Rev. Mark Schaefer
Interfaith Chapel Service
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 7, 2016
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 NRSV
This has been a rough semester. Following on a rough summer and part of a rough year. It’s a year in which we have seen the deaths of beloved celebrities, shootings of unarmed black men, shootings of police, terror attacks at home and abroad, natural disasters, a constantly rising death toll in conflicts in Syria and Yemen, increased political division. On our own campus we have seen racial tensions, dissatisfaction with the campus climate, the death of a much loved student, a divisive election and its aftermath, a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church, and let’s not forget finals—right as the days get increasingly shorter, colder, and drearier.
It is easy to get worn down by all of this. It is easy to despair. To just want to give up.
And conversely, in such an environment, were someone to express a belief that the future will be better, that person would likely be met with some scorn or ridicule. Or worse.
Of late, people who have insisted that “everything will be okay” have been criticized for being tone-deaf, oblivious, or speaking from a place of privilege that is immune to the concerns that a great many people have about our murky future. In fact, those who insist that the future will be good are frequently seen as part of the problem. As trivializing or ignoring the very real challenges that face so many. As being disconnected with reality.
Indeed, an optimistic outlook seems almost out of place in our day and age. And perhaps it should be. Because in the end, faith calls us to be hopeful—not optimistic. And there is a difference.
The distinction between optimism and hopefulness is not always clear in people’s minds. Both seem to look expectantly to a brighter future, where everything will turn out alright. Both seem to anticipate a happy ending to the great drama of history, when all the world’s ills will be healed, all the injustices set aright. Both seem to have the same end game in sight.
But optimism and hope have little to do with the future; they have everything to do with the present. It’s an old joke that the optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, while the pessimist fears that this is so. The hopeful person stakes out a different piece of ground.
Those who live lives of hope know that this world is not the best of all possible worlds, because we have a vision of a better world to compare it to.
We know that this is not the world of perfect peace and justice, of love and fellowship, of reconciliation and community that it is meant to be. Those of us from religious traditions with visions of the divine future have a handy reference to compare with the world as we find it.
Looking around at the world, we cannot agree with the optimist that it is the best of all possible worlds. We do not expect things to get better as a matter of course. In fact, we could be forgiven for thinking that the world is broken down to its core, irredeemable, unfixable. We might reasonably conclude that the world is inherently troubled.
Here is where we differ from the optimist, who might expect the future to be better as a result of a kind of inevitability of progress. Our experience as a people does not allow us to take this inevitability for granted.
In the Jewish tradition there is the experience of Exile which serves as a reminder of suffering, loss, alienation, and despair. In the Islamic tradition, suffering is both a test of our faithfulness but also the result of sin, both of which acknowledge a world that has not manifested the best version of itself. And in the Christian tradition, the cross does not allow the Christian to view the world this as a place of inevitable progress and betterment. The cross reminds Christians of its brokenness, its injustice, its violence.
III. HOPE AND RESISTANCE
But at the same time, people of hope and faith cannot fear alongside the pessimist that it is never going to get better. Faith is not a faith of resignation, or worse: a faith of escapism wherein we lament the brokenness of the world but look forward to the day when we are able to get out of it.
Instead, hope is a radical reengagement with the present, on account of the past, for the sake of the future. Hope is not grounded in pie-in-the-sky optimism. In rose-colored glasses that refuse to see the brokenness of the world or the troubles that lie before us. It is not built upon platitudes and motivational poster slogans.
We have hope in the future not because we are convinced of humanity’s essential goodness or of the inevitability of progress. We have hope in the future because of our experience of the past and a balance between that memory and a vision of what could be.
In the middle of the Babylonian Exile, an anonymous prophet proclaimed to the people in exile reminding them of their experiences in the Exodus. In this prophet’s oracles, found in the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah, the God who had liberated the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt would deliver the people from their current captivity and restore them.
It was this balance between memory and vision that defined the prophet’s hope. For it was not memory alone—not simple nostalgia for a better time, a return to the “good old days”—nor was it simple vision: an optimistic view of the future without any regard to the past. It was hope: memory of what God had done in the past, with a vision of what God can do in the future. And in this balance, lies a word for the present.
In the greeting we read responsively earlier, Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann makes clear that hope has everything to do with the present:
Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.
“Hope is subversive…daring to announce that the present…is now called into question.”
And this is hope’s great power.
Because hope—unlike optimism—is not a mental state. It’s not a sentiment. It’s a way of living. Remembering the past, we envision the future, and then live in such a way that “remembers the future.”
If we would have hope for a world of justice, then we live lives of justice now. If we would have hope for a world of peace, then we live lives of peace now. If we would have hope for a world of inclusion, then we live lives of inclusion now. If we would have hope for a world of reconciliation, then we live lives of reconciliation now. Hope challenges the status quo by powerfully envisioning something better and then empowering us to live into that reality. In the middle of a world of seemingly endless tragedy and brokenness, hope is a powerful form of resistance.
We have been through a rough semester and a rough year. And we are at the time of year where it is customary to look back and to look ahead.
It can feel overwhelming and easy to laspe into pessimism and cynicism, allowing all manner of bleak visions of the future to occupy our thoughts. And it can be likewise tempting to adopt a pollyanna, rose-colored glasses optimism about the future that ignores the very real challenges all around us.
We can certainly identify with the thoughts and feelings of the pessimists and the optimists both. The pessimists are right that the world is broken. The optimists are right to envision a future where it is better. But at the end of the day, the optimist gets out of bed in the morning, expecting everything to be okay. When it fails to be better, that can shake the faith and well being of even the most dedicated optimist.
But ours is a task better than optimism. The community guided by hope knows that everything will not always be okay—there will still be injustice, suffering, sorrow—but gets out of bed anyway, and gets on with the important work to be done. Because ours is the task of resisting the injustice, oppression, sorrow, and brokenness of the world, with the most powerful resource at our disposal: hope.