The Common Good
September-October 1994

The Power of Hope

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1994

A sign of transformation in a world that isn't working.

(From the introduction.)

The world isn’t working. Things are unraveling, and most of us know it.

Tonight, the urban children of the world’s only remaining superpower will go to bed to the sound of gunfire. Bonds of family and community are fraying. Our most basic virtues of civility, responsibility, justice, and integrity seem to be collapsing. We appear to be losing the ethics derived from personal commitment, social purpose, and spiritual meaning. The triumph of materialism is hardly questioned now, in any part of our society. Both domestically and globally, we are divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, culture, and tribe, and environmental degradation and resource scarcity threaten to explode our divisions into a world of perpetual conflict. As I write, the mayor of my own city has requested authority to call out the National Guard in the face of escalating violence in Washington, D.C.

Our intuition tells us the depth of the crisis we face demands more than politics as usual. An illness of the spirit has spread across the land, and our greatest need is for what our religious traditions call "the healing of the nations." The fundamental character of the social, economic, and cultural renewal we urgently need will require a change of both our hearts and our minds. But that change will demand a new kind of politics—a politics with spiritual values.

Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Gandhi warned against what he called the seven social sins. He named them as politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. These social sins today provide an apt description of our leading institutions and cultural patterns; they are the accepted practices of the life of the nation.

SEVERAL THOUSAND YEARS AGO, the writer of the Proverbs warned, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That ancient warning also applies to our contemporary situation. Without a vision, we are indeed perishing. From the violent carnage of our inner cities to the empty consumerism of our shopping malls, from our shantytowns to our stock exchanges, from the muffled cries of our children in poverty to our 20-second media sound bites, from our toxic wastes to our wasted time watching television, from our religion of entertainment to our entertainments of religion, from all the substances we abuse to the economic and political institutions that abuse us—we are a society that has lost its way.

During the American election year of 1992, public television’s Bill Moyers commented that none of the candidates had adequately spoken a "language that evokes the common bond of a diverse people." Moyers believes the American people have a desire to transcend the old paradigms of politics, "a deep yearning to go beyond Left and Right, to go beyond the nostrums of both the conservative and the liberal movements as they have been manifest in our time." The old political categories we have known are almost completely dysfunctional now. Ideologies and policies of liberal and conservative, Left and Right, have run their course and come to a dead end.

Liberalism is unable to articulate or demonstrate the kind of moral values that must undergird any serious movement of social transformation. The critical link between personal responsibility and societal change is missing on the Left.

Conservatism still denies the reality of structural injustice and social oppression. To call for individual self-improvement and a return to family values while ignoring the pernicious effects of poverty, racism, and sexism is to continue blaming the victim.

Both ideological options fail to deal with the enormity and complexity of the social crisis we now confront. For example, the urban chaos of drugs, guns, and violence cannot be touched by liberal sociology or conservative piety. Real solutions require a much deeper understanding of the relationship between structural destruction and self-destruction. The destruction of structures is caused by systematic social, racial, and economic injustice; the destruction of self by the lack of character, family, and community. Very few are making the crucial connections between the two.

We require a much more insightful analysis of the globalization of the economy and the degradation of the popular culture. We face a kind of violence born not only of poverty but also of perverse values, a disintegration caused not only by the lack of good jobs but also by the lack of spiritual formation, a crime rate rooted not only in economic disparity but also in the nihilism of a society whose materialism is its only real god.

What we seem to have lost is something as simple as respect—for each other, for the Earth, and for the kind of values that could hold us together. Most of the social, economic, and political issues we now face have a spiritual core. The profit-driven structures of the global economy will inevitably produce an ever-widening gulf and conflict between us unless we submit our economic policies and institutions to the ethic of community. Rapidly changing demographics and our ingrained habits of racism and sexism will create increasing cultural polarization unless we act to assert our common humanity and equality as the children of God. The insatiable momentum of our consumerism will ultimately poison both our environment and our hearts unless we learn our right relationship to the Earth and its abundance.

We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground. Constituency-based politics, with its factional interests, will not lead us to this higher ground. Politics has been reduced to the selfish struggle for power among competing interests and groups, instead of a process of searching for the common good.

A vision of politics must be articulated that clarifies the essential moral issues at stake in any political discussion. Spiritual values must enter the public square. We are not calling here for the invasion of sectarian religion or theocratic grabs for power but rather for the contribution of neglected values to the political process. Most of us believe that institutional religion and the state must remain separate. But without values of moral conscience, our political life quickly degenerates into public corruption, cultural confusion, and social injustice.

Only a prophetic political morality has the capacity to transcend old ideological categories and forge new relationships and connections between people and issues. Out of these new configurations of moral concern will come the creative political initiatives we so desperately need.

