Becoming People that Witness Well: Lessons from Christian History

Delivered at Columbia CU Illumina on 3/9/23

By Peter Blair

I was asked tonight to speak about “Christian engagement with American culture and society.” This is quite a broad topic and there would be all sorts of ways of going about it. I chose for my title “Becoming People that Witness Well: Lessons from Christian History” because it’s my conviction that people often start at the wrong place when it comes to this topic. Typically, a topic like “Christian engagement in America” would lead people to discuss particular strategies or comprehensive, global visions of “the right way to engage our society.” 

But in my view the more fundamental issue is the kinds of people we are as Christians, the habits, qualities, and virtues we live out no matter where we find ourselves in our careers and lives or how we choose to see our part in the Christian call to pursue the good of our neighbors and to witness to Christ. Christians are called to embody both the mandate of Matthew 28 (“Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”) (the Great Commission) and the mandate of Jeremiah 29 (“Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare your own depends”). But prior to the question of what the best formulas are for living out those two calls is our own intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation as Christians. 

As a way of getting at what I mean, permit me a bit of a digression to frame this issue more. I confess to being someone who uses Twitter far too much, as the next couple of minutes will probably make clear. However, I do think explaining some of this background to my remarks will help set things up even if it risks going into Twitter discourse territory. 

Ever since around 2017—and even before, of course—there’s been lots of Christian discourse about how Christians “should” engage an America that, according to this discourse, is rapidly secularizing and becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. Should Christians take a page from monastic communities of the Middle Ages and focus on building strong, internally robust Christian communities (often called “intentional communities”) that can survive the flood of secularism, just as Noah’s ark survived the flood? Should Christians focus primarily on trying to acquire as much political power as possible, especially on the national level, so they can wield that power to protect fellow Christians and turn back the tide? Should Christians embrace their “weirdness” and welcome the role of being odd strangers in a post-Christian nation? 

The ideas have gone on and on. This generated a moment in American Christian discourse when everyone was talking about different “options” for Christian engagement and arguing that their option was the “right one.” Here’s just a partial list I gleaned from a quick google search: the Benedict Option, the Dominican Option, the Grand Inquisitor Option, the Charlemagne Option, the Calvary Option, the Jeremiah Option, the Ordinary Christian Option, and the Maimonides Option. These were all ways of suggesting global visions or strategies for Christian engagement with America. 

I actually don’t think the description that has generated all this discourse—the description, that is, of America as rapidly secularizing and becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity—is usually framed correctly. For example, one implication of that view would be that America historically was not hostile to Christianity (or, at least, was less so). But of course that’s a view from a very particular place, one of white mainstream American Christianity. If the dignity of all people and the sinfulness of racism is part of Christian teaching—as indeed it is1—then the policies of Jim Crow, for example, could hardly be said to have been friendly to Christian truth or to Black Christians. And, to take another example, if you were a Catholic immigrant in America in the 19th century facing anti-Catholic riots and persecution, you weren’t always likely to find America too friendly to your Christianity either.2 

I don’t, however, want to go into all of that too deeply here. Because even if you reject some of the framing as I’ve outlined it above, the reality remains that Christians still have to think about how to engage America as it is now. And, of course, America today is different in various ways from how it was in the past. To that extent, the discourse that’s been going on since 2017 does have a point to it, even if you think it’s been badly carried out.

However, I’m also not going to answer the main question of that discourse as it shook out, which is, basically, “what option should we take?” In part, this is because I think there are a plurality of valid ways of living the Christian life and a plurality of valid ways of thinking about your role as a Christian in engaging America. There is no one right answer, no one right “option,” no one right vision. The other reason I am not going to answer the question is that, as I said at the start, my view is that how you live out what “option” you choose is, for the most part, more important than which option you choose. Are you the kind of person who is living a life of Christian integrity? We don’t need Christians in politics per se; we need virtuous, faithful Christians in politics. We don’t need Christians starting intentional communities per se; we need virtuous, faithful Christians starting intentional communities. We don’t need Christians living ordinary lives in ordinary jobs who focus on their family, friends, and immediate communitie,  per se; we need virtuous and faithful Christians living ordinary lives in ordinary jobs who focus on their family, friends, and immediate communities.3 And so on. 

