It is perhaps not surprising that the summer of this annus horribilis has brought with it a bitter and bumper crop of hopelessness. It’s somehow in vogue to speak and write of hopelessness—not as you might imagine, but instead as the needed catalyst for change, perhaps a societal moment akin to an alcoholic’s experience of hitting bottom.
Eric Utne, known to many in America as the founder of the iconoclastic magazine Utne Reader, has recently written given a shout-out to the new hopelessness: "This is the strange gift of Covid-19 and the protests in the streets — they’ve got much of the world thinking about death every day. Life gets more precious when you live with the presence of death.”
And he reminds his readers of the slogan of Extinction Rebellion, that movement for climate restoration that has so captivated the passion and dedication of a rising generation: “Hope dies, action begins.”
Well, maybe. I surely understand, and indeed feel, the sorrow, even the despair, of this moment. It is hard not to. Whether in America or Europe, the scourge of these two pandemics—the virus of Covid, and the cancer of racism— has affected us all. It has affected us whether we, or someone we love, has fallen ill, or instead because we cannot seem to escape regarding everyone around us as a possible threat to our health. It is hard to love a neighbor you regard fearfully. And it has challenged us to recalibrate our understanding of just what our baptismal covenant demands of us when it commits us to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
But hopelessness is perhaps best understood as the sickness of a disenchanted age—not in the sense of disillusionment, but rather having lost the capacity for imagining the truth of anything behind the reach of proof and evidence. It is not that we Christians find ourselves living among those who do not believe; it is rather that, for the most part, they cannot believe. They have the same instincts, the same longing for a relationship with what they glimpse as the sacred in their lives; but they have learned, or have been taught, that these intimations of the divine cannot be trusted.
To such a world, hopelessness seems the only intelligent response to the cataclysms we are living through. Said bluntly, there is an unyielding—and unsurprising—link between faithlessness and hopelessness. To be a person of hope is to be cast into the same bin as those foolish enough to believe.
Christian faith calls us to a different kind of hope. It’s not the hope of longing; it is the hope of defiance. It is not the hope of treacle and sentiment; it is the hope that is planted by the Spirit in our baptism and nurtured with the patient discipline of prayer.
And it is the hope that arises from a certainty, not about our abilities or accomplishments—for, great though they are, they are so faulty and frail—but rather about God’s faithfulness. It is our certainty that God had decided long ago to bring about the Beloved Community by working through us, despite — even making use of — our confusion and despair. It is our assurance that we are never without glimpses, lit up like flashes of lightning, of the possibility—and the necessity—of change, of discovery, of pressing on through the dark.
We have no choice about this—at least not if we are the people of faith we are called to be. We respond to God’s faithfulness to us by being spurred on to face the challenges before us—because our certainty in God’s love for all humanity makes us defiant in the face of degradation and disease. We will not settle for despair; we will not accept for ourselves the cheap comfort of hopelessness. We will embrace the improbable, because by our work and witness we shall make it inevitable.
See you in church,
The Right Reverend Mark D. W. Edington
Bishop in Charge
Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe