This brings hope. It reminds me that even amidst our suffering the human impulse to create beauty cannot be squelched. This semester I am trying to get my students to recognize this fact.
This brings hope. It reminds me that even amidst our suffering the human impulse to create beauty cannot be squelched. This semester I am trying to get my students to recognize this fact.
What happens when a president with a strong base among white working class people is incapable of cultivating empathy and hope in a time of crisis? Here is Juliette Kayyem at The Atlantic:
In a crisis as severe as the coronavirus pandemic, government officials owe the general public two things: reliable numbers and an honest basis for hope. That’s what citizens get if politicians step aside from the microphone and let experts speak. When Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, testified before a House committee yesterday, he warned that COVID-19 has a death rate 10 times that of the seasonal flu; that the worst is yet to come; and that, without more aggressive containment measures, “many, many millions” of Americans could become infected. This was a sobering message, but his audience could at least take comfort in knowing where things stand.
That has not been true of President Donald Trump, who has pooh-poohed the danger of the new disease, played down case counts, and insisted that the new disease will soon taper off. In a televised address last night, he was visibly uncomfortable and talked about the pandemic not as a deadly health problem but as a venue for global competition. His portrayal of the new pathogen as a “foreign virus” and his boast that the United States had the “best response” to the virus did nothing to alleviate fears Americans might have about their health and the massive disruptions now occurring in society. His showiest move—his announcement of a ban on travel from Europe—showed little regard for the fact that COVID-19 is already spreading in the United States.
For some time, Trump and his White House have acted as if they only have a public-relations problem to contend with. When Trump designated Mike Pence as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, the vice president promptly moved to tighten messaging and take control of public appearances by government experts. Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is insisting that top-level coronavirus meetings be treated as classified—a designation that inhibits scientific transparency and excludes important experts without security clearances.
But a lack of message discipline is not what caused the stock-market crash this week. Investors see all too clearly that the federal response to the coronavirus has been disjointed, lagging in even providing the basic test kits to determine the magnitude of the threat.
As for giving hope, that job can’t be delegated. Trump—who went golfing both days last weekend—appears simply incapable of grasping the magnitude of the situation before us. Calm and cool have their benefits in stressful times, and making sure that the public does not overreact is an important job for elected leaders. But Trump’s efforts to minimize the disease look delusional against everything we know about it. The United States is just entering the mitigation stage of this crisis, during which cities and states will severely curb movement and social interactions to slow the spread of the disease and relieve burdens on our health-care system. For weeks to come, Americans will become accustomed to this jarring sense that time and basic social norms are suspended.
After falsely saying the coronavirus is essentially contained, then not seeming to show much interest until the stock market took notice, Trump has shown no empathy for what the nation is now suffering. By all evidence, he is deeply concerned with how the pandemic will make him look. But as Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used to tell his teams, the best way to get good press is to do a good job.
Americans need to brace for impact. Trump’s standard tactics—blaming immigrants and outsiders, promising fantastical walls, wearing red hats with slogans—are powerless against a global pandemic. While the coronavirus is by far the most dangerous crisis that the United States has faced since Trump took office, he has not participated in its resolution in any meaningful way.\
But a president isn’t allowed to be irrelevant at a moment of national crisis. Or, to put it another way, an irrelevant president is a harmful one. Last night Trump felt obliged to intervene more strongly—just not with the kind of information and leadership that will prepare Americans for a disturbing new reality.
Read the entire piece here.
In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville
Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.
In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.
In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.
As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.
As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.
Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.
King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?
No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.
Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”
I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.
Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.
There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.
I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.
As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.
But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.
A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real
But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.
It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.
Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”
For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”
I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.
The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.
Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.
Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.
The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.
Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.
The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”
Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?
It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.
This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing
For Saint Augustine, Hope was not the product of that hypocritical, hand-wringing Christian quietism that so many in the church have acquired and made into a spiritual skill: standing idly by, crying “peace, peace” where there is no peace, while the earth is being ravaged and God’s people are being destroyed by greed, selfishness, and rapaciousness. That Christianity, in a perverse understanding of reconciliation, seeks to remain piously neutral while the battles of life and justice and truth are raging across the earth, straining to please the powerful and pacify the oppressed, and calling it “creating hope.” That Christianity turns its back on the suffering we ourselves have caused while mouthing pious phrases, our eyes directed toward heaven but our feet awash in the blood of the innocent. Nor is hope the result of the Christian triumphalism that is so rampant today, certain of every victory, not because we share in the powerless, vulnerability, and suffering–and hence the victory of the cross–but because we have made common cause with the privileged and powerful, wielding our Bibles like weapons of mass destruction against those whom we have made vulnerable.