To that end, I want to examine one circle of friends and one individual from Christian history who have something to teach us about becoming the kind of people that can witness well, no matter what shape our lives and our witness takes. I can’t give a full account of these people in the time we have here or talk about all the different things that we can learn from them. In each case, therefore, I will give a short biographical account and then focus in particular on one lesson they teach us. 

So, first, the White Rose student resistance.4 This year marked the 80th anniversary of the White Rose.5 Siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl—key, though not the only, members of the White Rose circle—were young Germans during the reign of the Nazi party in Germany. At first, despite the anti-Nazism of their parents, they had been very enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth, enjoying the outdoors activities and the pageantry of those groups. Hard as it is for us to imagine now, they were caught up in an idealistic and passionate sense of the Nazi movement as a genuinely exciting movement that could restore the fortunes of Germany. 

Gradually, from a variety of motives, they became disillusioned with the Hitler Youth and the Nazi party. Eventually, in their 20s, Hans, Sophie and some other like-minded friends, engaged in an anonymous campaign to write and distribute leaflets that opposed Nazism and suggested an alternative vision for Germany’s future. They would write these anti-Nazi leaflets, take the train to other cities different from where they lived, and then send the leaflets from those other cities to addresses all over Germany, posted unprompted to businesses, inns, and other recipients. The first leaflet read, in part, “Today it would appear rather that they [their fellow Germans] are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now—the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability— are waiting to be hounded to their destruction. So it seems—but it is not so. Rather, by means of gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison. Only now, finding himself lying in fetters, has he become aware of his fate….Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. Offer passive resistance—resistance—wherever you may be…”6

They distributed 5 leaflets like this anonymously. The 6th leaflet was different, however. This time, Hans and Sophie decided to “distribute” this one in person by scattering copies of it from a balcony in a main building of the university that many of the White Rose members were attending or had attended. And this time, Hans and Sophie were caught.

Along with one of their friends in the White Rose, they were executed by the Nazis on Feb. 22nd, 1943. Before Hans and Sophie were executed, their parents visited them in prison. Their mother told Sophie: “Sophie, remember Jesus.” Sophie replied, “Yes, you too.” A Protestant pastor came, read psalms with them and gave them communion. Hans’s last words, as he was led to his death, were shouted: “long live freedom.” Previously, in his last letter, Hans wrote “Because the danger is of my own choosing, I must head for my chosen destination freely and without any ties. I’ve gone astray many times I know. Chasms yawn and darkest night envelopes my questing heart, but I press on regardless. As Claudel so splendidly puts it: life is a great adventure towards the light.”7

Hans was 25 years old at his death, Sophie only 22. Other members of the group would be subsequently executed. Their witness and heroic opposition to Nazism, which was very much an expression of their Christian faith, comes down to us today as a powerful and moving story. 

I bring up the White Rose not because I think America today is comparable to Nazi Germany. The lessons that the White Rose can teach shine out particularly movingly and starkly against the background of the Nazi regime they lived under, but those lessons apply regardless of the kind of government anyone might have. The lesson I want to draw from them is the relentlessly intellectual ground of their conversion to anti-Nazism and importance of the life of the mind to the substance of their witness. Every account of the White Rose I’ve engaged with emphasizes how important reading and discussing books was both to the formation and hardening of Hans and Sophie’s anti-Nazism and to the writing of the White Rose leaflets. 

The White Rose was a religiously ecumenical group. It included representatives from both Catholicism and German Protestantism, and they read and discussed Christian theologians, philosophers, and poets such as Claudel (quoted in Hans’s last letter), St. Augustine, St. John Henry Newman, Pascal. But they also read more broadly as well, dipping into such authors as Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, and James Joyce. They questioned, they argued, they debated. They were led on by a kind of restless pursuit of the truth. They read as if their lives and their souls depended on it, as indeed they did. Even as late as January 1943, just one month before she was executed and well into the leafleting campaign, Sophie is writing in a letter about reading the philosopher Leibniz and wrestling with his ideas. 

