Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Can we hope in this New Year?
Are you optimistic about 2022? Will it be better than 2021 or 2020? We hoped for the end to the coronavirus last year about this time and things began to open up. We went to restaurants and public events. Places of worship restored in-person gathering and travel increased.
But then we learned about Delta and Omicron, not just Greek letters but new variants that spread more rapidly. Travel restrictions did not stop it from becoming worldwide and hospitals again were filled to capacity. We learned more about the threat of the variants, which seem to be more infectious than previous versions. Will this be a never-ending challenge to our health and our health systems?
But as 2021 came to an end we also learned of the death of Archbishop Tutu. He had gone through not just a couple of years of challenge, but decades of oppression during apartheid in South Africa. Through it all he frequently said, “I have never been an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.” He recognized that hope emerges not out of optimism, but out of faith and action.
In a similar way, evangelical leader and social activist Jim Wallis would say, “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change.”
But the evidence doesn’t just change on its own; hope requires action. It isn’t just a feeling or having an optimistic attitude. “Rather, hope is a decision,” Wallis writes, “a choice we make because of this thing we call faith.” He said it is the most important thing the faith community can offer to the world.
In this new year, it is the choice we make to be vaccinated, to wear a mask indoors, to do what we can not just for ourselves but for others and the community. From the faith perspective, it is our response to the commandment to “love your neighbor.”
Writing in the Christian Century, publisher Peter Marty noted that hope is very different from optimism; it is not just wishing that things would be different or better.
“Wishing is a flat and powerless venture,” Marty goes on. “I may wish upon a shooting star, or wish for a brand new car. But so what? What does that wishing add up to? Hope goes so much deeper, requiring risk and assuming responsibility.”
The Christian Century also featured an article by theology professor Charles R. Pinches on “How to live in hope.” He writes, “When we speak of hope in connection with love and faith, we are placing it among the three theological virtues. … The theological virtue called hope is linked to action or movement. Hope is a good habit by which we move forward toward a future good that is both possible and difficult to attain. … Difficulty is a part of the definition of hope. This makes the phrase ‘difficult hope’ redundant.”
Pinches notes that the term used for life without hope is “despair,” and Aquinas calls despair the greatest sin. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he extols “faith, hope, and love … and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13) Why then does Aquinas consider the opposite of hope more important than hate, the opposite of the greatest virtue of love? In the absence of faith, I can still act. In the absence of love, even in the midst of hate, I can act and reverse my thinking and restore love. But in the absence of hope, I am paralyzed and nothing can be accomplished -- not even love or faith.
Marty also writes of another hero of the apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela. In the later part of his 27-year imprisonment, he was visited by his daughter and his new granddaughter who had still not been named. Mandela gave her the name Zaziwe, an African word for hope. Answering the question “Why?” he later wrote, “During all my years in prison, hope never left me.” Marty then concludes, “Hope is what sustains us when we’re not ready to give up on God beaming light into our darkness.”
As people of faith, as well as anyone seeking the common good, let us fight against despair, both personal and in our communities. Even when the evidence is not clear, we make the decision to act and to live in hope. Let us renew our hope and, in the difficult task of working together, take the necessary action to restore our sense of well-being and do what is right for the common good.