— Allan Aubrey Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope: Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, 49.
“The concept of justice is indeed central to the biblical portrait of the God who has revealed himself in his written Word and in the incarnate Word who is his Son. However, the current use of ‘justice’ as a rallying cry for the church is reductive, because it is limited to particular political and economic issues without reference to the righteousness of God . A key to the biblical meaning of justice is found in the fact that the word translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ is the same word in Hebrew and in Greek. The root of the word becomes, in both Testaments, both a noun and a verb, so that ‘justice’ or ‘judgment’ is the same thing as ‘righteousness’ or ‘rectification’ (making right). The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness. All the references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness–not just his being righteous (noun) but his ‘making right’ (verb) all that has been wrong. Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgment.
Promise is a key concept of understanding Advent. We are all familiar with broken promises; indeed, it sometimes seems that broken promises are the only promises there are. This is a sign of the old age. The gospel announces the promise of God, which has an entirely different character from human promises because it is anchored in the very nature of the righteous God with whom ‘all things are possible’ (Matt. 19:26). Therefore, the principal defining characteristic of the Christian community, along with faith and love, is hope (I Cor. 13:13).
—Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 21-22.
Here is Fleming Rutledge, an author and Episcopal priest:
Across the Charles River from the Church of the Advent sits mighty Harvard. There, the famous psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better. In a recent interview, he makes the statement that, thanks to the Enlightenment and especially to science, life on earth is improving. He acknowledges that human beings “tend to backslide into irrationality,” but all in all, he thinks the data show that we’re making headway. Pinker is not ignorant about human evil, but he genuinely believes that human progress is unstoppable and that science and technology can solve our problems if we can only be rational, high-minded people—presumably, people like himself.
The Bible pushes back against the naive optimism of Pinker and many others like him. It is a story, not a scientific document or a collection of spiritual principles. It tells us how we came to be who we are in this world, how we fractured the image of God in ourselves by our rebellion, and how our creator came in his own person to transfigure us into the likeness of the son, who became incarnate in our human flesh. It tells us of the powers of sin and death and their hold on us.
The biblical story is rigorously unsentimental. It doesn’t offer optimism. It doesn’t offer “positive thinking.” It looks deeply into human misery, human folly, human pain, and plain old human disappointment. I like what the writer Lance Morrow said about the 20th century era of world wars and genocide: “Instead of a growing Enlightenment, it seems more like an Endarkenment.”
The Advent season, properly understood, is designed to help us understand this “Endarkenment.” It strengthens us for life in the real world, where there are malignant forces actively working against human well-being and the divine purposes of God. This is a world in which no one seems to know what to do about the catastrophic famine in Yemen. This is a world in which the promise of freedom and democracy in Poland and Hungary is shifting before the eyes of the world into oppression and autocracy. This is a world in which our very best intentions turn against us.
Michael Gerson nails it again. Here is a taste of his recent column at The Washington Post:
Whatever you think about the historicity of the biblical accounts, they provide a powerful story about the true nature of power.
The whole narrative is framed by governmental attempts to assert and maintain control. The site of the birth is determined by a government census. The wise men must frustrate Herod’s attempt to locate a competing king. The slaughter of the innocent is state-sponsored mass murder. The holy family must flee to Egypt as refugees. The Roman Empire and its client ruler are attempting to snuff out potential sedition in its cradle. And that intention is fulfilled some three decades later — to all outward appearances — in a public trial and crucifixion.
“From beginning to end,” says Christian author Philip Yancey, “the conflict between Rome and Jesus appeared to be entirely one-sided. The execution of Jesus would put an apparent end to any threat, or so it was assumed at the time. Tyranny would win again. It occurred to no one that his stubborn followers might just outlast the Roman empire.”
