A Review of
Can I Get a Witness?
13 Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice
Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, Daniel Rhodes, Eds.
Reviewed by Leslie Verner.
How can the church embody its theology in the midst of racial and economic inequality? In Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice, a variety of authors, professors and theologians share the impact a diverse group of Christian activists had on American history in the early 1900’s. The prophetic voices of these nonviolent leaders of social justice still reverberate today, proving relevant, timely and revolutionary.
Each highly researched chapter utilizes engaging storytelling to relate the life of a champion of economic, social, or racial injustice. The portraits include seven men and six women who were Protestant and Catholic, gay and straight, white, African American, Japanese American, Mexican American and Native American.
At first glance, this book is best suited to academic readers with a focus on social justice. But Can I Get a Witness? could be used by small groups and book clubs, adult Sunday School classes and leadership development as a springboard for conversations about what it means to actually live as a lover of Jesus in the world.
While some of these activists experienced injustice firsthand because of their skin color or personal economic hardship, others developed compassion through realizing the disparity between what they read in the Bible and the silence of the pulpit towards the injustices within the society around them. Determined to demonstrate real faith in the world, they willingly experienced economic poverty, imprisonment and sometimes even rejection from family and friends as a result of their subversive choices. They knew the way of the cross never promised a life of ease or comfort. Justice always came at a personal cost.
These inspiring leaders protested the Vietnam War, Jim Crow, unfair labor laws for migrant workers, and advocated for health care, a living wage and the decolonization of American Christianity. But through it all, their dissatisfaction with the church status quo led them to drop a match into the infertile grounds of a dormant theology. And yet their motivation wasn’t anger or bitterness, but love for God and neighbor. Many of them pulled up a chair to sup even with those other people may have considered as enemies. These holy agitators believed love should fuel the vehicle of justice, not just allow it to idle in the driveway.
Catholic activists such as Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and Mary Stella Simpson felt called to serve the poor in the communities where they lived and worked, using their occupations as laborer, writer, priest, and midwife. They demonstrated that change emerged from dedication to and solidarity with a community rather than living separate lives from those they wanted to serve.
Howard Thurman, a contemplative African American preacher who gave the eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr., asked the pertinent question that gleamed in the pages of every story in this book: “What adjustment could be made to accommodate the ethic of a religion like Christianity to the political and economic demands of imperialism?” He and other non-white activists consistently pointed out the evils of a Christianity that hailed whiteness as supreme.
Author and professor, Soong-Chan Rah, shared about his late friend, Richard Twiss, who was born on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Twiss pointed out how a dysfunctional worldview—or “dysfunctional theological imagination”–sees Europeans as image-bearers of God, assuming they are the “supremacy of the white American Christian” (259). As his legacy, Twiss “offered an embodied lament of a community whose narrative had long been suppressed and denied” (267).
A Japanese American named Yuri Kochiyama experienced two years of imprisonment (internment) simply for being of Japanese heritage, inciting her to fight for the rights of those imprisoned unjustly. A white man named Howard Kester went underground for the NAACP, gathering gruesome facts and testimonies about lynching in the south. He was dissatisfied with the church on many levels, saying, “These cockeyed people who go about talking of love and good-will in the midst of all this oppression and hell make me pretty tired … We won’t love people into the Kingdom, we’ve got to bust this damn society to hell before love can find a place in it” (105).
A white woman named Lucy Randolph Mason committed to organizing interracial unions in the south, advocating for “divine discontent” as a motivation for pushing against the sexist and racist systems in the United States. The white Catholic nun, Mary Stella Simpson, “began a crusade that transformed maternal-infant health care in the U.S.” (309). And Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer who called others to action through music.
Some activists focused on economic justice, such as Priest John A. Ryan, who advocated for “a living wage.” Cesar Chavez fought for rights of migrant workers and was described as “an icon of what faith-based organizing can do,” utilizing “gritty creativity” to implement fasting, a pilgrimage and vigils as holy protest of unfair labor practices (36).
Ella Baker was an African American woman from North Carolina who played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement. She lobbied for black involvement in politics, and pointed out the importance of political empowerment and the “affirmation of black dignity.” She once proclaimed: “Until the killing of black mother’s sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest” (132). It’s no wonder that her influence echoes decades after her death, with “Ella’s Song” becoming a rally cry for the Black Lives Matter Movement after the killing of Treyvon Martin in 2012.
William Stringfellow was an activist lawyer by profession, but also wrote seventeen books about theology and politics. He “worked to change the minds and hearts of mainline Christians, calling them to be dissenters and advocates for the oppressed” (185). A contemporary with Dorothy Day and William Stringfellow, Priest Daniel Berrigan “bristled at the suggestion that a sense of otherworldly saintliness should be affixed to Christian norms as basic as hospitality, love of enemy, and caring for the poor” (277). He believed that “our dreams for the world, our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, will have to put on flesh if we’re to be as Christ in the world. A merely theoretical faith is a dead one” (290).
Each historical figure represents a segment of American society that continues to heave with the burden of injustice today, making it an all too relevant read in a society that still suffers from a lopsided foundation when it comes to equal justice for all.
Leslie Verner is a goer learning how to stay. Other cultures, spicy food, deep conversations, running, and sunshine feed her soul. She lives in Colorado with her husband and three kids. Find her at www.scrapingraisins.com. Her book, Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness, releases August 2019.