A few years ago there was a television show, set here in Albuquerque, called In Plain Sight. It was about the U.S. Marshals Service Witness Security Program. Under that program people who have agreed to testify in certain cases (usually mob, terror, or gang related), whose lives may be endangered by doing so, and who meet certain other criteria, are given new identities in a town where they are not likely to be recognized. Although they can choose any new name, they are advised to keep the name by which they are commonly called, and perhaps the same last initial. They, and any family members in the program with them, must agree never to contact former friends or associates, and never return to the city where the previously lived, except to testify in the trial. (If they are currently in prison, they are moved to a different secure facility.) Many witnesses in the program have criminal records, and only about 17% of those subsequently commit crimes while in the program. Before entering the program they must pay off all debts, such as credit cards. Importantly, witness protection is entirelyThose who would steal an identity usually start with a name. voluntary. Several aspects of the Witness Security Program have parallels in Christianity.
One cannot enter the Witness Security program unless it can be verified that by testifying in a case their life will be endangered. There is a strong presumption that associates of the defendant will attempt to kill the witness before testifying, or in retaliation for their testimony.
Humans are an endangered species. Every person’s life is threatened by sin. The devil is out to kill every person. “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet 5:8) He does this by tempting one to sin. “For the wages of sin are death.” (Rom 6:23)
One might argue that this is true regardless of one’s faith or testimony. Everyone is going to die, and that death is a result of Adam’s sin. That is true. Nevertheless, Christians may be more in danger because of their testimony.
Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God. (2 Tim 1:8)
The devil doesn’t need to worry about those in the world. Most of them are going to choose sin without any effort on his part. They are not going to testify against him. Christians, on the other hand, are going to testify. They can expect retaliation (afflictions) because of their testimony. The devil has time and inclination to endanger them, because the rest of the world requires no attention. His contract is out on Christians, and he has plenty of volunteers to fulfil it.
Just as those in the Witness Security program get a new name, so do we. After all, a name is closely associated with identity. Those who would steal an identity usually start with a name, and then gather other identifying information. After all, what good is stealing a Social Security number if you try to associate it with the wrong name? You will get caught.
The Bible is replete with people who had their names changed to give them a new identity. Abram, the exalted father, became Abraham, the father of a multitude. Jacob, the supplanter, became Israel (God prevails). Gideon (the warrior, although God found him in hiding) became Jerub-baal (“let Baal defend himself”) after he tore down the idols of Baal. Simon (“he who hears”) became Peter, the rock, and became a preacher rather than just a hearer.
And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name. (Isa 62:2)
That the followers of God would get a new name (which many take to be fulfilled in Acts 11:26 when the disciples were first called Christians) indicates a change in identity for God’s people. No longer would the nation of Israel alone be God’s chosen ones, but also the Gentiles. God’s favor would be extended to all, and so the identity of His people would change.
Besides the general promise of a new name, God also said that those individuals that overcome will be given one. In the Revelation, that promise is made to “him that overcometh” in both the congregations at Pergamos and Philadelphia. (Rev 2:17; 3:12) Like those in witness protection, the new name will be hidden from those that knew the person before. Unlike that program, though, the individual does not select the new name. Instead, God will “write upon” him the name of God, the name of the new Jerusalem, and a new name. His identity is now in God, not in his former life.
“How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom 6:2) For all practical purposes, the individual going into the Witness Security program dies. With the closing of all previous debts and the change of name, that old person no longer exists. Accordingly, he or she no longer lives in the community nor has contact with those in the former life. The Marshals Service claims that no person in the program has been killed as long as they follow the rule about cutting off contact with non-protected people from their old life. While a Christian may not be able to cut off all contact with the physical world, or even move to a new city with new acquaintances, the new believer is expected to cut off all contact with the former way of life.
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Rom 6:3-7)
We may not be able to cut off all ties with those we knew in our former life. We may even sin, but we will no longer live there. We are to cut off contact to such an extent that “they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot.” (1 Pet 4:4) Although we may maintain the same physical appearance, our old acquaintances will not even recognize us.
It has been said that the wanted man should be the safest driver on the road. That is because drawing attention to himself by lawless behavior could end up with being arrested for the crime for which he is wanted. As before mentioned, about 17% of criminals who go into witness protection commit another crime. That is much lower than the recidivism rate for people being released from jails. There may be two reasons for this. One is that they don’t want to call attention to themselves. The other is that they are not allowed into the program if they pose a danger to their new community.
Calvinist doctrine notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that one who comes to Christ will not return to his former residence. There is considerable practical evidence of this, even if you limit the control group to preachers alone. There is even more evidence in the scriptures. Someone has pointed out over 200 passages that talk about the possibility of, as Jesus put it in Revelation 2:4, leaving “your first love.” That is not to say, however, that it is likely. Just as the rate of people in the Witness Security program who commit crimes is low, so the rate of recidivism among those who have followed Christ is low.
Finally, entry into the program is voluntary. There is a commercial for a certain brand of luxury car in which a man is being offered entry into the Witness Security program. He is given a new name, new identification papers, even a new house. When they tell him that he will have to settle for a nondescript SUV rather than his luxury SUV, he says, “I’ll take my chances.” He turns down the program.
Unfortunately, he is typical of many people in the world. Short-term satisfaction or material goods take precedence over saving one’s life. One thing is clearNo person in the program has been lost as long as they cut off contact with non-protected people from their old life. in scripture. “I can’t be saved for you, and you can’t be saved for me.”
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10)
Christianity and Islam, if not others as well, have histories of attempts at forced conversion. Witness the Inquisition in which “heretics” (who may, in some cases, have been more closely aligned with the things written in the Bible) and Jews were faced with the choice of conversion or death. Islam is known, justly or not, for spreading their religion with the edge of the sword. Even today the newspapers are full of reports of Christians who attempt to force the truths of the Bible on unbelievers. God, on the other hand, makes the choice available, but forces no one to follow Him.
The Witness Security program is not new. It is just new in being applied to witnesses in government courts. There is a much older witness security program that has many of the same characteristics. One key word is security. The marshals brag about their record, but God is more secure than they are. Participants just have to follow the guidelines for the program. And they must be ready to testify. It is, after all, the witness security program.