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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Matter of Hope
distributed 6/2/17 and 7/25/14 - ©2006, 2014

I am often asked where I find hope. The people who pose that question are not very interested in me. They are really asking for themselves, "Where can I find hope?"

The question comes up often because many of the church people that I meet are deeply discouraged. Their concerns about the environment and social justice wear them down, and they don't see much good news. They are eager to find hope that will sustain them.

The answer that I usually give is not at all what they expect. I don't speak to them about new technologies, or successful political campaigns. Instead, I encourage them to reflect on the difference between two different ways of using the word "hope."

If the emphasis is on what we hope for -- world peace, or an end to global warming -- then pessimism is an appropriate response. If the emphasis in on where we place our hope -- and I talk about placing our hope in God -- then there is abundant good news.

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We hope for things that we don't have now: a relaxing day off, the widespread use of renewable energy, a winning season by a favorite sports team, or a cure for cancer. The hopes can be trivial or profound, but they always look to the future. The things that we hope for are defined by our current fears and frustrations.

The more substantial the hope is for something, the more profound the desire for a different future, the more likely it is to bring disappointment. If I'm hoping for a particular novel as a birthday present, I can drop a few hints and be pretty sure I'll get it. If I'm hoping for the US to be the world leader in working for just and sustainable societies, well, maybe I should be prepared for disappointment.

The other use of the word "hope" takes us in a totally different direction. Instead of looking for something in the future, we can place our hope in something, right now.

Theologically, I talk about placing our hope in God. That means that we place our confidence, our trust, in God's purposes for the world. It means that we commit ourselves to Christian ethics and the church community. It means that we trust God to accomplish God's purposes, so that it is not all about our own efforts and accomplishments. (And it also means that we see God working in and through us, so that our efforts and accomplishments are important -- just not ultimately so!)

When I talk theologically, I encourage people to make a choice about placing their hope in God. But there are more than two choices available. It isn't just a question of "hope in God" or "be hopeless." There are lots of options for where we can place our hope.

  • Many people place a profound hope in the workings of market economies. The "invisible hand" of the market is trusted to know better than any human planners, and the market is trusted to define all forms of value (which means that all value is monetary, and there's no such thing as intrinsic worth). If you place your hope in the market, then disparities of poverty and wealth are "just the way things are," and not ethical failures. Worries about future energy supplies or the health effects of pollution can be avoided, because the market is trusted to solve the problems.

    Placing hope in the market shows how "hope in" is inherently theological, even if it is not dealing with "god" in the same terms as established religions. Harvey Cox wrote a provocative essay several years ago, titled "The Market as God." David Loy has a longer article on "The Religion of the Market" that I highly recommend.

  • Many political activists place their hope in democracy. Great confidence is placed in the collective voice of empowered people. As a bumper sticker says, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." Community organizers are sustained in their long and difficult work by a deep conviction that helping people claim their voice in society is an ultimate good. Working to spread and strengthen democracy is, in itself, a worthwhile commitment.

    I worry, though, about a narrower form of this hope, where democracy is only approached in terms of laws and political candidates. But if politics is "the art of the possible," and political institutions are based in compromise between competing interests, then trusting political institutions to take us in new directions will always and only bring incremental change. And today's problems need more than small changes.

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Another question that I often hear is, "What can my church do?" What things can be done in a congregation to deal with the ecological crisis? My preferred answer to that question is surprising, too, and it is based on this matter of hope.

Recycling projects, political advocacy and such are all very good. Practical and effective strategies for environmental stewardship are essential. But most importantly, I want to see churches really push their members toward a profound trust in God.

If Christian churches really got their members to commit themselves to God's shalom; if church people found the spiritual depth to turn away from consumerism and live in genuine simplicity; if we felt compelled to challenge the oppressive and destructive systems of modern society, and if we were willing to put our lives on the line in support of God's purposes for the world -- then churches would be transformed, and they would become a transformative power.

But if the best hope that churches can offer boils down to "our denomination passed a resolution of concern about climate change and we sent a copy to our legislators," or "our church cut its electric bill by 5%" -- well, I can see why so many people today don't see the church as important. I can see why church people ask me so often and so plaintively about hope.

Hope in God does not remove us from concerns about the world. Hope in God calls us into committed, active engagement with the destructive powers and principalities, and it calls us into compassionate relationship with all of God's creation.

Hope in God is the hope that sustains me in the face of overwhelming crises. I pray that more churches will reclaim this message of transformative and empowering hope.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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NOTE: the distinction between hope for results and hope in God is more fully developed in my sermon, A Matter of Hope, which is posted on the Eco-Justice Ministries website.


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