But that is what happened. And the Christmas narrative indicates why. Whatever else this story may be, it is an inversion of our view of power — as though we had lived our whole lives upside down and were finally set aright. In God’s perspective on events, the culmination of history takes place among common people. Shepherds are the audience for angels. The stable is more influential than the royal court. Refugees are more important than rulers. The hopes of humankind are met, against all expectation, in a helpless infant. Power is found in the renunciation of power; strength is perfected in weakness.
It is not always obvious how this great inversion applies in our lives or our politics. But it forbids us from believing that cruelty can bring authority, or that peace can be achieved through murder, or that justice can arrive through lawlessness. It calls us to humility and decency over arrogance and ruthlessness. And it provides the Christmas hope that love will have the final word.
Read the entire piece here.
Last night some of my history students showed up at my house singing Christmas carols. For close to a decade, Messiah College history majors have been caroling at the homes of their professors. It is a department tradition. We invite them in, give them some food (brownies and cookies this year), and have some conversation.
If you are in search of hope in these dark times, spend time with some really engaged Christian college students. Our conversation only last about 30 minutes, but we had a great discussion about their experiences in evangelical churches and their attempts to balance critical thinking with membership in their religious communities.
I needed this tonight!
A Messiah College History department tradition! pic.twitter.com/mQMRFJ6TIh
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 14, 2019
In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote:
Fear has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic. In 1800, the Connecticut Courtant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery. In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words “Native Americans: Beware of Foreign Influence.”
In modern America, campaign ads keep us in a constant state of fear–and not always from right-wing sources either. I still get a shiver up my spine when I watch “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign advertisement that opens with a little girl standing in a quiet meadow picking the petals off a daisy. Midway through the ad, an ominous countdown begins, and the camera zooms into the girl’s eye, where we the viewers see the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. As the ad closes, we hear the voices of sportscaster Chris Schenkel reading the following words on the screen: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd…The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” This ad played an important role in Johnson’s landslide victory over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator who made reckless statements about the use of nuclear weapons. Fear is a powerful political tool.
Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population. Thomas Jefferson did question many supernatural elements in the Bible. Barry Goldwater did support the use of atomic weapons in Vietnam. Today the growing number of Muslims living in the United States does raise important questions about how religious identity intersects with American values, or how we should defend the religious liberty of the millions of peaceful Muslims while still protecting Americans fro, the threat of murderous Islamic terror groups. The United States States does have a problem with undocumented immigrants entering the country illegally. And it is clear that television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us. They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transform them “into imminent threats.”
And here is what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump about hope:
Can evangelicals recover [a] confidence in God’s power–not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability ability to work our his purposes for good? Can they recover this hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.” I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our [history of the Civil Rights bus tour]. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of the world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain. Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come….
But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that Glenn Tinder has described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we c an never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the “carnage” of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal. A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real. But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, “draws us into the future,” and in this way it “engages us in life.”
This is the time of the Christian year dedicated to expectant longing. God, we are assured, is at mysterious work in the world. Evil and conflict are real but not ultimate. Grace and deliverance are unrealized but certain. Patient waiting is rewarded because the trajectory of history is tilted upward by a powerful hand.
None of this is to deny the high stakes of politics and elections. But the assurance at the heart of Advent is the antidote to fear. No matter how desperate the moment, we are told, time is on the side of hope.
Such hope does not come naturally to human beings. On the evidence of our senses, despair is perfectly rational. Entropy is built into nature. Decay is knit into our flesh. By all appearances, the universe is cold, empty and indifferent. There is a certain bleak dignity in accepting the challenge of a hopeless cause.
But most of us can’t be content in this state. We fill the void with cries of protest, or hymns of thanksgiving, or demands for justice. This search for answers seems essential to our humanity. It is possible, of course, that our deepest longings are actually cruel jokes of nature. But it is also possible and rational that our longings are hints of a reality beyond nature. Perhaps our desires exist because they are meant to be fulfilled.
Hope seems like it is hard to come by these days. But these five events, chronicled by the BBC, give us a little glimpse of what the coming Kingdom of God–a Christian’s ultimate hope–might look like.
The BBC “History Extra” unpacks these five stories here.
Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker essay on climate change is sobering. But is also hopeful.
