Sunday, July 15, 2018

Defiant, Persistant, Prophetic Hope

These past few months, as the work I've been doing careens from apparent forward motion to sudden standstill, then springs back to life only to stall again, I've been puzzling over the dynamics of hope.

Is hope a spiritual gift?

A naive illusion?

In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King insisted on his right to dream, even in the face of legitimate discontent:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. 
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Was King naive to hold to that stone of hope?

Evidence might suggest so.

Am I naive to think that change is possible, despite daily evidence that it's not?

In Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann explains the role of hope in fueling opposition to the prevailing narrative. 

He describes a destructive economy insistent on unsustainable dependence on fossil fuel, fueled by military profit and its attendant violence, trapped in an exceptionalist vision that places a highly entitled “we” in eternal opposition to an always encroaching “them.”

Brueggemann catalogs “the despair-generating” epidemic of anxiety that confronts us:
  • anxiety acted out as unrestrained greed (there’s not enough, so grab what you can)
  • anxiety acted out as privatism (we need to look out for the private self; there’s no room for concern for the common good)
  • anxiety as willing violence (demonstrated in loyalty to guns, eagerness for military combat, readiness to torture, willingness to execute)
  • anxiety as nostalgia for the good old days: “the safe, protected, homogeneous community of the like-minded . . .  fencing out frightening otherness.” (117)
  • anxiety in the presence of a pervasive sense of “end time”, an apocalyptic vision in which “it’s every man for himself” and “you are on your own.” (118)
In the face of that anxiety, according to Brueggemann, “The prophetic task is to articulate hope, the prospect of fresh historical possibility assured by God’s good governance of the future.” (119)

His book was published in 2014. Today, in 2018, the call to hope is even more difficult and yet more urgently necessary.

During my years of youth ministry, I sat, more times than I can count, in the presence of a young person grieving options squandered, trapped by bad decisions, fearful of the future.

And I've said, more times than I can count, “This is not the end of the story.”  

I’ve seen that in my own life: great loss that led to new options and new avenues. Heavy sorrow that led to greater joy. 

And we've seen the same through the pages of history: empires collapse, principalities flounder. New ways of living emerge. 

If we are loved, as I believe we are, if there is a good God holding us and this world in his hands, our own worst mistakes are not the end of the story.  

The broken systems of this world, the pervasive powers, the prejudice, dysfunction, violence, inequity, may burden us and do grave harm, but they don’t have the final word.

Jürgen Moltmann came of age during World War II and was drafted into the German army in 1944. He surrendered at the close of the war and spent the next three years as a prisoner of war. Tormented by “memories and gnawing thoughts,” he struggled with guilt, then found new faith and hope in reading the New Testament and Psalms given him by fellow prisoners. His Theology of Hope, published in 1964, explored the connection between faith and hope and described the ways hope places us in opposition to the powers that surround us, enabling us to act in allegiance to God's greater vision.

That unquenchable hope fueled William Wilberforce’s lifelong quest against the slave trade, gave Martin Luther King the strength to confront the injustices around him, drove Dorothy Day's work as suffragist, pacifist, and advocate for the poor and homeless, enboldened Óscar Romero to speak out against a violent, repressive regime. The list could go on and on.

Some days I struggle to continue in hope.

Stories of children separated from parents stir deep sadness, memories of my own family separations, dark anger at those who inflict such lasting, unnecessary pain.

Each report of a shooting in school or public place, each legislative skirmish where voices of reason lose to lobbyists funded by unrighteous profit, sucks air from my lungs, burdens my forward motion.

I see daily, in my own work and in the national news, how easily one powerful, selfish man can shatter the heart-felt effort of thousands of decent men and women.

Our systems amplify the voices of the most self-indulgent while muffling the cries of the many. 

Nelson Mandela. seven years into an undefined prison sentence, wrote his wife Winnie: "Remember that hope is a powerful weapon, even when all else is lost." 

For him, hope was an act of defiance but also prophetic statement: apartheid would not, COULD not, have the final word. 

He was right, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

That same defiant, persistent, prophetic hope has enlivened the work and witness of countless men and women across continents and centuries.

That same hope pulls me from bed most mornings, pushes me forward in unexpected ways, cries out, in me and so many I know and love, against the sweltering summers of racism, injustice, environmental degradation.

Our hope is not in our own small offerings, but in the knowledge that the story isn’t over. 

The dark forces of this world must not, will not have the final say.

God’s love – greater than ours, more powerful than ours – will reconcile, renew, restore in ways beyond our understanding.

Our hope in that love, our faith in that reality, gives us courage, conviction, and the ability to live and love in ways that defy the dominant narrative of our day.

I can't give you that hope. 

Some days, I can barely hold it for myself. 

But I can pray:
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:18-21)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

[This is a rethinking of an earlier post, What I'd Give You: Resolute Hope, January 2016.