This intellectual engagement helped the White Rose to draft the text of their leaflets, but it also helped the members of this circle of friends to break—or at least to acquire greater distance from—the chains that Nazi propaganda and society sought to lay on the minds and hearts of Germans. Their reading removed the poison that Nazis sought to put in. It gave them an intellectual freedom to see clearly—or make sense of—something that many other Germans, including German Christians, simply couldn’t: the evils their country had fallen into. 

There is always a temptation to place activism—making a difference in the world, demonstrating for causes, going on political marches, and the like—in opposition to intellectual life, which is seen as overly abstract, ivory tower, fiddling while Rome burns. But the White Rose shows us how reading and discussing books—Christian books and broadly human books—can be an essential part of becoming good Christian witnesses. These friends argued for better politics for Germany, and their leaflets contained specific suggestions on how to organize the policies of their country. But the most powerful aspect of their witness is not that they came up with the best party platform of all time. It’s that they stood at the cost of their lives and as (in the case of Hans and Sophie) former enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth and said no to Nazism, as Christians, as humans, and as people of conscience. 

What could be a more paradigmatic example of inspiring Christian witness to our contemporaries than offering a heroic no to Nazism because of a heroic yes to God, a thing which so many other Christians unfortunately failed to do? And yet this witness could not have occurred unless reading and discussing books with a circle of friends had helped bring the Scholls the intellectual distance they had traveled from their original Hitler Youth days. 

Good Christian witness needs to be unabashedly intellectual, because being intellectual is not, or should not be, the preserve of some snobby elite. Rather, being an intellectual as a Christian is about the conversion of the mind. Every human being has a mind and is able to use it. God wants to save our minds as well as our souls, to break the illusions and delusions and rationalizations, sometimes political and sometimes personal, that trap our minds, cause us to fail to see the truth of things, and engender in us the habit of lying to ourselves and to others. This was the case with many German Christians at the time and was originally the case with the Scholls themselves. Indeed, this is always something any human can be subject to in ways both great and small. “Do not conform yourselves to this age,” says Romans 12 “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

Obviously reading books does not, per se, make you a better person. History is full of very educated and intellectually sophisticated villains. And history is also full of people who weren’t big readers but lived morally excellent or faithfully Christian lives. Moreover, being an intellectual, or thinking of yourself as one, can introduce new and subtle forms of temptation—to pride, for example. But, again, every human being has a mind that God made to be used and every human being can be subject to mental illusions and untruths that come from being intellectually uncritical.

The White Rose shows us that if we want as Christians to be people who witness well we need to submit to the action of grace on our minds as mediated partly through activities like morally serious and prayerful reading of the best texts of Christian history and, indeed, of all of human history. This can refresh our vision of the world and give us a kind of freedom from the intellectual pressures that are always exerted on us in any culture or subculture whether we realize it or not.

This intellectual freedom—the intellectual independence that comes from faithfully pursuing the truth—is captured in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus. One character remarks of another character that “he is on the right side.” A third character responds, “Better than that, he has no side. Even a right side imposes wrongful silences, required untruths. As the timid say, there is strength, or safety, in numbers; but solidarity is an extension of power, that is, the beginning of the lie. The only proper solidarity is with the truth, if one can discover it.” 

Our situation in general is not the same as the White Rose, so our reading perhaps need not be as urgent as theirs was. There is time to explore questions over the years, to balance intellectual patience with intellectual restlessness. But their example remains a guide to us. 

From the world of Nazi Germany, I now want to offer a second example of someone much closer to home, someone indeed who lived and worked in the very city in which you are attending college.8 Dorothy Day was born in New York in 1897 and, despite some moving around, she lived here for most of her adult life. She was raised in a nominal Christian household but insisted on being baptized in the Episcopalian Church in 1911. In 1916 she moved to New York City (after dropping out of college) and became a writer for Socialist publications. She supported herself through her journalism and embedded herself in the New York leftist, Socialist, and Communist circles. Though she was interested in Christianity when she was younger, she abandoned it during her time in college. Her early years in New York included love affairs, a suicide attempt, and an abortion. 

Later, she became pregnant with a daughter Tamar and simultaneously became increasingly attracted to Catholicism. Her partner at the time, who was the father of her child, did not want to be married in the Church (or indeed to be a father) and eventually they split up. In 1927 at age 30 she formally joined the Catholic Church at a parish in Staten Island and in 1932 she met the French immigrant Peter Maurin, who became a major influence on her understanding of Christian politics and witness. 

Together Maurin and Day, who was now a single mother, founded what became known as the Catholic Worker movement. The movement began with a newspaper (itself called the Catholic Worker) that expressed a vision of Christian politics that was attentive to many of the same concerns as left-wing newspapers (the plight of the poor, for example, or the evils committed in war), but addressed those questions and concerns from an explicitly Catholic perspective informed by the writings of theologians, the Church Fathers, and what is known as Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching is a body of thought derived from papal and other documents that posits principles like human dignity, solidarity (which is a belief in the human family and human and Christian siblinghood), subsidiarity (which is a belief political problems should be addressed at their proper level between individual, family, local, state, national, and international), and the universal destination of goods (the idea that the riches of creation belong to the human race as a whole).9 

Like the White Rose, however, Day was influenced not only by Christian sources but also by broadly human ones. She loved the novels of Dickens, for example, and the journalism of George Orwell. With the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day believed in trying to “make the kind of society where it is easier to be good,”10 a society in which politics and communities were set up to make it easier for people to live morally good lives. 

From the Catholic Worker newspaper sprung another major aspect of the Catholic Worker movement: houses of hospitality that welcomed people to stay or live on the premises, especially the poor, the unemployed, those abusing substances, and the like. These houses also distributed material items like food and clothing. The first house of hospitality was opened in 1934 on Charles Street and by 1941 30 different affiliated houses/centers existed in the US, Canada, and the UK. Today there are still two original Catholic Worker houses functioning in New York in the Bowery: the St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality (at 36 E. 1st Street) and Maryhouse (at 55 E. 3rd Street). At Martyhouse, Day died in 1980 at the age of 83. 

When Pope Francis visited America in 2015, he named Day as one of four great Americans in a speech at a joint session of the U.S. Congress.11 These four people, said Francis, “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.” The other three people Francis discussed were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and the monk and writer Thomas Merton. 

Day’s politics were radical and idiosyncratic. As one article describes her influence on the Catholic Worker newspaper, “Under her guidance, it would also develop a curiously dichotomous political agenda, taking prophetic stands against racial segregation, nuclear warfare, the draft, and armed conflict around the world, while opposing abortion, birth control, and the welfare state.”12 I am not suggesting that everyone ought to adopt Day’s specific politics or that her positions, in all their particulars, are normative for Christians. And I don’t mean to suggest that it is the role of every Christian, for example, to establish houses of hospitality. Rather, as with the White Rose, I want to draw out a lesson from Day’s life that applies to all of us who are interested in becoming good witnesses to Christ—however we wind up practically doing that.

There is a parallel story to be told about Dorothy Day as about the White Rose—that is, with regard to the role of books in her life. She once said that she wanted to be remembered for the love of her favorite books and that the meaning of her life was to “live up to the moral vision of the Church, and of some of my favorite authors.”13 But, don’t worry, I won’t return to talking more about books. There are many rich aspects of Day’s spirituality to discuss. Her spirituality was not an “add-on” to her politics, or something separate from them. Her prayer, her life as a Christian, her constant striving to be receptive to the grace of God to change her heart and to purify, shape, and deepen her love, was the root and form of everything she did. However, if, with the White Rose, I focused on God saving our minds, with Day I want to talk about—in her own words—the revolution of the heart. 

