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Prophets are filled with hope not cynicism
Sharing my hope as far as I can
I guess that’s my New Year’s Resolution for 2021, and it only took me a month to get it. I’m going to reach deep down into my well of hope and try to share it as far as I can. God is the author of my hope, but the hope God offers can be seen all over creation and all over humanity as well. I think seeing that hope requires some discipline, and I think those of us with it should share it widely.
Hope isn’t just blind optimism. It’s rooted in knowing God is the author of all goodness, and seeing God in people, despite our problems. It’s about seeing who everyone is as God sees them. Those of us who are disciplined to hope can then disciple people into their fullness, speaking both the truth and love.
I’m inspired by the prophets of the Old Testament who empathized with the pathos of God, as one of my favorite theologians Abraham Joshua Heschel put it. They call out the evil in their worlds because they know the one who authors goodness. To keep from despairing, they stay close to God and speak the truth in God’s name. You might need to get closer to God if you are feeling your despair overtake you, or maybe you need to get close to someone who is close to God.
I really want to lean in on hope because there is so much trouble in the world. The outrage can overtake it, and so we must counter it with hope.
People are longing for Hope
It seems like the inauguration of Joe Biden was so long ago, but as I watched this display of civil religion and civic worship, I noticed my posture had shifted. I have written extensively about civil religion and its danger, often deriding our politicians when they demonstrated it. (In fact, searching for the post I linked, showed me how much I wrote about that topic; here’s my final piece after Obama’s farewell address in 2017). But I didn’t feel cynical when I watched the inauguration. Instead, I marveled at the yearning for hope surrounding the new President, and how he was trying to fill up the apparent vacancy of it in our country. It’s hard to overstate how brutal the last four years have been—and I don’t think that’s a partisan statement. Outrage filled us on both sides of the aisle (some of that was justified outrage, and sometimes it was delusional outrage, or manufactured outrage), and the result has us worn down. So maybe my own vacancy of hope was filled by Biden; maybe I was hungry for some decency, and, as Biden put it, unity.
But nevertheless, despite the civil display—it was a very religious ceremony, despite never naming Jesus—I found it as an opportunity for hope to spread, and for me to share my source of Hope. And as Christians, we have an opportunity here because people are looking for salvation. They won't find it in the state, but they are longing for it. We have the answer for what they long for. I saw the inauguration as an expression of yearning and desire. Of course, Joe Biden won’t satisfy those desires, but when people have an appetite for Hope, I think Christians can show their best.
What also helps till the soil for hope and faith is the fact that Biden is rather conspicuous about his faith, and he showcases a version of Christianity that is much different than the one so often on display, and I think that helps expand what people think of as Christian. This isn’t because his liberal Catholicism is “right,” but it just showcases another form of our faith in our broad tradition (even within the Catholic tradition). It allows for more inclusion when different forms of our faith are expressed. (In Circle of Hope, we try to express many streams of faith in our Sunday meetings for this exact reason.)
What Biden’s faith shows is that the Christian Nationalists aren’t the summary of our faith, and far from it. Majorie Taylor Green and Sarah Huckabee Sanders may have their own versions of our faith, but there is so much more to the story and to the tradition than that. One that offers hope. And so what I’m calling for isn’t to subscribe to Biden’s Christianity—far from it—rather, I hope we don’t let the most negative stories about our faith win the day. I want to commit to seeing God's goodness wherever it is.
Prophecy is not cynicism
Our prophetic rage against the false witness of white Christian Nationalists is essential, but if that’s all we do, we lose the hope that has been authored in us, that gives us that drive to speak out against evil. We mistake cynicism for prophecy. Despair for conviction. If all we see is where God isn't, we won't be able to see where God is. And what’s worse, we might draw out more evil than is readily evident to confirm our biases (this, of course, is why QAnon was so popular among White Nationalist Christians).
Just this week, we saw it. People were accusing the National Guard of coordinating the insurrection as if it was an inside job (and there wasn’t enough apparent evil to rail about, as if Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz’s complicity wasn’t enough). In fact, what’s more likely, is that the National Guard in D.C., run by the President, falls under the Posse Comitatas Act (which prevents federal military from enforcing domestic policies) and couldn’t act. They didn’t approach the rioters because of fear of a backlash like when they teargassed the protesters in front of the D.C. church this summer.
When Robinhood shut down trading because the retail investors were raising the stock of GameStop at the expense of hedge funds, people were sure it was a conspiracy. Turns out Robinhood just ran out of money that they needed to pay the collateral for the trades they were making. After the ban was lifted, the stock kept rising.
What’s more is that we have a new and effective vaccine. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is incredibly effective! We have three vaccines that are effective. But what follows this announcement? The fact that it’s only 85 percent effective at keeping people from getting really sick, 72 percent against keeping people from getting a little sick, and only 57 percent against the South African strain means it’s terrible. But that’s just the doom talking. In fact, it saves lives and virtually renders the virus incapable of killing anyone. And after losing 4,000 a day in January, that’s great news. Keep the hope alive.
Keep hope alive, keep the faith
The reason I share these three stories is because they showcase a desire for making a terrible circumstance worse. It’s bad enough. Rather than doubling down on how bad it is, why not move toward hope? Why not give the benefit of the doubt? May we not let our biases confirm the worst in one another. There is so much more to the story than that. And if we insist on looking for evil, we’ll eventually make it up to make it worse. And eventually we’ll start believing that our source of hope isn’t enough to overcome the evil around us. Or worse, we’ll stop feeling at all. We’ll witness an insurrection of the Capitol and suffer no anguish. We’ll witness the police pepper-spraying a nine-year-old and think it’s business as usual. No! Another world is possible. Hope makes that possible. Eschatological hope makes prophecy possible. What the prophets of the Old Testament have that we need is a remnant of hope. They knew God was going to deliver them, and we know that God will deliver us. God delivered the ancestors of those prophets from their Egyptian slavers, and Jesus Christ delivered us from death. And he will deliver us again.
But keep telling the good stories. See the hope in the inauguration, even if you also see the civil religion. See the hope in new forms of our faith coming to light, even though we still have to reckon with Christian Nationalism. See the good in our tradition and our history, instead of remembering the worst of it. Bear witness to the good. Despair isn’t sustainable. Cynicism at once costs you nothing, but also costs you so much. Jesus promises us deliverance. Lean into that promise and declare it today. Praise God for it. Stand up to evil because of the love that God has filled you with. And share that love. Faith, hope, and love are contagious. People need hope, they don’t need more despair, they don’t need another conspiracy theory. As Christians, we can offer them that. And if you are looking for it, find yourself someone who is full of hope. It’ll rub off on you.