“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” ~ Nelson Mandela
As racial tensions erupt throughout the United States, the Islamic State continues its murderous rampage, Russia jockeys for Cold War influence, and random gun violence shatters our confidence in safe environments for our children, it is little wonder many people feel anxious and uncertain about the future. At the brink of the winter of 2015 we are faced with a sad realization: we are once again in dark times that cry out for the hope of new possibilities in our world. Once more we agonize for new resources for our own troubled and fearful hearts so we return to the work of building a more just and humane world.
The flames of hope are fanned at some times in history more than others. But, inevitably times of hope are usually brief before a raft of issues rattle our trust in the possibilities of a new kind of human community. Perhaps this is the hardest lesson we assimilate in the task of becoming fully functioning humans: circumstances can capsize the ship of our life and can do so on the turn of a dime. Without hope we are a dingy adrift in high seas.
In the past few decades, we have had a new feature added to the natural patterns that construct and deconstruct our hope. It appears the world shifts back and forth on shorter cycles between times of hopefulness and hopelessness. Consequently, it doesn’t seem like we can hope for very long.
The great losers in these shorten cycles, I fear, are the young. Research continues to show that they are becoming increasingly crippled by an unending deconstruction of their hopes for life and the world. According to the Parent Resource Program of the Jason Foundation, each day there are an average of over 5,400 suicide attempts by young people grades 7-12. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and the third leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease.
Meanwhile, large numbers of young adults consider the world’s institutions undependable, those with power corrupt, inept or both, and social and political advancements unreliable and overturned by the next election or leader. Although some young people remain engaged in the world and manage not to lose heart, others respond to these uncertain times with anger, and large numbers fall into indifference or despair.
Of course, if you have historical consciousness and a global perspective, you know that every moment of human history is a time of crisis with a desperate need of hope for someone. It is hope, in fact, that provides the ultimate human resource for facing the next wave of chaos that will swirl around us. Every generation needs to find its own paths to hope, if they are to achieve anything significant. For most of human history, the path most frequently traveled has been found in religious and spiritual wisdom that ignites and sustains hope. Every historic tradition brings a different set of resources to the world’s hope-destroying challenges.
Here are just a few from the Christian well of wisdom: Bishop Desmond Tutu, growing up in the Anglican tradition, has the following reflection: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Maturing in the heart of the American Baptist tradition, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., found solace in his many disappointments struggling for civil rights by realizing his crushed dreams were merely a “finite” reality, while the deep, pulsing hope that motivated him was grounded in something “infinite.” As someone raised in the Calvinist tradition, poet Emily Dickinson came to think of hope in the metaphor of feathers and singing: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”
Whether suffering under the boot of an oppressor, dealing with plagues, famines, droughts, or natural and human tragedies, small groups of people have always huddled around small candles of hope during the most desperate times of human history. We are all here, and enjoying whatever freedoms and comforts we have, because they did. History proves that hope is one of the keys in creating an indomitable spirit, and such spirits are the salvation of the human condition.
Despite the headlines, and even our own feelings, hope is all around us, no matter where we live or what the circumstances. It exists in every bittersweet longing for a horizon for the better days; it murmurs in the depths of the quiet confidence of parents pressured and overwhelmed by life’s demands and disappointments, who keep getting out of bed each morning to work for a shared belief in the future of their children. Hope manifests itself in the humor shared between people at difficult times, forcing the fear and despair created by a situation to surrender its ground to laughter.
You see hope in any people struggling for humanity and freedom in totalitarian governments, the American mother in an impoverished inner city community who believes her child will one day attend college, or the Native American father who trusts in his ability to break a cycle of poverty for his family. You see it in the Latina daughter who goes off to university as the first child to attend college, and instead of majoring in something leading to a more lucrative career, majors in education in order to return to the migrant community she came from to inspire the next generation with hope in a different world. You see it in the Vietnamese father and mother living in a poor region who mortgage their home in order for their daughter to pursue a degree in another country.
Hope manifests itself in every act in which nobility, character, self-less sacrifice and honor touch a human soul. It provides the ballast for a buoyant soul that can float above chaos and become a beacon to others of a promise in a different kind of human condition.
The news is filled with stories of such hope, although the negative spin in many news cycles may require you to look closely to see it. When someone like Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, the U.S. Army Ranger and medic turned humanitarian in Syria, defiantly refused to become a propaganda pawn before he was killed by his ISIS murderers, hope took a stand. Only his friends and family may have known the reason he did not read a prepared statement before he was killed like other hostages—Kassig hoped in something bigger than his captors could understand.
People of hope recognize truth in the words of international shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married former first lady Jackie Kennedy, after she lost her husband, President John F. Kennedy: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest,” Onassis once said. “We must learn to sail in high winds.” People of hope can sail under any circumstances.
The season of Advent, which began on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, is an entire religious season focused specifically on celebrating and strengthening hope. The importance of this annual liturgical reflection cycle on hope for the ancient Christian community is demonstrated by the amount of liturgical time that is dedicated to this season. Advent constitutes 7.5% of the liturgical year. It is also not an accident that early Christians positioned the season of Advent at a time of the year when days grow shorter. In darkness we learn to look for life, and in nature’s annual cycle of death we discover the relentless emergence of new life. Lastly, it is in times of cold that we learn to appreciate the warmth of human caring and touch and its ultimate transcendence of circumstances.
In the past, many religious traditions, perhaps Christianity most of all, erred in concentrating the objects of hope on what awaits us beyond the grave. There was too much talk spent on personal salvation, and too little on our agency as people of faith and hope to change the institutions of the world, and even find creative ways to beat the brokenness of nature. Beginning with the Social Gospel and Catholic social teachings in the late 1800s, which was built on the foundation of older traditions of distributive justice and the cardinal virtues, most denominations began a course correction that is still underway. Other religious traditions have had similar renewals of those aspects of their traditions that call people to place their hope in service to combating the dehumanizing elements of our societies. We can’t bring heaven to earth, but we can bring glimpses of it.
As the forces of secularization in the 20th century moved the goal posts in most western cultures closer to the immediate needs of the world and away from such distant horizons as “life after death,” at times religious traditions have fought the process. But, a benefit of these movements of secularization has been that they have helped communities of faith to see more clearly that it is grossly insufficient to tell the poor, hungry and homeless that their reward will come on the other side of the goal post of life.
Even as religious traditions found new ways to work for a more humane world, the quest for hope, and the religious symbolism associated with it, found new ways of manifesting itself. Hope infiltrated the culture with less and less direct association with religious ideals and principles. You can see an example of this kind of evolution by looking at one song in American history that deals with hope.
In 1939, the “godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), wrote a popular song called, “This Train.” Tharpe, a Gospel singer, was a music superstar in the 1930s and 1940s. She built off a fan base in the black churches to become a cultural troubadour bringing spiritual lyrics into harmony with a kind of pre-rock and roll musical score. Tharpe inspired many future music megastars, including performers as divergent as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
In the dreary ending of the decade of the Great Depression, “This Train,” used the metaphor of a train chugging toward a land of hope. The train was filled with people who had achieved a certain moral purity, and were headed for the world of humanity’s dreams (See here). Mumford and Sons also did a version of this American classic song in a New Orleans jazz and country fusion (See here).
Tharpe had one foot in the church and one in the world, but proposed an image of hope that found a new audience in a later generation through Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 song, “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen’s tune has become a cultural icon of the power of hope, particularly in times of struggle. Politicians have used “Land of Hope and Dreams” to rally the base, activists to inspire volunteers and donors to contribute to hurricane relief, and many other individuals and groups to stir up the excitement and muster the resolve for social justice initiatives. Rolling Stone magazine once called Springstein’s version the “rock & roll ambassador’s default tune for the dispossessed,” and the Associated Press named it “ a roar and call to arms” for building a better world.
With Springsteen’s version, Tharpe’s appeal to moral purity as a ticket to the train is muted, and replaced with a message of hope for an inclusive audience. His locomotive makes room for the many different kinds of people in the diverse world we now call home. These people are looking for a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Springsteen identifies the passengers this way: “… This train carries saints and sinners … losers and winners .., whores and gamblers … lost souls … the broken-hearted .. thieves and sweet souls departed .. fools and kings.” On Springsteen’s train “dreams will not be thwarted,” and in a kiss to Tharpe’s original version: “faith (and saints) will be rewarded …”
You don’t need to believe in the concept of the incarnation, which is celebrated in the Christian Advent, to appreciate the importance of building and maintaining a capacity for expectant waiting and hope, which are the core values of the Christian season. Most faith traditions recognize the divine spark in the human personality – the dignity residing in every human being regardless of the person’s social location, educational level, personality strengths and flaws. It is this deep level in the human psyche that Martin Luther King’s infinite love dwells.
For centuries, people of faith have realized that it is important to spend concentrated reflection time each year focusing on the virtue of hope and the beacon it provides for imagining a different kind of world. Whether we hope with a horizon that reaches beyond this world and life, like Tharpe, or within the limitations of what we know on this side of death, like Springsteen, we are still engaged in hope.
David Whyte, the poet, puts it this way: “Remember the way you are all possibilities you can see, and how you live best as a appreciator of horizons, whether you reach them or not.” Hope lets us touch, taste and smell the horizon, even if like Moses we are unable to enter the Promised Land.
May this Advent season leave us all more hopeful, and may we come to experience the train of life as an opportunity to embrace the closing vision of Springsteen’s ode to hope, a vision taken right out of the Hebrew prophets:
“For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past.”
Hope may not get you there. But, it will give you strength to keep trying, and that makes all the difference in the world