Day once wrote that “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”14 As committed as she was to political change and a better society—a nonviolent revolution in society—she was equally aware that it was necessary for our hearts to be converted to love, love of God and love of neighbor. Love, she was clear, is no warm and fuzzy thing. She says in her diaries that if people imagine the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality—and the farms that the movement also started—as “a beloved community, a group of Christians…so devoted, so peaceful that people can point to us and say ‘see how they love one another’” they were way off base.15 There is nothing to idealize here. She is very clear in her diaries: providing open hospitality to guests meant living with very difficult people and people with serious problems—people it is not easy to love. This was no cozy Christian community. Day also shared, voluntarily, the poverty of those she served, living in materially difficult circumstances as well. “The mystery of poverty,” she said, “is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”16

Day says in her autobiography The Long Loneliness that “the final word is love. At times it has been…a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.” The revolution of the heart can be a harsh and dreadful thing, and yet the final word is love. You can see Day as someone who lived out these words of Matthew 5: “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” 

So what can we learn from Day about being Christian witnesses? We can learn that one of the disciplines of Christian love, that both feeds into and results from the revolution of the heart, is to strive, the best we can, to love those we do not find it easy to love. This involves striving to remove unChristian conditions that we so easily put on our love. We would prefer to spend time with people who are like-minded, physically attractive, wealthy, educated, powerful, healthy, able-bodied, funny, Christian, or who return our love with theirs. But a discipline of Christian life is to try, perhaps only in small ways at first, to act against this natural inclination.17 

The last condition to be renounced is one Day herself says she only learned over time: the demand that people change in order to be loved by us. “The older I get, the more I meet people,” she wrote, “the more convinced I am that we must only work on ourselves, to grow in grace. The only thing we can do about people is to love them, to find things to love in them.”18 There are many nuances to discuss here, of course, but in those words the spirit of Romans 5 echoes: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” 

Day imitated Christ in that, while the people she served and lived with were still difficult to love—whether because of their sins or because of their unattractiveness from a certain point of view—she gave up her life for them and to them. All the while she begged God in prayer to make the revolution of the heart happen in her heart. Not everyone needs to—or indeed can—live the kind of life Dorothy Day lived. We all, however, can take that spirit into whatever kind of life we do lead. And this will help us to become people that witness well. 

I’d like to close with a prayer by St. John Henry Newman, whom both the members of the White Rose and Dorothy Day were familiar with:

Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with Your Spirit and Life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that our lives may only be a radiance of Yours.

Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our souls. Let them look up, and see no longer us, but only Jesus! Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be ours. It will be You, shining on others through us.

Let us thus praise You in the way You love best, by shining on those around us. Let us preach You without preaching, not by words but by example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do, the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear for You. Amen.


  1. See, for example, the 1973 pastoral letter on racism from the U.S. Catholic Bishops, “Brothers and Sisters to Us”
  2. See, for example, this account of the 1844 nativist riots in Philadelphia
  3. George Eliot, though not herself a Christian, captured this “option” well in her novel Middlemarch: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
  4. This account of the Scholls and the White Rose is drawn from a talk by Dr. Helena Tomko called “Reading Newman in the Third Reich: Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the White Rose” and an episode of The Rest is History podcast entitled “Germany: The White Rose.”
  5. The origin of the name is not completely clear. See this account from Smithsonian Magazine.
  6. The text of all White Rose leaflets can be found here.
  7. This is taken from a collection of letters by Hans and Sophie called At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
  8. This account of Day’s life is taken from publicly available facts about her life, and also draws on the article entitled “Dorothy Day’s Radical Faith” by Casey Cep in the New Yorker and an article entitled “A Pilgrimage to Dorothy Day’s New York” in Aleteia.
  9. For deeper accounts of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, see “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” on the website for the U.S Catholic Bishops and chapter four of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
  10. From Dorothy Day’s diaries The Duty of Delight (pg. 442)
  11. The full text of the speech can be found here.
  12. This quote is taken from a New Yorker article by Casey Cep entitled “Dorothy Day’s Radical Faith.”
  13. Quoted in Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life by Zena Hita (p.176)
  14. She wrote his in her book Loaves and Fishes
  15. The Duty of Delight p. 480
  16. Quoted in “Dorothy Day: On Love for God, Neighbor, and Self” by Mary Louise Bozza
  17. See the discussion in A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life by Zena Hitz in the chapter “The Family of Humanity.”
  18. Quoted in “Dorothy Day’s Letters Show Heartache, Faith” by John Dear in the National Catholic Reporter; h/t Madoc Cairns for the quote originally.

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