The new technologies of cellphone cameras and social media platforms streaming live video, allowing all of us to document and share our experiences instantly, have given new meaning to the term “bearing witness.”
Last week within the span of a few days we witnessed the shooting of a Black man by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We witnessed the frantic moments after another Black man was shot multiple times by a police officer from the vantage point of his girlfriend who recorded the incident and live-streamed it on Facebook, this time near St. Paul, Minnesota. And we witnessed a U.S. veteran, clearly with mental health issues, shoot and kill law enforcement officers during a peaceful Dallas, Texas protest in an act of retaliation for the two prior shootings. And then, closer to home, we sadly shared the news of the triple homicide outside a San Bernardino liquor store, including a father and his nine year old son…something that we are witnessing too much of in our fragile community.
Through social media, we all now bear witness, not only in documenting and recollecting, or sharing and communicating, but also in the sense that compels us to do something to remember the lost and to bring justice as the living. It is witnessing in the same way Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel reminded us before his recent death, “because if we forget who the guilty are, we are accomplices.” Like him, we must swear “never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
He continued, “sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views that must—at that moment—become the center of the universe…. There is much to be done; there is much that can be done. One person…of integrity can make a difference, a difference between life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame.” And as long as violence destroys one of our communities, then none of our communities can be safe.
I am writing this week from Oberlin, Ohio, more specifically Oberlin College, a university that teaches its students: One Person Can Change The World. A place that has a history not just of progressive thought but courageous actions. Where average citizens risked their lives for strangers because they acted on a “higher law” and not an unjust law. It’s the town credited with starting the Civil War, and was the first college to create policies to admit students irrespective of gender or color. Like the institution of slavery in America, today’s injustices and violence seem insurmountable and overwhelming, causing some of us to not act at all. But like the people of the little town of Oberlin and Mr. Elie Wiesel, I believe if you “Change your World” you can “Change the World.” Now that you are a witness, how will you change yours?