Cloud Of Witnesses: A Sermon
On April 4th,
A 23-year-old Dominican immigrant named Feidin Santana
was walking to his job at a South Carolina barbershop,
Talking on his cellphone,
When he saw a black man running,
chased by a white cop.
Santana decided to run after them to see what was happening.
After that things happened fast.
Santana heard the sickening click of a Taser
and he heard the man yelling.
He saw the cop catch up to the man and Tase him,
And he saw the man struggle to get away from the cop’s Taser.
At that point Santana decided to start filming.
He saw the man break free and start to run away.
Then he saw the cop fire eight shots into the man’s back.
He watched as the man fell to the ground and lay motionless.
Santana was scared,
But he came closer and kept filming.
He watched as the cop walked up to the dying man
And handcuffed him and walked away.
He watched as the cop returned to drop something next to the man,
possibly a stun gun,
possibly to incriminate him.
He watched as more cops arrived
and failed to give the man CPR or medical attention.
He watched in shock and disbelief as the man’s life left his body.
And then he left,
horrified by what he’d seen,
terrified by what it meant to be a witness to this killing.
Santana wasn’t sure what to do with the dreadful images burning in his pocket.
He thought about handing the footage over to the police.
He even went to the police station,
But he left before talking to anyone.
After seeing what had happened to the fleeing unarmed man,
Who he later learned was named Walter Scott,
He was afraid of what might happen to him if he shared the film with police.
He felt that his own life was in danger.
He told his family about what he’d seen,
And they were scared for him and counseled caution.
Santana thought seriously about erasing the video and leaving town
And trying to start his life over somewhere else.
But as he watched the story play out in the news,
His fear turned into a kind of conviction.
He realized that the cop was lying and blaming the killing on the victim,
Falsely saying that Scott had taken the stun gun and threatened him with it.
And the police department was backing up the cop’s lies.
Santana began to believe that his own eyewitness evidence,
captured on video,
Was the only hope for justice for the victim’s family.
So he went to a vigil in memory of Mr. Scott
And approached Mr. Scott’s brother Anthony quietly
And said, “I have something to share with you.”
And he showed him the video—
The evidence of what he’d seen.
It was a tremendously emotional moment for Scott’s family.
It confirmed what they’d suspected all along,
And it shook their deep despair about ever proving the truth.
But Santana was still wary about what it would mean to make the evidence public.
It took him a bit more time to finally gather the courage to release the video
And tell his story.
But his courageous decision changed everything.
The North Charleston police department
immediately dropped their false account of the killing.
The cop was arrested on charges of murder.
The Justice Department and the FBI began an investigation.
The Scott family was infused with a new hope that justice might be done.
And Feidin Santana’s life was turned upside down.
He was hailed as a hero
And mobbed by the media.
People knew where he lived,
And they knew where he worked.
He had to hire lawyers
and brace himself for the long legal battle and media frenzy ahead.
His normal existence was over,
And he was still afraid for his life.
But through all the chaos
he held onto the reason why he decided to share the video.
He said he thought
that maybe God had put him there at that terrible moment for a reason.
He believed that God might have placed him there
so he could be a witness for the truth.
Santana’s story has stayed with me every day since I first heard it.
This is partly because I am so humbled by his courage.
Unlike Santana, I am a total coward.
Every Easter season,
I identify most of all with St. Peter,
Who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed
and lashed out wildly in fear.
If I were Santana,
I would have fled the scene and deleted the evidence and kept silence.
I am in awe of the physical courage it took for him
to put himself in proximity to danger,
To keep filming even when the cop with the gun looked over and saw him,
And to stay and watch even when he and the cop and the dying Mr. Scott
were the only three people in that desolate place.
I am in awe of the moral authority he had in the moment to name what he saw,
To hold the camera steady as he said with conviction, “Abuse. That’s abuse.”
I am in awe of his decision to come forward even when he was afraid for his life.
But most of all I am in awe of how someone so young can be so wise and strong:
Can testify so eloquently with his words and deeds
To the duty we all owe each other to pursue justice for each other,
Regardless of whether we share the same native language,
or the same country of origin,
or the same race;
regardless of whether it is easy,
regardless of whether it is what we want,
but just because God has put us in this place
so we can be witnesses to each other’s suffering
and witnesses to the truth.
Because witnesses is what we are,
And witnesses is what we are called to be.
Santana’s story has stayed with me
Because until this week,
I hadn’t thought of being a Christian witness in quite this way.
But now I can’t get it out of my head.
all of us are called to be witnesses to a murder.
Through our faith,
we are all witnesses to the unjust killing of Christ.
And all of us are called to be witnesses to hope—
A hope that is rooted in our Resurrection belief
that death is not the last word,
And that love will triumph over evil.
As the sometimes cowardly and sometimes brave St. Peter says,
in our reading today from the Book of Acts:
Christ the Author of Life was killed and raised from the dead.
To this we are witnesses.
