"Others were tortured…They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." - Hebrews 11:35b, 37-38, 12:1
The final paragraph of Hebrews 11 reads like the climactic scene of a Quentin Tarantino flick. People are stoned, stabbed, and sawn in half!
Yet the author follows this gruesome list with the famous words: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . . ." Not what we might have expected. These mangled and murdered sisters and brothers are intended to be inspiring, an encouragement to us to persevere through our own trials in resurrection hope.
I wonder how this passage has changed for 21st century Christians in America. How do we experience the once-comforting image of a cloud of tortured witnesses? The waterboarded; the sensory-deprived; the ones stripped and humiliated, kept awake, held in solitary confinement?
Today that cloud might hover more menacingly than encouragingly, reminding us of guilt rather than glory. But perhaps it could have the same effect: to prompt us to persevere in the cause of peace and discourage us from the shortcut of violence. May we carry those witnesses with us as we run.
God of the tortured, when we grow weary in our work, send us witnesses to remind us why we cannot stop. Give us a second wind, for the next leg of the race.
Vince Amlin is Associate Minister at the United Church of Gainesville, Gainesville, Florida.