Franzen argues that we are investing too much time and money into trying to reverse the consequences of climate change when it is probably too late to do anything about it. Instead, we should be spending our time and resources thinking about how we are going to survive the devastating impact of climate change. Hope, he argues, is part of the answer.
Here is a taste:
I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.
Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.
Read the entire piece here.
This resonates with me on many levels:
Read the transcript here.
As I look at myself, I can see the white supremacy in me. But oh, when I was at Charlottesville, looking in the eyes of those sick, neo-Nazi white brothers, gangsters, thugs, I didn’t lose sight of the gangster in me. I just try to reconquer it every day, and they need a little more work. But they’re still made in the same image of the god that I serve, and they can kill me as they kill so many others in my tradition—talk about me, trash me, misunderstand me, but I’m not going to stoop so low that I lose sight of their humanity, and they’re still on the same continuum. That is a fundamental challenge for the younger generation, because in these Balkanized and polarized times, it’s so easy to go off in your corner, in your own silo, and think somehow you are so empowered and enabled and able to engage in serious, effective work on the battlefield when you yourself have spiritual emptiness. So, it’s hard for you to be the change you’re talking about. That’s what is required of all these various traditions, as deep human challenges.
Last but not least, in celebrating you, I want you to never, ever forget that you have the capacity to preserve your revolutionary joy. We live in a culture with a joyless quest for insatiable pleasure. Whole lot of titillation and stimulation possible, but when it comes to that which endures—the deep stuff, the joys that are beneath the pleasures—don’t let anything or anybody take your joy away. I told the undergraduate class at the Black graduation yesterday, I said: Don’t let anybody take your funk away. They want to deodorize you and sanitize you and sterilize you and make you just another example of Harvard graduate and success. No, don’t confuse success with greatness.
Somewhere I read: He or she that’s greatest among you will be your servant, and if you’re servant, you have to be bold. You’re going to have to take a risk, you have to pay a cost, you’re going to have to cut against the grain. It’s not going to be fun, but there’ll be joy in that kind of struggle, joy in your intellectual courage exercise, joy in your moral and spiritual witness enacted even as you fall on your face. As Samuel Beckett always reminds us: We try again, fail again, and fail better.
As you embark on the next stage, fail so much better. Fail with all of your revolutionary joy. Fail with that subversive piety. Fail with your intellectual humility and with your spiritual intensity. Class of 2019, are you ready? Are you ready? Let me know! Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you really ready? Then let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!
Read the entire speech here.
It is certainly fitting that Bruce Springsteen would release this now.
Grab your ticket and your suitcase, thunder’s rolling down this track
Well, you don’t know where you’re going now, but you know you won’t be back
Well, darling, if you’re weary, lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry, yeah, and we’ll leave the rest
Well, big wheels roll through the fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
I will provide for you and I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now for this part of the ride
Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Well, tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past
Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Oh, meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings Lord
This train, all aboard
I said, now this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing
Well, big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Oh, meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Get busy living, or get busy dying:
There are many Christians who are living-out the Gospel. They are doing so in small congregations that get little attention from the media. The people of All Saints Holiness Church in Jacksonville, Florida are some of them.
Read this story and watch the video embedded in it.
Last night, after I spoke about how white conservative evangelicals too often privilege fear over hope, a friend noted that Trump’s evangelical supporters seem pretty “hopeful” right now. Trump is delivering on the Supreme Court. He has moved the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. He is trying to do something about religious liberty (at least as white evangelicals understand it). For a group of evangelicals who see political and cultural engagement in terms of winning the culture wars, Trump has been anointed for such a time as this.
I thought about my friend’s comment this morning as I read Laurie Premack‘s review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, published at The Conversation. Here is a taste of her very fair review:
Do you remember that Barack Obama poster? The one of him looking into the middle distance, as if gazing upon a future only he could see, the word “HOPE” spelled out across his chest in blue – the colour of clear days and sunny skies? It was in Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Conference – the one that catapulted him to the presidency four years later – that he first made the audacious promise that the country had the power to choose hope over cynicism. Farewell to the grim ironies of the 20th century, hello to the brave promise of the new millennium.
But Obama’s hope was always a vague one: something to do with slaves, immigrants, soldiers and mill workers. He said it was “something more substantial” than “blind optimism” but didn’t go into the details. It was simply what you harness in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. The thing that keeps you believing that the future will be better than today.
