The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Living in Hope
Christian tradition sets "hope" as the theme for the first week of Advent.
As a result, I often get hooked into a pre-Christmas theological rant about the difference between "hope" and "optimism." The distinction is far from trivial. Genuine hope is the only thing to sustain us in the presence of great threats.
In part because this is Advent's liturgical week of hope, and mostly because we live in desperate times that call for profound hope, I'll try today to open up that theme. After recapping my understanding of genuine hope, I'll lift up a contemporary image of a community witnessing from that depth of commitment. I'll close with some questions for those of us who call ourselves Christian.
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The English language is messy about hope. The word can have several very different meanings. We can hope for a convenient parking place at the grocery store. Or we can live in a faithful hope that keeps us sane and functional in a tumultuous world.
I find it helpful to think of what we hope for (which points to an outcome) as different from where we place our hope (where we place our confidence, or what we view as ultimately good and right). In times of great challenge, optimism for a good outcome can be hard to sustain, while deeply rooted convictions are precisely what sustains us.
Vaclav Havel wrote that hope of the confident kind "is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. ... It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed."
In "The Impossible Will Take a Little While", Paul Loeb plays with several permutations of the word:
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope -- not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; ... nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of 'Everything is gonna be all right.' But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
That's the kind of hope that can make the first week of Advent relevant and compelling. It is a hope of truth-telling, of honesty about how our world diverges from God's realm of shalom. Profound hope is a hallmark of vibrant Christianity. If our faith really makes a difference in our lives and our communities, then we will be living in hope, taking our stand for the in-breaking realm of God.
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Loeb's description of truth-telling hope is evocative for me this year, because he makes clear that this kind of hope is not passive. He writes of "resistance and defiance", of struggle, and even "joy in the struggle."
There are many historical examples of folk living in deep hope -- and I'll stress that being grounded in hope is not limited to Christian belief or witness. Through the last several months, I have been informed and inspired by the hope of the "water protectors" at Standing Rock in North Dakota. (For background on this ongoing confrontation, see the Notes "Stand with Standing Rock" from earlier this fall.) Whether or not you agree with the goals of this protest, it is a powerful example of embodied hope.
Since April of this year, members of the Lakota Nation have camped by the Missouri River in opposition to a planned oil pipeline. There are many layers to their objection, but the most immediate is the threat to their drinking water if -- when! -- the pipeline leaks into the river.
Month after month, the witness of the Lakota people has exposed two conflicting realities. Their worldview treasures water -- "Water is life" is a rallying call -- and honors sacred sites that bind them to the land. They reject the worldview which honors oil and profits above land, which pretends that technology will prevent or fix any leaks, and which denies them voice in decisions. They have gathered at Standing Rock in prayer and in community, to announce their hope in the beliefs and values of the Lakota people.
The Standing Rock protest has drawn support from hundreds of other native communities, who share in resistance to an unacceptable "world as it is", and in commitment to a world as it should be, according to their traditions. In the great lineage of non-violent social change, they have intentionally placed themselves in the presence of the forces that they reject. They are provoking their opponents and subjecting themselves to violence in order to reveal the brutality and purposes of the pipeline proponents.
The hyper-militarized response of the pipeline company and the North Dakota police forces -- joined by police from across the country -- has been a stark and painful contrast to the persistent non-violence of the water protectors. Police in riot gear line up in ranks against unarmed civilians. Water cannons drench those who witness in peace on a bitter cold night. The conflict may increase this weekend with eviction orders and blockades.
Vaclav Havel called hope "an ability to work for something because it is good" even when it may not succeed. Paul Loeb wrote of "resistance and defiance" and "joy in the struggle" when there is dissonance between the world as it is and the world as it should be. By those criteria, I look to the folk at Standing Rock as profound examples of what it means to live and act in hope. I am both humbled and inspired by their clarity of purpose and their committed courage.
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When we light that first purple candle of Advent, we celebrate hope. As Christians, we acknowledge that there is deep and painful dissonance between the world as it is and the realm of God that we proclaim. If we're taking that dissonance seriously, hope calls us beyond awareness and concern. Hope calls us to resistance, defiance, risk and action.
Hope is about placing yourself firmly and passionately on the side of what you believe to be ultimately good and right. Hope, then, also requires us to stand firmly and passionately against other values, other purposes, other realities. Christian hope is not a passive confidence that God will fix it all, someday. Christian hope is an unshakable commitment to God's purposes, right now.
This December, where do you find the greatest dissonance between what you believe is most good and true, and what you experience as the way of this world? Where do your faithful principles come into greatest conflict with our culture's "business as usual"?
This Advent, where and how do you commit to living in hope? What communities of resistance will you join to empower your hope?
P.S. -- Signing a letter rarely qualifies as "living in hope", but such actions can be important. Creation Justice Ministries is leading the ecumenical circulation of a faith leader's letter calling on President Obama to act on Standing Rock. Please read the urgent letter, and consider signing it.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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