The Indecency of Hope

Original art by Scott Erickson (www.scottericksonart.com).

By Elizabeth Glass Turner – 

There are two kinds of propaganda: the true and the false. Propaganda is a charged word, evoking a range of associations depending on your nationality or job. Marketing professionals may harbor fondness for it; historians, less so. But people from a variety of studies will object to the assertion that there are only two kinds. You can read about seven kinds of propaganda, nine kinds of propaganda, all kinds of propaganda and examples of usage, though many of these categories are simply informal verbal fallacies used by advertisers. A celebrity uses this shampoo so you should, too. Nine out of ten users prefer this brand so you will, too (from a survey of people receiving compensation to test it, of course). 

Historians may point out that effective political propaganda trades in half-truths and omissions. The word propaganda always brings luggage with it: baggage crammed with ideology, spilling out like stray socks from the bulging suitcase of a refugee fleeing a totalitarian regime. But half-truths and omissions are not good-faith communication; a shampoo manufacturer that claims its products are good for your hair – the hair remaining after you use it, anyway – will not last long. No, in the end, propaganda really does boil down to two types: the true and the false. 

The question is whether or not hope is merely propaganda – even the true kind.

It’s an important time to grow in our individual and collective capacity to practice hope. And we do practice it; it’s not something that we simply possess or lack. Multiple crises on varying fronts demand that after we have processed shock, dismay, disbelief, and grief – we grow. We cannot regress. We cannot go back. We cannot shrink into shadows of ourselves permanently. Undoubtedly, there are doctors and nurses, grieving families and exhausted pastors who will find themselves starting awake with jolts of adrenaline for months to come, waves of post-traumatic stress reorienting internal terrain, shaping the landscape of the brain away from old well-worn paths. 

Healing takes time. So does hope. And hope is much more than a feeling: it is knowledge. Hope is the knowledge, from experience, that after the worst day of your life, there will come a day when you laugh again. Hope is the knowledge, from experience, that following Jesus Christ will not prevent you from experiencing tragedy but may anchor you from utter spiritual ship-wreck in the face of tragedy. Hope is the knowledge of Jesus Christ when you have lost everything, and losing everything is never glamorously dramatic or inspiring, it’s only awful, ugly, profane.

Hope is never mere propaganda when it looks like this – it’s not marketable enough. Whoever believes Karl Marx’s sneering comment that “religion is the opiate of the people” – an existential placebo to alleviate suffering by lulling the masses into compliance with injustice – is little acquainted with religion that practices temperance, self-control, ascetism, generosity, and the profound power of non-violent resistance. 

Religion is only an opiate when it is comfortable, and Christianity is not comfortable. If it is, then we are on autopilot; we are not hearing the calls and commands of Jesus Christ. As C.S. Lewis so famously noted, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

In our time, we cannot respond to the compelling call to practice hope if we settle for the comfortable instead. In North America, we avoid becoming people of hope in the church through convenience and through the cult of individualism. If disciples blur into convenience store consumers, we lose our ability to practice hope, because we cannot sit with discomfort for long. If disciples blur from members of the universal Body of Christ into individual monarchs of our own lives, we lose our ability to practice hope, because we cannot sit with others’ discomfort for long. And if we lose our ability to practice hope, then preaching hope becomes mere propaganda – an inspirational slogan or platitude given without the dogged discipline of practicing hope. 

If we are to discipline ourselves to be people of hope – and that is who we are called to be – then we must begin the basic steps of identifying and rejecting convenience, and identifying and rejecting untethered individualism. These are the scales we practice everyday at the piano, plunking out notes up the keyboard and down again, shifting our fingers slightly, and restarting the journey up the keyboard and down again. These are the chords; this is how we practice hope. Choosing inconvenience and choosing to be rooted in the communion of saints settle the practice of hope into our muscle memory.

We don’t practice alone, of course; the very community toward which we pivot in our practice of hope has placed what we need within reach, in the shape of the liturgical calendar. People of hope grasp the oddity of timing; during Lent, a season of penance and fasting, a baby is born, and we celebrate; during Advent, a time to look toward the joy of Christmas, a loved one dies, and we mourn. 

The rhythm of the liturgical calendar eludes reduction to propaganda because we are always remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return; and that Christ has come to bring life, and bring it abundantly. To gently detach from the lure of convenience is to hone discernment of the oddity of timing.

Jesus knew full well that sometimes people thought his timing was indecent. During a storm, he snored below deck; when a dear friend was dying, he delayed his trip and showed up late; when he showed up late, he seemed insensitive to the reality of decay, ordering a grave to be opened; when his family members summoned him, he ignored them; when a community meted out prescribed justice, he intervened in front of raised rocks on behalf of a half-naked woman; not long after a triumphal entry, he sweat blood while praying; when he had a chance to defend himself to authorities (surely a moment for public evangelization), he remained silent. 

His timing, his hope seemed indecent, because he knew what others did not. For Christians, hope is never only an emotive feeling; sometimes, it is grim, bare-knuckled knowledge of the real. This truth inoculates us from the flippant recklessness of pseudo-hope. Hope is never denial of reality; it is practiced in the crucible of reality.