The general public is accustomed to thinking about hope in political terms. That is the American eschatology (the belief in the nation’s ultimate destiny) – that through democracy the country will enter the promised land. Indeed, hope is, at its essence, faith in the future. And people tend to talk about hope, as Obama famously did, assuming a shared understanding of what it means. It is not a loaded term. It is a light one – bright, buoyant, chirpy.
Or so I thought. John Fea, author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump has a different take. For him – an evangelical historian of American politics – hope is not the vague optimism of Obama, but the precise hope of Christian theology. Hope rests on the truth of Jesus Christ. It is, as Christian political philosopher Glenn Tinder described it, a divine gift “anchored in eternity”. There can be no real hope without God.
Read the rest here.
I write a lot about hope in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. I wish I could write about it with the beauty and experience of Amy Butler, pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City. Here is a taste of her post at Baptist News Global: “Hope for America as we know it can be“:
I don’t recognize the America in which I live now, but I still love the America I dreamed of back then.
But holy moments happen at the door.
As the line at the door came to an end on Sunday, a very nice couple approached me and said, “Hi. We’re visiting today from Toronto.” They looked at me with not a little sympathy, then said, “Keep the faith. We know the best of America. We’re just waiting for the frat party to be over so that we can help you clean up.”
Hope soared in my heart. Maybe I am not the only one who remembers that America. Maybe we can become again who we were. It’s just a matter of deciding who we are going to be.
Holy moments happen at the door, don’t forget.
Read the entire piece here.
In the process of writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I read a lot of good books on the subject of hope. One of my favorite reflections on the subject is Glenn Tinder‘s The Fabric of Hope: An Essay. Anyone who reads Believe Me (released on June 28, 2018) will see Tinder’s influence on my work.
Yesterday I reread The Fabric of Hope for the third or fourth time. It is one of those books that I see myself returning to regularly. I get something new out of it every time I read it.
Over on Twitter (@johnfea1) today, I will be tweeting some of my favorite lines from the book. I will use the hashtag #tinderonhope
I have recently been reading some of the work of Christian political philosopher Glenn Tinder. In his wonderful essay, The Fabric of Hope, Tinder argues that good politics requires patience.
A politics of sobriety would take the form sometimes of a stance seldom adopted in so impatient and restless a society as America. The stance is that of waiting. As we have seen, the idea of waiting for God is strongly emphasized both in the Old Testament and in the words of Jesus (“Watch and pray”). There is such a think as waiting for God in a political situation. It comes about when the demands of a situation are contradictory or obscure. Hence we hesitate, hoping for clarity of mind and conscience. We wait for the leadership of God. In such circumstances, the waiting is itself a form of obedience–an act taken, so to speak, in anticipation of further instructions. In an age beguiled by unrealistic hope, waiting is a repellent notion, darkened by a consciousness of human limitations. But neglect of those limitations, in our time, has been calamitous. A realization of their inescapable reality would be one of the benefits of a true understanding of hope.
In an age when bills are passed quickly and legislative decisions are rushed through Congress with little dialogue, deliberation, feedback, or conversation, Tinder’s words are sobering.
…we see the link between historical knowledge and neighborly love in this, that even the concrete person in my immediate presence is not abstracted from history. A human being, fully understood, is not only a product of timeless nature but is also a unique embodiment of history–of the past that has given the human race its present beliefs and form of life. Suppose that the person I face here and now is a late twentieth-century American. To know and love that person in all of his concrete reality I must know something about American history–about America’s revolutionary break with Europe, about the Civil War, and about the development of industrialism and its impact on American society and attitudes. If my neighbor is an African-American, I achieve a neighborly relationship only so far as I am conscious of the blight of slavery and the long agony of racial discrimination that followed the end of slavery. In a word, my neighbor is microhistorical–a concrete embodiment of human destiny. If I am inattentive to the historical past I am severely handicapped when it comes to being attentive to the neighbor whom I confront here and now. This is not to say that love for one’s neighbor depends on a scholar’s knowledge of history. But it does depend on a certain breadth of mind–on an interest in, and an intuitive sense of, what human beings have done and suffered throughout the ages.
–Glenn Tinder, The Fabric of Hope, 155.