We are surrounded, it is written, with so great a cloud of witnesses, the New Testament book of Hebrews’ shorthand for the reader’s righteous forbears. When the will of God came calling, they carried it out, even as the flawed human beings that they were — leading the people, adjudicating injustices, and carrying out holy work on behalf of heaven.
Who, exactly, gets to be righteous moves as quickly as the ranks themselves: Rahab, a prostitute living within the enormous walls of Jericho, becomes righteous when she agrees to lodge a pair of Hebrew spies. Moses, a Jewish man living in luxury with the Egyptian royal family, catches God’s eye when he embraces his identity as a member of the nation’s Israelite slave caste, ditching the monarchy after a violent outburst and becoming a shepherd in the outer wilderness. And countless others — prophets, politicians, and noblemen, inter alia — become oddballs and dissidents during evil regimes, choosing to hide out in caves or receive torture in jails over the relative comforts of silence.
If these are the first stories you remember from childhood, there’s a chance they don’t make much sense. God, dispatching prophets via burning bushes? Angels barbecuing heavenly bread in the boondocks beyond Jerusalem? Fiery fighting forces, falling from heaven to encircle invading armies? Unless our calling is to live from miracle to miracle, how is any of this supposed to help us, today, in these mortal bodies? Without broader context, the Scriptures live lonely lives, with no analogs or parallels beyond themselves. We can believe them with all of our hearts; they can’t cross the borders of the page to inhabit the world of dying people and concrete things in which we are to exist.
And so, on weeks like this, the witnesses reach out — in spirit, if not in example. We see them in books, again, yes, but we see them also in newsreels, and we read the words that we know to be theirs. Now as before, they call the powerful to account for apathy as much as evil. They turn up in hiding and captivity as much as they do in freedom, if not more. The witnesses, for reasons both earthly and from on high, descend from worlds as strange as foreign planets to reveal themselves to us.
On Martin Luther King Day, I’d argue that we celebrate one of those witnesses. If you’re old enough, maybe you once saw him yourself, somewhere between the dormant bus depots of Birmingham, Alabama, and the pulpits of Memphis, Tennessee. Maybe you followed him into jail in Birmingham or Selma, where the cages of the Jim Crow regime tried to conceal him; to a hospital in Harlem, where a madwoman’s steel letter opener nearly ended his life; or to the streets of Memphis, the site of his final crusade. The halo that our culture has placed around King and his battles often serves to hide his radical humanity — for good and ill. But his place in the civil rights struggle, with its assisted triumphs and lonesome failures, reminds us that we, too, can join ourselves to the cloud with the witness of high ideals embodied.
In the heat of the Black struggle in America, with the church as one of the only places where we held the right of self-determination, the words of Scripture became real: If God could reveal that the cries of the Hebrew slaves rose up before Him like incense, what happened when the enslaved Africans cried out millenia later? If the Jews could search for hope and peace amid the abuses of occupying armies, what’s stopping us from seeking justice and life when our own authorities leave their duties to us unfulfilled? If David could write the Psalms, and Solomon his Song of Songs, during the eras and interregna of Israel’s international conflicts, how holy was our own decision to forge beauty in the darkness? And if St. Peter, on the sand-shaded rooftops of Galilee, could learn to seek God’s ways beyond the lines of tribe, why can’t the lens of our own struggle take us far beyond ourselves — not just in search of willing allies, but in the pursuit of causes not wholly unlike our own?
Now, as then, we inhabit the cloud — and the cloud inhabits us. Its members and martyrs are icons and examples, profiles in courage that pave the road we travel. And the fact that there is a cloud, with its heavenly forms, reminds us that we are but one wisp. The cloud can shift and grow and move, its ranks swelling with our allies and our responsibilities. It can grow light, in our victories and in the wins of those beside us. And it can rain, with the tears of tiredness, tragedy, failure and frustration, for “our banner,” remarked King’s heir at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Reverend (now senator) Raphael Warnock, “is a bloodstained banner.”
One thing the cloud can’t do is stay the same. It darkens, it thins, it waters the earth. It grows, it guides, it shrouds, and it reveals — as clouds often do.