Jesus’ timing wasn’t self-conscious edginess for the sake of being a provocateur; the Way can’t be reduced to a publicity stunt. His antagonists frequently tried to catch him, to make a name for themselves by setting rhetorical or situational or physical traps. Sometimes they were certain they’d finally gotten him. On a more cosmic scale, early church literature provides vivid dramatic depiction of the exultant triumph in hell at the crucifixion of Christ collapsing as evil realizes that it has taken the bait and brought its own doom upon its head – the sulfurous hordes clamoring for the gates to be barred before the prince of peace can enter but too late – the lamb worthy to harrow hell arrives, thundering. 

The dramatic imagining of this shocked, frantic scene conveys what we need to know: evil does not have the luxury of ultimate hope, but sometimes, the road to hope leads through hell. Hardly a marketable selling point. Yet the call to indecent hope remains.

When we mindfully examine and dislodge habits of convenience and individualism, when we practice the ability to sit with discomfort and locate ourselves in community and not our little shingled monarchies, we develop an ear to hear a different clock ticking – a different time being kept: the metro-nome of indecent hope. 

To become people of hope is to become increasingly alert to the movements of the Holy Spirit. “Be alert,” scripture tells us. Of course, this doesn’t mean to be distracted and swayed by everything that crosses our desk, pulpit, computer screen, voice mail, or smartphone. It means being able to discern which things crossing our paths are pivotal to our development or to serving others. When we are alert in hope, we do not instinctively lean toward the convenient without examining our instinct; we do not lean instinctively toward individualist actions and values without examining our instinct. We do not give everything the same level of attention; we are wary of the messages pelting our way. 

People of hope are not easily led up the garden path because we know there’s nothing new under the sun. We are not desperate for longshots because we are settled in the reality of Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come. We are not quick to believe everything because it is in the lamb of God that we live and move and have our being. 

Followers of Jesus practice hope, and in practicing hope, we improve our stance. Skilled martial artists assess each others’ stance to find openings – leverage for combat advantage. The basic starting position in most martial arts provides force for attacks and stability in defense. It is in the thick of the battle that it becomes essential to spot openings by the opponent or to avoid presenting openings to the opponent. So, too, it is not in vague determination for victory that we find our hope; we find it in the tedious daily practice of scales at the keyboard, and we find it in the drills that sharpen our situational awareness, cuing us to pivotal moments or guarding us from unintentionally presenting openings that can be leveraged for our defeat. 

Indecent hope, then, is not the bland hope of ignorance. It is a blade that cuts through un-truth, half-truth, pseudo-truth: all the propaganda the universe has on offer, from the doubt spread by the serpent who hissed well-placed questions, to the propositions and circumstances bombarding our day to day lives. We do not have time for anything less.

Our world needs us, desperately. Our siblings in Christ need us, desperately. They do not need our well-intentioned propaganda of inspirational well-wishing. They need our hands, our feet, our pocketbooks, our attention, our focus, our compassion, our time. They need Jesus and we are his Body. 

The call to indecent hope inevitably morphs into a call to action – not yet another dreaded summons to exhausted caregivers praying for a bit of sleep before the next patient codes or the child reawakens. This call to action rings up and down the flow chart, pulpit to pews and back again, like an old church bell summoning anyone and everyone to a bucket brigade for a house on fire.

Eight months before Covid-19 emerged onto the world stage, thousands of miles from Wuhan, a fire alarm sounded. Notre Dame was burning: “our lady” was crumbling in flames, and firefighters struggled to control the fire eating the famous Paris cathedral from the inside out. The images were stark: blackened, sooty wreckage collapsed in front of aging stone arches, a cross still standing in the background. 

Even the most low-church worshipers viewed the images with dismay. It seemed profane, somehow: the disintegration of a holy place. The catastrophic losses to a different out-of-control inferno seem no less profane: over 300,000 Americans lost to a viral plague as of mid-December 2020, the equivalent of approximately 94 September 11th attacks. 

Hope can feel almost indecent when faced with the weight of the world’s suffering. And it would be – without the weighty truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus, who harrowed hell; who is not undone at the destructive force of the hottest fires this world can burn; who knows the name of each casualty, numbers the hairs of each individual, stands next to each overwhelmed physician; who exploits every opening that evil leaves, turning the tables on the propaganda of despair, knocking the teeth out of hopelessness, bellowing a song of healing.

Artist and writer Makoto Fujimura, who recently released Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, pressed a few quiet insights into the palms of weary fellow believers recently on social media: “create something unique and new against fear,” echoing a similar encouragement to “make towards the new,” a lovely nudge toward the substantive hope of heaven and a new creation. He writes, “Art making, to me, is a discipline of awareness, prayer, and praise.” The discipline of awareness, prayer, and praise – how like hope that sounds. Are we ready to practice being brazen enough to look for sprouting leaves in the light beaming through the open void of a burned-out roof?

Elizabeth Glass Turner, a frequent contributor to Good News, is the editor of Wesleyan Accent (www.wesleyanaccent.com). 

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