The Practice of Bearing Witness by Stephanie Arel

She looked away and stared out the window, trying to hold back the tears in her eyes. “The tents,” she said and shook her head looking down at the ground. The tears were coming, but softly. I asked her what the tents represent. She shrugged her shoulders and said into the camera phone: “The bodies I guess. They don’t have enough room for the bodies.”

In this time of the coronavirus, as in Italy and Spain, New York City has room neither in the hospitals nor the morgue for the bodies that are dying. Up from 25 a week, to 24 a day, bodies are being buried on Hart Island, or City Cemetery, where the unclaimed and unidentified have been interred for decades. Others are waiting in refrigerated trucks for friends and family members to collect them. This New Yorker along with thousands of others have seen the stark reality, one that left even Trump sick at heart.

We are witnessing a global pandemic. Evidence of the ravages of the coronavirus lies all around us. The response to the virus has made physiological, economic, and psychological impacts on our lives. We have changed our working styles, dealt with lowered income, or lost our jobs. Staying secluded at home, we have taken on new roles for which we were not prepared; many of us have become sick, and some have died. We are together witnessing a major world disaster.

What does it mean to be a witness? What will it mean to carry that witnessing forward to future generations to mark this historic event so that when something like it happens again, future generations will have the tools they need to respond more quickly, adapt more easily, recover more rapidly? For this generation, just as those who researched and learned from the Spanish Flu, we bear witness.

One way that we can learn what bearing witness means is to think of its biblical representation; being close to Easter week prompts a reflection on the Gospel stories of Jesus’s death and resurrection. These accounts amplify the role of the witness through Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the first to go to Jesus’s tomb. Finding it empty, she weeps. Her grieving lasts only as long as she turns to see Jesus, just prior to his resurrection. She is at this moment a first witness to the mystery of the Christian religion.

In the transition from mourning to witnessing Jesus’s resurrection, Mary is asked to do something – that is to bear witness. Jesus asks her to carry to the disciples the news of his ascent to the Father. He invites Mary to honor a loss that has been transformed by speaking its truth, to assure the disciples that out of death has come new life. Mary Magdalene models what it means to bear witness: she sustains and supports a memory; she carries that memory and its image to others. She ratifies a truth, one that may or may not be believed, in the form of an act, a speech act: she tells the disciples that Jesus is resurrected.

Bearing witness is not without its burden: to carry the memory of suffering and to attest to the possibility of its transformation into new life is to face horror even as it is to promise the possibility of change in the face of such horror. Thus, bearing witness is not to alleviate suffering, nor to gloss over the reality of its presence, but to speak of its inevitability with an awareness about how it can be ameliorated.

People around the world are witnessing the coronavirus, marking its effects, making sense of what is happening now and what will happen when this is “over.” People watch and celebrate those on the front lines: nurses, doctors, and EMT workers.

In a next step, memorial and museums workers will bear witness to their memory. But that work starts now. Recently the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C developed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force: “to react quickly to assess and document the scientific and medical events, as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics and culture.” Those that do the collecting and curating of objects and memories consider the impact on individuals, institutions and communities while documenting the wide array of perspectives and experiences that emerge from such a historic moment. Artnet News reports how other museums are doing the same.

The Orange County Museum of Art asked Los Angeles-based sound artist Alan Nakagawa to participate in a project named “Social Distancing, Haiku and You.” The project requires participants to write and then digitally record haikus inspired by experiences endured during this pandemic. To submit a typed haiku and recording of your work (easily achieved on most smart phones or through a downloaded app), email The deadline for submissions is today, April 16, and the finished composition will be released April 23.

Undertakings to collect, record, and report experiences of the coronavirus are extensive. This is what people who bear witness do. They attest to trauma and its recovery, as Mary attested following Jesus’s crucifixion to a promise: the possibility of new life. This work does not come without a cost, not for Mary Magdalene whom the disciples first doubted, and not for the memory worker who attempts to exhibit the realities of human betrayal and suffering alongside the possibility of hope and joy. Such work can be exhausting.

And yet, the witness does the work of bearing truth, both painful and joyous. Jesus asks Mary to honor a loss that has been transformed, speaking to assure the disciples that out of death has come a new reality. This translates to us now, this act of witnessing, and to my client in New York, who, through her vulnerability and mourning, understands deeply that when this chapter ends, the next will bring new life. And to that chapter she will also bear witness.



Stephanie Arel is currently an Instructor at Fordham University. She holds an Integrative Trauma Certificate, a training in trauma modalities for clinical treatment, from the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP) in New York, NY and a Certificate in Training for Compassion Fatigue. She has taught courses on human development, trauma, death and dying, violence against women, and faith and critical reason. Her work explores the different ways that people respond to trauma whether they experience trauma firsthand or as a witness. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology. She is currently editing a volume on human dignity and writing a second monograph on the effects of bearing witness to traumatic content on those who work in the field of memorialization: @bearingwitness_nyc

Categories: Grief, religion, Women and Art, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work, Women's Voices

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10 replies

  1. Bearing witness is the most courageous thing we can do and the most difficult – but without it we shall go on as before…

    The ability to bear witness with our hearts is perhaps the only way to use this tragedy as an opportunity for genuine change.

    I hope I am wrong here but I understand that as China recovers it is opening trade once again… if this is the trajectory that we are on – well?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you Sara. Your response brought to mind a colleague of mine’s work. Rev. Sherisse M. Butler – she’s on facebook and instagram. She’s really something – strong and inspiring. She just posted about the strength that emerges from chaos. I can’t find it now to link it, but you might enjoy following her if you use social media. Warmly, S


  2. Thanks to television and the various social media, we can indeed bear witness to what is happening to people around the world, to our animal cousins around the world (no current big game hunters? Hooray!), to trees and other plants (where’s the gardener?), to civilization itself (where’d it go?), and the our blessed mother planet. Will we survive? Will she survive? Let us look for the possibility and the emergence of new life.

    And let’s keep staying home and safe, too. Thanks for writing this thoughtful post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Barbara. Just an additional comment…the term bearwitness as a hashtag is used quite a bit (maybe more the 50% of the time) to refer to animal welfare. I have found that important and intriguing – especially related to the metaphor I present. I know that there will be an emergence, I trust that for many of us it will be fresh and new.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like the idea of bearing witness to animals’ lives, but during this pandemic I think it’s probably more important that we all bear witness to each other. Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Happy you enjoyed it Elizabeth. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I found this (Mary is asked to do something – that is to bear witness) interesting to contemplate.

    Throughout history people have in fact been asked to bear witness. Concurrently, large portions of civilization have been forced to bear witness. As I watch the news on the current coronavirus pandemic, I am struck that at times watching seems to be out of my control, almost habitual, and in some perverse way, forced.

    I bear witness everyday at my job, admittedly though, not in the way some of my colleagues do. This bearing witness (to the coronavirus) seems different. It feels different. The impacts of this difference, asked versus forced, could be as stark as the difference between night and day.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bearing witness. The GIs photographing the victums of the holocaust…


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