A Great Cloud of Witnesses
by Rev. Peter Sawtell
"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 12:1)
We are not alone in facing a challenging world. Multitudes have come before us, and they have persevered through many trials. We are strengthened and encouraged when we remember historic communities of commitment and action.
The Book of Hebrews walks us through a long list of biblical characters who lived in "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." After a recitation of well-known names and stories, the list gets more general, speaking of anonymous others who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and obtained promises. The text recalls still others who were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging, even imprisonment and death.
The biblical letter calls those witnesses to mind so that we, too, might continue in the demanding path of faith. We remember them so that we can run with perseverance too.
In these days of climate crisis, I am encouraged – and prodded – by a great cloud of contemporary witnesses. With deep gratitude, I call to mind those who have led us to awareness and action against the destabilization of Earth's climate: the scientists and journalists who have witnessed to truth about the devastated state of God's creation; the prophets calling out our personal and cultural complicity in damage to natural systems; the tireless activists who demand bold and urgent action. Because we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we, too, should run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
The cloud of witnesses for climate justice is global and diverse, and I praise God for all who have committed themselves to this work of protecting creation. For today, though, I ask us to be challenged by a new and effective part of this movement, the passionate witness of youth.
Certainly we must start the list with Greta. A year ago, none of us had heard of her, and now she is the single most visible individual in the fight against climate chaos. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg sat alone outside the houses of parliament every Friday in a personal climate strike, insisting by her persistent presence that the Swedish government start acting. Her solitary witness inspired other students in Europe, then Australia, and on around the world to strike for the climate. As she has grown in prominence, Greta has been fearless in speaking prophetic words to those in positions of power and trust. Her blistering denunciations of greed and business-as-usual cut through complacency and excuses.
This fall, building on Greta's at-first-solitary strike, over 7 million people took to the streets for a Global Climate Strike, the world's largest single day of climate action. Young people in schools and in community groups now articulate specific demands for climate justice in nations around the world.
Greta has been an inspiration, but this movement has not sprung only from her. One day after the September climate strike, hundreds of youth prophets and organizers gathered at the U.N. for a Youth Climate Summit. They came from the global north and south, from east and west. Through poetry, film, business enterprises, and political activism, they are speaking truth, organizing communities, and forming international organizations.
A political powerhouse of youth activism in the United States is the Sunrise Movement, "an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process." In just two years, these youth activists have been a driving force in birthing the political vision of the Green New Deal, shaping its goals, and pushing aggressively to get it introduced in Congress. Their focused political work has provided a framework for broad public conversations about how we might move rapidly toward a just transition and a sustainable society.
And we must celebrate youth who have taken the climate cause into courts. In 2015, twenty-one dedicated youngsters filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. The case – moving slowly through the courts against desperate opposition from the government – says that decades of U.S. policy favoring fossil fuels has deprived them of their constitutional right to a livable future. Similar youth lawsuits also have been filed against all 50 state governments. Youth have brought the demand for climate justice into the heart of the U.S. judicial system.
The Letter to the Hebrews calls out to us. Inspired by a great cloud of witnesses, we can and must join in witnesses, too.
That familiar passage offers us encouragement, but perhaps it does not feel quite so reassuring when we read on a few verses: "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." (12:4)
We are not looking at an easy or a comfortable task. This work of faith and hope calls us far beyond changing light bulbs, driving less, and sending an email to Congress. The Bible challenges us to dangerous resistance – perhaps filing lawsuits, or risking arrest, or at least speaking with such truth and courage that we might upset our friends and fellow church members. But, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we are called to do that much, and more.
The letter to the Hebrews celebrates a long lineage that lived in faith and with perseverance. Not all of the youth who I celebrate as witnesses to climate justice are rooted in a religious faith, but they certainly live and act in hope. They have committed themselves to a just and sustainable future which is yet unseen.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, young people doing what I see as holy work. Inspired by their witness, may we, too, run with perseverance this race that is set before us.
Rev. Peter Sawtell, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, is the founder and executive director of Eco-Justice Ministries. Through that agency, one of Peter's goals is to help church leaders discern what it means "to be the church" in this time of great ecological and social justice crises. Peter is widely known for his weekly e-mail commentary, Eco-Justice Notes.