And as the risen Christ himself reminds us
In our reading from the book of Luke,
After he tells his disciples not to be afraid
And eats some fish:
“Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name
to all nations,
beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”
All of us,
even those of us living thousands of years after Christ,
Are called to be witnesses to the bitterness of death and the hope of resurrection
In the place where God has put us.
Right here, right where we are,
We are called to be witnesses to suffering and injustice,
And we are called to be witnesses to new hope and new life.
But what exactly does this mean?
We are not actually at Calvary, weeping at the foot of the cross,
Or eating resurrection fish with Jesus.
And most of us, thank God, are not called to record killings on our cellphones,
Though as residents of this country
we need to be prepared for whatever witnessing duty may come our way.
But even though we may not be St. Peter or Feidin Santana,
I think we can learn from them about what it means to be a witness now.
The first rule of witnessing is: when you see suffering or injustice,
Don’t run away from it and don’t deny it.
See it and name it for what it is.
The temptation to run and deny is strong for all of us.
This is true when the suffering or injustice is in the news,
Yet another earthquake or epidemic,
another wildfire or war,
another drowning refugee or sexually assaulted prisoner,
another unarmed black person shot by a cop.
But it’s also true close to home,
In the poverty we choose not to see on the street,
In the inequality and injustice on our campus,
And the fractures in our own families we’ve given up trying to mend.
And it’s true in our friendships:
In the times we want to ignore the pain
that flows like a current under our friend’s words,
And in the times we don’t want to ask how someone is,
because we don’t want to know.
The first responsibility of a witness
Is to be attentive to a difficult truth.
It is to acknowledge and name the hard reality of this world.
It is to turn our attention to what we don’t want to know but are called to share:
The sorrow and pain of our neighbors,
And the intolerable burden of suffering and injustice.
The second rule of witnessing is: hold on to hope.
This is literally the crux of the matter.
It’s the message of Easter:
The risen Christ and the empty tomb.
Because what gives us strength to open ourselves up to trouble of this world,
What gives us the courage we need in the moment and in all the moments after,
Is our belief that death is not the end of the story.
We have hope because we are witnesses to the Resurrection.
We have hope because we have seen the power of God’s love at work in the world.
Think about the deepest love you’ve ever known:
the kind of love that calms you when you’re stormy and soothes you when you’re sick,
The love that feeds you when you’re famished
and fills you with joy and confidence when you begin to doubt.
Think about a love that is willing to sacrifice itself
So that others can dwell in new possibilities of life.
This is Resurrection love.
And even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
Or run frantically beside death’s chain-link fence,
The love of God is always with us,
Rising alive again inside us.
And no matter what lies may circulate on our TV screens,
And no matter what fears may fill our hearts,
God’s truth remains true.
Hope is clinging to the belief that there is nothing truer in the universe than love.
Not even death.
We are allowed to be afraid.
We are allowed to waver.
But in the end, if we hold on to hope,
we will always eventually be able to hear the voice within us that tells us:
Peace be with you.
Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
You are my witnesses.
The third rule of witnessing is: testify.
Tell us what you’ve seen.
Because no matter how brave Feidin Santana was to stay and watch what he did,
His evidence would not have changed the course of justice
if he’d kept it to himself.
We are called to be witnesses,
Which means we are called to watch, and we are called to testify.
And as witnesses we have extraordinary power.
In simply being present
and paying attention to one another
and being prepared to speak,
We can sometimes prevent injustice or despair.
In choosing to witness another person’s suffering,
And affirm that their pain is real,
We can honor the importance of their experience,
And remind them that it matters to us,
and they matter to us.
In witnessing injustice and lifting our voices against it,
We can challenge the lies that circulate in our society
And let the forces of evil know that they cannot triumph over the truth.
And in holding on to hope,
In letting God roll away the stones that keep our love buried inside us,
In setting aside our fears
and finding the courage to open our hearts to each other and tell the truth,
even when it feels like we are taking a risk,
We can live as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.
The book of Hebrews talks about a great Cloud of Witnesses—
The multitude of saints and believers throughout all generations
Who have witnessed the trouble of the world and the love of God.
Hebrews tells us that through their faith
these witnesses subdued kingdoms,
stopped the mouths of lions,
quenched the violence of fire,
escaped the edge of the sword,
out of weakness were made strong,
waxed valiant in fight,
and turned to flight the armies of the wicked.
From Abraham to Moses,
From Rahab to David,
From Sarah to Feidin Santana,
These are the witnesses of whom the world was not worthy.
And these are the witnesses we are called to be.
And even though witnessing may sometimes seem
like a daunting and heroic act,
it starts with simply seeing each other.
In choosing to pay attention to the people in front of us.
In simply being here,
fully present in the place where God as put us,
And opening our eyes and ears and hearts,
And in finding the courage to speak.
Sisters and brothers,
We have seen Christ die again and again
From the cross on Calvary
To the streets of North Charleston.
We know why our hearts are troubled.
But we believe in the Resurrection,
And we know that love is stronger than fear or despair or apathy or death.
And in the confidence of that love
and the power of that resurrection,
Let us be bold enough to live as witnesses
to the hope that lives within us.
University Church in Yale, April 19, 2014
Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.