Hope: The Doorway to Change

(From the conclusion.)

ST. GEORGE’S CATHEDRAL in Cape Town, South Africa, was packed to overflowing. An anti-apartheid meeting had just been banned by the government, and a church service was hastily put together to take place at the same hour the mass meeting would have been held. Police roadblocks were set up to keep young people in the black townships from getting to the church service downtown, but many had made it anyway, surging into the sanctuary like a powerful river of energy, determination, and militant hope.

There was no more room to sit or stand in the church. People were everywhere—in the aisles, the choir lofts, and the spaces behind and in front of the pulpit. People of all human colors waited for the worship service to begin and the Bible to be preached. Outside the cathedral, the riot police were amassing.

It was March 13, 1988, our first day in South Africa. The cathedral service provided a dramatic introduction to a 40-day sojourn in a country that proved to be a land of both great sorrow and great hope. Virtually all political organizations and activity had been outlawed. Only days before, courageous church leaders had marched to the seat of power at the Parliament Building just steps away from this great cathedral, signaling to the white regime that the churches would not bow the knee; they would stand alone, if necessary, to help lead the struggle for freedom.

The conflict between church and state had never been greater. The South African churches had issued a worldwide plea for help. Our invitation had arrived a few months earlier. We were there to support and report the historic events.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu began his sermon: "In the enveloping darkness, as the lights of freedom are extinguished one by one—despite all the evidence to the contrary, we have come here to say that evil and injustice and oppression and exploitation embodied in the very nature of apartheid cannot prevail." He continued to say that when all looks hopeless, "we must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge." Bishop Tutu was fiery and strong as he told the white rulers who enforced the brutal system of apartheid, "You are not God, you are mortals. It is God whom we worship, and God cannot be mocked. You have already lost. Come and join the winning side!"

In South Africa during times of protest, burning candles were placed in windows to show solidarity and hope. The police were known to come into people’s homes to blow out the candles. The children joked about the South African government being afraid of candles.

In June of 1990, I remembered those candles as I sat in a room in New York with other religious leaders awaiting the arrival of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from 27 years in prison. On the first day of Mandela’s visit to the United States, it is estimated that one million people came out to see him. Massive numbers, especially from New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, gave the South African leader the warmest and most amazing welcome this cynical city could remember. Gov. Mario Cuomo said it was the most emotional event he had ever seen in all his years in politics.

After our meeting, we processed into the packed Riverside Church with Mandela leading the way. Gardner Taylor, one of the nation’s foremost preachers, introduced Nelson Mandela, saying, "This day and this occasion, under these circumstances, would be utterly impossible except for the truth that there is a God who presides over the affairs of history, who vetoes the schemes of evil people, and who decrees that truth crushed to the ground shall rise again." After an eruption of deafening applause, Nelson Mandela quoted the words from the prophet Isaiah, "‘We have risen up as on wings of eagles, we have run and not grown weary, we have walked and not fainted,’ and finally, our destination is in sight." The black man most hated and feared by his country’s white minority now stood as the best hope to bring both blacks and whites together in a new South Africa.

IN BIBLICAL LANGUAGE, these are "salvation events." They are happenings filled with the pregnant promise of freedom, justice, liberation, peace, and reconciliation. They break the yoke of oppression while offering a healing balm to deep wounds. They testify to God’s purposes and will for the Earth.

Such events turn the tables of history; they shake the world upside-down. They are beyond predictability and control, especially by those who rule. Those we thought to be all-powerful are undone by them. The lock of historical inevitability and determinism is broken open, and a new world of possibilities is again revealed.

When history appears to be static, it is the oppressed who are shut out. History is not only closed, it is specifically closed against them. The past is forgotten, the future is foreclosed, and there is only the never-ending present to be endured. The poor are told this is the way things have always been and forever will be. What cannot be allowed to be believed or imagined is the possibility of hope for a new day.

Hope is the most feared reality of any oppressive system. More powerful than any other weapon, hope is the great enemy of those who would control history. What salvation events bring to the world, most of all, is hope, and the world’s oppressed peoples are always the ones who have the most at stake in them.

When salvation events occur, we are all surprised. We don’t expect they could or will ever happen. Most of us, to one extent or another, accept the dominant thinking of the world and view real change as quite hopeless. When it happens, we are taken aback.

The most appropriate response to salvation events is thanksgiving. The jubilant crowds on the Berlin Wall and the dancing South African masses celebrating their new freedom are both fitting signs of it. Both show us the way to respond to the salvation events of hope. In the words of C. S. Lewis, we are "surprised by joy."

