposals that were made.
most significant contribution would be the formation of
a continuation committee chaired by John R. Mott to provide
leadership to overcome the divisions that led some to declare
that the Church had no message to offer until the message
of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation among Christians
was more than mere fantasy. And so that conference, which
is often said to mark the emergence of the modern Ecumenical
Movement, continues to summon Christians from around the
world to pray and work for the unity of the Church.
task is still incomplete. Their witness has not yet found
its mark. At one level, a century is not much time when
placed in the balance opposite the centuries that led to
the current state of division among Christians. Our memories
of past snubs, sharp words, unilateral decisions, poorly
shared visions, and corrupt self-serving actions are still
very powerful. Our memories and accountings of our common
history often do not seem to agree. Our histories developed
largely in isolation from one another have produced harmful
stereotypes and deep suspicion. There is no common mind
among the followers of Jesus, and thus, there seems to be
no common will. As a result, our rhetoric is often unchastened.
Our words are more pointed than they deserve to be. Our
charges against one another are frequently unfair, given
power only because we refuse to repent, to turn away from
our present course, to change.
good and holy things are done by Christians across the spectrum
of the Church is not in question. That evil and unholy things
have also been done by Christians, is much more difficult
for us to admit. That is why the words of the Bishops in
the Decree on Ecumenism 3, that throughout the history of the Church “serious
dissensions appeared... for which, often enough, men of
both sides were to blame” were so important to hear. That
is why the words of his Holiness, John Paul II acknowledging
the “infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our
brethren” and calling upon us to confess “our responsibilities
as Christians for the evils of today” were so powerful
. It is time
to take Dr. King’s advice to heart and “substitute courage
for caution” as we consider these things.
years ago I picked up a book by the mystery writer Greg
Iles titled, The Quiet Game. It is set in Natchez, Mississippi, and it revolves
around the unsolved murder of a young black man killed in
1968. Everyone knows who murdered him. They also presume
that they all know why
he was murdered. Yet it remains unsolved 40 years after
the fact because the people in that community refuse to
talk about it, hence the title, The Quiet Game.
I read this book I found the following lines and I wondered
whether they might not also apply to us.
This is a small town. In small towns there are sometimes
truths that everyone knows but no one mentions. Open secrets,
if you will. No one really wants to probe the details, because
it forces us to face too many uncomfortable realities. We’d
rather turn away than acknowledge the primitive forces working
beneath the surface of society. 
secrets. Uncomfortable realities. Primitive forces.
are the things from which enemies are created. These are
the things that cry out for confession. These are also the
things that make confession and repentance so difficult.
Yet, these are the things about which witnesses cannot afford
to maintain a wall of silence. In spite of the fact that
it is so difficult to own up to such things, that was precisely
the message to which Martin Luther King, Jr. bore witness
as he sought justice through nonviolent means by calling
a nation to repentance and forgiveness and then inviting
them into his dream.
a sense, that was the finding of the 1910 Missionary Conference,
when it agreed that issues of faith and of order separated
millions of Christians from one another. That was the finding
of the Catholic Bishops at Vatican II when they noted that
our current state of division “scandalizes the world, and
damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel
to every creature.” 
And that was what lay behind Pope John Paul II’ invitation
to join him in asking “pardon for the divisions which have
occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used
in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and
hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers
of other religions.”
Good News of Jesus Christ lies at the heart of it all. It
is still the Good News rooted in repentance and flowering
in forgiveness that we carry forth in word and deed throughout
the earth. As we reflect upon the living legacy of Martin
Luther King, Jr. and participate in the Week of Prayer for
Christian Unity, it is also appropriate to remember the
words of Jesus. “You are witnesses of these things.”