The phrase has captivated my imagination for some time now, as I seek joy in the midst of a world crying out in pain. In a nation of mass shootings and executions, in a world devastated by war crimes and the crime of war, where working for peace means learning the depths and pervasiveness of violence, despair threatens to seep in through the air I breathe. Hope often evades my grasp, and fear like a weight drags down my every movement.
But when I find myself in a morass of bitterness, my soul gets a jolt of energy from my laughing toddler, or the accidentally insightful comment from my precocious 6-year-old, or the warm hand of my husband on my shoulder. I savor the comfort of these gestures and let them lift me out of my cynicism. And as the tears clouding my vision disperse, I remind myself that joy, too, permeates the world and can be found by those with eyes to see it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is at it again — this time in The Atlantic’s newly released October 2015 issue.
In “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Coates wrestles with the dark underside of criminal justice in the United States. As he is apt to do, Coates effortlessly teases out the connections between our nation’s present situation — unimaginably high rates of incarceration, particularly among black Americans — and our historical plundering of the black community. Conceptually nuanced, historically rigorous, and artfully crafted, “Family” is a success on every level.
Yet soon after Coates’ piece was published, Thabiti Anyabwile issued a cogent response decrying Coates’ apparent hopelessness. Anyabwile’s response highlighted fundamental differences in the two writers’ worldviews. Physical bodies and the violence they endure, not theologies, are afforded primacy of place in Coates’ analyses.
In this sense, Anyabwile serves as an interesting counterweight to Coates. A pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and council member with The Gospel Coalition, Anyabwile is unabashedly Christian. The “comforting narrative of divine law,” eschewed so often by Coates, is one in which Christians like Anyabwile and myself regularly take solace.
At times, I have been a struggling Catholic, a joyful Catholic, a conflicted Catholic.
A few months ago, when I cut ties with my longtime parish, I added a new adjective: A “homeless” Catholic.
I joined a long line of parishioners leaving our beloved home, a once-engaging community devoted to social justice that walked in the steps of a man named Francis long before he was pope. Our parish had grown increasingly gloomy around the edges, its spirit deflated by new leadership that valued strict adherence to doctrine above all else.
As my friends and fellow parishioners exit in this trying hour, the words I hear from them again and again are these: This pope, the one coming to the U.S. in a little over a week, he gives us hope.
How many times have we heard news of a shooting somewhere – a school, a theater, a workplace, a military base, a church – and felt shock and disbelief? We feel bad, say a prayer, and move on. I remember seeing the video of the shooting at the church in Charleston for the first time when I got home from work on June 17. I couldn’t sleep that night. I wondered how this could keep happening.
So when the latest shots were fired in Virginia, I was numb. If it’s going to just keep happening – new day, new place, new victims – then why even pay attention? Why become emotionally invested again?
There is no political outcome that will make these children not drowned. There is no politics that will pull their shirts down to cover their exposed tummies, the way a parent’s loving hand would do. There is no politics that will make their drenched clothing anything other than the last outfit their parents ever clothed them in, unaware when they did so that it would be the clothing in which their children would die. There is no politics that will give these children another life that does not end in terror and despair and cold water. (God, God, how does one write words like this?) There is no politics that will give their parents anything but the end they had: of going into the dark knowing that their dear ones were lost forever.
All this is permanent. It is done and cannot and will not and will never be undone. And while I am all for good politics, which is to say I am all for a good future, and so I am all for doing better by the refugees that yet live, I also refuse to let the past go as if it were merely the gravel under the sub-foundation of whatever shiny tomorrow we happen to build next.
There is no politics that can redeem what time has irretrievably taken. To stand as witness to the past is to stand either in utter nihilism and despair, or in the desperate, desperate hope that in the end a Redeemer will walk upon the earth, who will bring forth those whose flesh was destroyed, to see and be loved forever by God.
ONLY SOCIAL MOVEMENTS really change history. Developing, nurturing, and supporting a new generation of leaders is central to the long-term success of these movements. As leaders like me get older and look to the future, mentoring young leaders is particularly important. More and more of my time is spent doing that mentoring, not only broadly but in relationship to particularly promising young leaders whom I have met. It is some of the most important and enjoyable work that I do.
For many years, Sojourners called together large conferences on biblical justice and peace. Thousands of people came year after year, and many positive things happened—new relationships, connections, projects, and organizations—even marriages and families! Now, several other groups are having justice and peace conferences, which is exactly the kind of “competition” Sojourners has always hoped for.
Last year, some of our younger staff came up with a great idea—to have a leadership “Summit” for people already providing leadership for the biblical vision of justice and peace. All the participants would have to be nominated by credible leaders doing this work, and instead of Justice 101 with big speakers and standing ovations, this would become a new, creative environment for moving justice agendas forward—Justice 202. We didn’t publicly advertise these gatherings—instead, the invitation spread by word of mouth as leaders, especially younger ones, were drawn together by experienced justice leaders who nominated them.
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Much more than an event or a conference, The Summit was the growing edge of the beloved community — a gathering of emerging leaders with deep reach into neighborhoods and communities that are outcast but vibrant, marginalized but standing tall. It was creative and radically inclusive, bringing together people with very different experiences in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.
To be included as an elder for such an event was a humbling and lovely experience — even more so to share that experience with such wise and faithful disciples as C.T. Vivian and Eliseo Medina, Heidi Neumark and Terry LeBlanc, Katherine Marshall and Roy Sano. I gained much more from each conversation than I could possibly have given!
I didn’t realize the promise I vowed to myself — to never to live out of step with my values, to always live with passion and bring life into the world — would be a tall order; an impossibly high standard that could turn into, “I need to do and experience everything as quickly as possible so that I don’t waste time.”
Over the past 10 years, this experience developed an impulse to “hurry up” and “do more.” I overextended myself in too many activities the next few years, developed an anxiety and depression disorder, and shamed myself for living in this anxious state when I “should” be living it joyfully to the full.
Through therapy and medication, I got much better, but was still lusting after experiencing everything. Time never seems to be on your side when you’re living like you might die tomorrow. Life never seems long enough when you act like it will stop at the same minute as your heart, forgetting about all I’ve been taught about life after death.
On this fast day, I remember that many U.S. people worry — like anyone anywhere — about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and the species as a whole. In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly — in a material sense, at least — than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.
We would learn to "live simply so that others might simply live." We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting. Or, like Mohamedou, we would find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships.
"Another world is not only possible," writes author and activist Arundhati Roy, "she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
People living in the U.S. must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.
Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.
Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.
I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.
And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.