The word hope is often used to refer to something mystical or rhetorical. Hope somehow lies outside the reality in which we have to live. Hope becomes a feeling or a mood or an inspired moment that is lived somehow above the painful and dull agonies of history. We’re down here living in it all, and someone says, "Well, you have to have hope." And right away we think, "I’m supposed to feel something I’m not feeling—to get into a mood that isn’t natural to me. Somehow I need to rise above this daily reality and be hopeful." But the more I wrestle with this word hope, the more I am convinced that we must see hope in a different, and indeed a more biblical, way.

From the perspective of the Bible, hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change. Hope is the energy of transformation. Hope is the door from one reality to another.

Things that seem possible, reasonable, understandable, even logical in hindsight—things that we can deal with, things that are not extraordinary—often seemed quite impossible, unreasonable, nonsensical, and illogical when we were looking ahead to them. The changes, the possibilities, the opportunities, the surprises that no one or very few would even have imagined become history after they’ve occurred. What looked before as though it could never happen is now easy to understand. Once it is upon us, we accept the inevitability of the first multiracial election in South Africa, and we forget the defiant hope that helped make it possible.

In hindsight we can see how everything fell into place and that it was quite natural, even reasonable, that it would happen. It was inevitable—at least it seems that way in hindsight. Inevitable in hindsight and impossible in foresight.

BETWEEN impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope. And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

The good news from the women at the tomb of Jesus became for millions of people the greatest hope that the world has ever known. And yet what did the male disciples call it? "Nonsense." On one side of the door, it is nonsense. On the other side of the door, it is the best news Jesus’ disciples had ever heard. And the door in between is hope.

Hope unbelieved is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed. The nonsense of the resurrection became the hope that shook the Roman Empire and established the Christian movement. The nonsense of slave songs in Egypt and Mississippi became the hope that let the oppressed go free. The nonsense of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, became the hope that transformed a nation.

The nonsense of women’s meetings became the hope that brought suffrage and a mighty movement that demands gender equality. The nonsense of the uneducated, the unsophisticated, "the rabble," became the hope that creates industrial unions, farm worker cooperatives, campesino collectives, and a myriad of popular organizations that challenge and sometimes defeat monopolies of wealth and power.

In each case, the gains, victories, and transformations seemed impossible at first and became possible only by stepping through the door of hope. Spiritual visionaries have often been the first to walk through that door, because in order to walk through it, first you have to see it, and then you have to believe that something lies on the other side. Not everyone can see the door, and most people can imagine nothing on the other side.

Those who walk through the door must also be prepared to suffer and even to die, because the door of hope always leads from one reality to another. History tells us again and again that we can’t move from one reality to another without cost. It’s never easy, never without pain or suffering. And it’s always hardest for the first few who take those steps.

But after a few have passed through the door of hope, others can follow more easily. And as more and more follow, historical transformation takes place. It becomes easier to walk through until finally everyone forgets how hard those first steps were. That’s also how personal transformation takes place. We can’t imagine ourselves different than we are today or healed of that which binds and afflicts us. We can’t imagine ourselves forgiven or free or whole. We can’t imagine our own salvation. But when we walk through that door of hope and we look back at where we have been and where we are now, we see evidence of grace.

WE CAN stand on the faith of those who have been given the news of resurrections before us, as they have walked through the doors of hope time and time again. Because of that faith and because of their legacy, we can say that it is not nonsense to believe that we can be healed of our hurts and fears and pains. It is not nonsense to believe that our families can be restored and reconciled.

It is not nonsense to believe that decent and affordable housing will be available to the poor of our cities. It is not nonsense to believe that the drugs and alcohol and crime that destroy so many of our youth will not do so forever.

It is not nonsense to believe that nuclear arms are not necessary and that war is not inevitable. It is not nonsense to believe that a child’s race and class and gender will not always determine that child’s future share of happiness and well-being. It is not nonsense to believe that we who have been divided from each other can, and will, one day sit down together at the welcome table of love and justice.

These thoughts are not nonsense. With the eyes of hope, we can see the door through which we too can walk, through which we are all invited. Walking through that door, we also will be given the news of resurrection.

With this hope, we can know our lives made whole. We can look into the faces of our children and believe there is a future for them. With this hope, we can look into the eyes of the poor, the suffering, and the dispossessed and believe that God is able to establish justice for all. With this hope, we can together build a new community, even in our own neighborhoods, that will someday overcome the barriers of race and class and gender. And with this hope, we can even look forward to a day when our nation no longer measures its security by its weapons and its status by its wealth.

With this hope, we can envision an America finally able to live without racism and without oppression, but no longer able to live without justice and compassion. With this hope we can plan and sow and build and create visions and dreams. And with this hope we can find the faith and courage to bear the cost of such possibilities. Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change. And hope is a sign of transformation.

Excerpted with permission from the forthcoming book, The Soul of Politics: A Practical and Prophetic Vision for Social Change, by Jim Wallis (The New Press and Orbis Books, 1994).

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