Reflections on Hope: An Epilogue to the Jonathan Daniels Lecture

Sr. Simone PanelOn Friday, May 8, 2015, Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) held its Jonathan Daniels Lecture, which is given periodically by an activist or leader in a social justice movement. Sister Simone Campbell, nationally renowned religious leader and executive director of NETWORK, delivered this year's lecture on the theme of Faith and Action. Following the lecture, Sr. Simone, EDS professor Joan Martin, and EDS institutional support specialist Ashley Anderson, led a panel discussion that expanded on the lecture's conversation about faith and action. The following, which begins with a poem by the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves, is the text of Anderson's introductory statementa reflection on climate change, responsibility, and hope.

What is hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination
is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality
of facts that oppress and repress us 
is not the last word.
It is a suspicion that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
That the frontiers of the possible are not 
determined by the limits of the actual;
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection
but the two, suffering and hope
must live from each other.
Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair,
But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete,
and drunkenness

Let us plant dates
even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let our creative act
be dissolved away by our need for immediate sense experience
and it is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren. 
Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints,
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

—Rubem Alves

One meter above the surface of the sea, tiny slivers of sand, coral, and coconut trees dot the Pacific. Colors are surreal here; remarkable in their brilliance. Sky and ocean meet in a distant horizon; the clouds on fire with sunset. And the waves rise. Waves peak over seawalls as the moon shines down. Another day arrives. The waves buildsweeping garbage-strewn beaches clean. The day wears on. Spelling tests are given and graded. Math homework is assigned; students are dismissed. And the waves rise. A school staff meeting carries on. In a moment, the world breaks. Waves shatter the kindergarten classroom. Children are swept off of the ground into my arms. I join the students in my classroom, the door is shut, prayers are whispered, and the waves continue. The ocean has broken its contract with the land as plywood homes are taken out to sea. An eerie calm sets in, as the water stills and flows gently over the island. No longer pummeling, simply washing over the strange strip of land in the Pacific that was my home.

Living in the Republic of the Marshall Islands as Jesuit volunteer was my introduction to catastrophic climate change. I used to think that climate change was about light bulbs, less plastic, and riding public transit. These acts are important; they are hopeful movements toward change. But they are not enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declares that sea-level rise poses an extremely high risk to low-lying island nations, and threatens the viability of the islands themselves.1 Put very simply, it is highly likely that low-lying island nations will be uninhabitable within the century.

Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. That’s a place in the Pacific where my heart lives and that I’m too tired of pointing to on a map to people who pretend to care that that beloved place will be swallowed by rising sea levels within the lifetimes of the sixth graders that I taught. That those sixth graders, who are now graduating twelfth graders, will have to choose just how long their people will stay on their water-logged, salt saturated home. That they will be the very last ones.

In the resurrection story of the road to Emmaus, the two disciples talk to a stranger proclaiming their love for their friend Jesus, who was murdered by the state for political acts. They said, “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. Dreams of liberation dashed and a beloved teacher lost. We had hoped that life would be less complicated. We had hoped that the plants in our gardens wouldn’t die and neither would our sons. We had hoped that courage would come easier. We had hoped the legislation would pass. We had hoped the indictment would come for the murderers. We had hoped that the cries of our hungry children would be heard. We had hoped that the violence of heteropatriarchy wouldn’t burn its way through our great loves. We had hoped that the bombs would stop falling and that the walls would come down.  We had hoped that our institutions would be brave enough to live the gospel. We had hoped that a superhero God was on the way to save us from the mess we have made. We had hoped.

All around us, life is breaking. We are fragile in ways that we cannot plan for, that we cannot avoid. We are the beauty of the divine wrapped in finitude and clothed in anxiety. Everything can break. On good days, our hearts beat strong and clear, but sometimes not loud enough for us to hear over the engines of our government’s drones breaking moral codes and international law. Not loud enough to hear over the cries of islanders fleeing their homes and children crossing the desert in Arizona all alone. With so much breaking, hope becomes absurd. An irrational longing for a world that will never come. But hope is not about rationality. Hope is about imagination.

Hope breathes life into spaces of death. Faced with ecological devastation and massive structures of systemic sin, hope cannot be sequestered for another world. We can’t be willing to wait for those treasures in heaven. Our parched souls and our flooding lands need hope here and now.

But in these scarred bodies, in this wretchedly beautiful Earth, we can’t have hope. It doesn’t come to us in pre-wrapped cellophane packaging with little yellow sunshines smiling up at us. That’s not hope. That’s a lie.

Resurrection is in the fight. The courage and scrappiness to commit to a struggle that may lose. To announce the day of jubilee into a world of debt. To say that despite all the hurt, you will continue to choose love. This choosing doesn’t make us superheroes saving the world. It makes us human, lovers working toward courage. This issues are many and paralyzing: climate change, mass incarceration, the ongoing murderous paradigm of heteropatriarchy, rising racism, global and local poverty, impending and unending wars. We can’t save the world. But we can love it and we can commit ourselves to works of love.

What are you willing to risk for love? An hour of your commute? Your reputation? Your good, unscuffed shoes? Your bank account? Your endowment? But then again, what am I not willing to risk? I will not risk the lives of those children of the Marshall Islands. I am not willing to risk the comfort of some for the lives of others. I will not risk the approval of our grandchildren. I will not risk a timid Gospel when what I’ve been given is the same faith that fired the lives of people like Jonathan Daniels and Howard Thurman.

Walking this road, I didn’t believe it when I read it in scripture or when I heard it in church. But I believe it when Mavis Staples sings it, “you’re not alone and God is not sleeping.”  On the road, en la luz y en la lucha, hope is slow dancing to the pitter-pat of marching feet and peaceful chants. “We are unstoppable; another world is possible.” We are responsible, another world is possible.


Photo (L-R): Christi Humphrey '08, director of Alumni/ae and Constituent Engagement at EDS; the Rev. Dr. Joan Martin; Ashley Anderson; and Sr. Simone Campbell. 


Endnote

1. Mimura, N., L. Nurse, R.F. McLean, J. Agard, L. Briguglio, P. Lefale, R. Payet and G. Sem, 2007: Small islands. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 687-716.