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How to be a witness in a hostile world

Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset.
Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset. | Getty images

Witnessing in the American workplace has always been dicey, and it’s not getting simpler. Misgendering, deadnaming and using the wrong pronouns create new complications and create a new legal basis for hostile work environments. With language, gender status and compliance becoming sacrosanct, the American landscape for workplace witness approaches what I experienced when teaching at a university in a Muslim country. Here are some lessons from that experience.

In a Muslim country, the cardinal rule is NEVER insult Mohammed or criticize Islam. Its corollary is don't say or do anything that questions the truth and superiority of Islam. In the majority Muslim world, Muslim hegemony is a cancel culture where expressive freedom is highly constrained. Draw a picture of Muhammed or accidentally damage a Qur'an and you may die (I’ve seen it happen). Blaspheme against the prophet and you may start a riot. If you start a riot, it's your fault and not the rioter's fault. Inadvertently insult the Prophet with a survey that ends up ranking ten figures as more "admired" than Muhammad (as Arswendo did in 1990), and you end up in jail for inspiring riots.

So how did I have a workplace testimony in that environment? I accepted that my testimony depended more on identity and behavior than on spoken words. Virtue signaling isn’t limited to progressive fundamentalism, it’s also perfected in the Muslim world. Muslims signal piety through their five pillars: the fast, the pilgrimage, the creed, giving alms and the five daily times for prayer.

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By avoiding the pillars of Islam, I clearly signaled that I was not a Muslim. By going to church on Sundays and having a personal Bible, I signaled that I was a Christian. Because the society around me was identity-based, whether I was kind or unkind was ascribed to that identity. Identity politics in America, while stifling speech, provides a similar opportunity for identity-based witnessing: when Christians are kind or unkind, that action is ascribed to their Christian identity. It’s the same for all the other virtues and vices: honesty, patience, self-control, lying, stealing, cheating and so on. Identity-based evangelism must do a lot of heavy lifting to overcome bigotry and stereotypes.

Having a clear identity carries two prices. First, through it, actions speak louder than words. It means behaviors can help one's testimony, but it also means they can hurt one's testimony. Second, having a clear identity as a religious minority can result in discrimination. Many Christians among Muslim majorities try to hide their identities to avoid persecution. But having a workplace testimony, by definition, precludes flying under the radar. Ironically, facing discrimination actually becomes an opportunity to project Christian virtues. Identifying as a committed Jesus-follower when in the majority doesn't earn much credit, but doing so as a mistreated minority says something about one’s faith and character.

But testimony should be more than non-verbal. Talking about Muhammed or Islam leads into a minefield, but talking about Jesus and one's personal experience with Him never caused me any trouble. And asking to pray in the name of Jesus with people about their concerns or problems was always eagerly accepted. Similarly, challenging progressive social norms is not likely to be well received. But sharing an uplifting personal experience might be, especially in a culture that cannot deny personal experience.

Another lesson I learned was that public space in a Muslim country is Muslim space. Religious freedom for non-Muslims only exists in private. I also learned that symbols are important. Therefore, public symbols and public displays of Christian virtue end up insulting Islam, including the Bible. Sharing my faith or giving a Bible had to be done in the setting of a private personal relationship.

Secularism has similar attitudes in America, where “separation of church and State” is often interpreted as “separation of religious expression from public space.” Christian symbols on public property have been under attack for years. State schools keep trying to throw Christian groups off their campuses. Leaders in business and government are pressured and threatened to keep Bibles and Bible verses out of public spaces and out of their email signatures. Under these circumstances, Christian testimony ends up becoming more private. Personal relationships become more significant. Impersonal religious symbols in public become inflammatory.

In this identity-based cancel culture, maintaining good interpersonal relationships for opportunity to talk about Jesus and one’s personal relationship to him is critical for workplace witness. Listening to other people’s problems and praying for them can be a powerful tool through which the Holy Spirit can work. But the relationship piece must be balanced with maintaining a clear identity as an uncompromised Christian. Embracing the majority lifestyle and woke virtue-signaling may get you accepted, but after that, you may have nothing perceptible to offer that’s any different from the unbelievers around you.

So how do Christians handle it when the pronoun and bathroom police demand acceptance of unbiblical sexual expressions? While Constitutional protection for minority religious expression doesn't exist in Muslim countries, American Christians still have Constitutional protections for sincerely held religious beliefs. Employment laws still support requests for religious accommodation. Many organizations are fighting hard to preserve these workplace protections in America as part of their Christian beliefs.

Standing firm on traditional Christian positions for marriage and sexuality will have costs, even if it does remain Constitutionally protected. Some Christians may feel called to accommodate pronoun and bathroom demands. They will end up compromising some identity to preserve relationship opportunities. Others will be called to resist pronoun and bathroom demands, though they should do so with kindness and gentleness. They will stand out and be more persecuted. Both callings are valid, with different pros and cons and different ways that the Holy Spirit can move. Both groups will need to have grace and support each other in their different callings. It’s bad enough to be persecuted by the majority religion. Christians don’t need to be condemning each other. 

In the majority Muslim world, some churches fortress themselves and avoid reaching out to Muslims in order to protect themselves from violent reprisals. They are islands of socially acceptable private identity in a sea of Islam. Recently, some churches are trying to evangelize their Muslim neighbors and are showing more courage in public spaces. Surprisingly, these outreach-minded Christians often face more hostility from neighboring and fearful Christians than from Muslims. A similar divide has arrived in America. Some Christians are dictating to each other how firm to stand and how much to give in. For good workplace testimony, Christians should not be criticizing each other to unbelieving outsiders. Jesus said that the world will know we are His by our love for one another. Showing that love for other Christians despite disagreement is another important part of workplace witness.  

Bruce Sidebotham serves as a consulting expert at Telios Teaches, bringing decades of experience in cross cultural environments, both in a missionary and military context. He received a Doctor of Ministry degree from New Geneva Theological Seminary at Colorado Springs in 2004. The Rocky Mountain Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ordained him as a Teaching Elder and Evangelist in 2004. 

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