Bearing witness” is the Quaker term for living life in a way that reflects fundamental truths. Bearing witness is about getting relationships right. The group of Quakers in the eighteenth century who built a movement to end slavery were bearing witness to the truth that slavery was wrong. Yet bearing witness to right relationships is not limited to Quakers. It is something done by inspired people of all faiths and cultures when they live life according to cherished values built on caring for other people and being stewards of the earth’s gifts. The mass movement to end apartheid in South Africa, Rachel Carson’s triggering of the environmental movement in the 1960s, and the campaign of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to make roads safer are just a few examples of people coming together to bear witness to what they knew was right.
The global economy today is overwhelming the ability of the earth to maintain life’s abundance. We are getting something terribly wrong. At this critical time in history, we need to reorient ourselves in how we relate to each other and to the earth’s wonders through the economy. We need a new mass movement that bears witness to a right way of living on our finite, life-giving planet.
Over just the last two decades, science has radically altered its view of the arrangement both of life and of non-living components of the earth. New understandings are emerging that place relationship at the center. Biology and physics are moving away from a “reductionist” view of function, in which the activity of a living cell or an ecosystem, for example, is explained by being reduced to its parts, rather than including the relationship between those parts as essential to our understanding. Today scientists are admitting that this three-hundred-year-old scientific doctrine is far too simplistic, and are finding that physical substances work and exist in terms of highly complex, interdependent, and changeable contexts and relationships. So, for example, the relationships between genes in the human body, rather than only their individual functions, are the key to the countless ways that human genes can produce genetic traits and characteristics. We are now learning that relationship is the key to the survival of our species on the social and political level, as well. This essay is about relationship writ large, and about how to move to right relationship from wrong relationship in our individual and collective economic lives.