Hope: A non-sermon

One of the last sermons I gave, back when I gave sermons, was on the subject of hope. I’d just returned from two years as a missionary in Ukraine, a country which in the early to mid ’90s was in an even worse state than it is now: hyperinflation, food shortages, a ruling ideology suddenly in the dustbin of history. Hope, among other things, was in short supply, and at the time I thought a good dose of Jesus was just what they needed.

Ukraine since the Orange Revolution still has a lot of problems but actually has found some hope. I’m not in the sermonizing business anymore, and the country that’s got me worried now is my own. Thirty-four senators voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, our last two presidential elections have been stolen by a pawn of the extreme right, we’re fighting two anti-insurgent wars in Asia in which victory is all but logically impossible. We’re in collective denial not just about what we’re doing to people halfway around the world but about what we’re doing to the climate we all share, about the depletion of oil resources, about the unsustainable way we’ve structured our vast suburbs.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, a group of early Christians, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three.” Faith, at least the kind that Paul was talking about, is a crock. Love is great when you can get it, but not really something you can found a politics on. But hope — you need hope to get any worthwhile collective action off the ground.

The problem is, at a certain point, hope becomes the province of fools. Paul’s followers were hoping for the imminent return of Jesus, who would upend the fallen, oppressive order of things and bring the Kingdom of God to earth. It never happened, and now, 2000 years later, the people who are still expecting the same thing look ridiculous.

America is particularly dependent on hope to motivate its national life. Columbus Day reminds us that we were founded on bloody conquest. Chattel slavery was our second original sin, something the founders knew to be wrong but accepted in the interests of political unity. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 is a horror, but probably not as bad as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which obligated federal officers in free states to take suspected runaway slaves into custody on no more evidence than the purported owner’s sworn statement. But read as much Zinn and Chomsky as you like — there’s still the project of America, standing apart from our many failings, that makes a commitment worthwhile.

This project is a commitment to balancing some fairly incompatible principles — individual freedom, majority rule, equality. Our collective sense of these principles and of this project has changed over time. We fight over what they mean, sometimes with words and ballots, sometimes with guns. But the project evolves, maintaining a recognizable continuity that lets us honor George Washington while deploring his slave ownership and celebrate the Progressives of the last century even though we would have disagreed with many of their aims and most of their methods. Richard Rorty called a recent book of political optimism Achieving Our Country, and Langston Hughes famously cried “Let America be America again.”

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible, a realm in which the good must be the object because the best is unattainable. And America has always had enough going for it, despite its oppressions, wrongs, corruptions, and stupidities, that it’s been worth hoping for. Hope in our collective project provides the common thread that runs through America’s history: We’re far from perfect, and often and in many ways really shitty, but we’re trying.

All empires fall, all regimes fail, all eras end. The American project, not yet completed, may be nearing its close. Only a third of the Senate voted against the MCA two weeks ago, and the last two presidential elections were stolen by a puppet of the extreme right. Many of the pillars that upheld the old ways of our democracy have fallen or are crumbling, with the news media scarcely distinguishable from the entertainment industry and corporate power and money corrupting the political system so thoroughly that Boss Tweed would blush to see it.

On the one hand, to resist the thought that this could be the last hour of America as we’ve known it is to cling to the fiction of the thousand-year Reign of Righteousness with the shining city upon a hill standing in for the light of the world. It is also to resist the fact of the impermanence of all things, the fact of death.

On the other hand, without the hope that it can continue, the American project truly is dead. There are hopeful signs: People seem to be genuinely upset by the gang of thugs currently running the country (although maybe the low approval ratings are really just a reflection of high gas prices). And people are taking action. This is what we must hope for: Not some magic apocalypse wrought by God or History, not some great leader who will make it all better, but the concerted actions of millions of people who still think America can get better, not worse. Whether that’s going to be enough, I can’t say. I hope it is, and I will keep hoping a little bit longer, and doing what I can. Although keeping a valid passport and a wad of cash around isn’t a bad idea either.

17 responses to “Hope: A non-sermon”

  1. bryan says:

    Dave — What amazes me most about this is that last night you said, “I’ll run home and write a short post for tomorrow.” You write a pretty mean sermon on short notice. I wonder how much worse it will have to get before people take ideas like this seriously and do something meaningful in terms of a collective politics of hope, love, goodwill, what have you.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks, Bryan, but my post was clearly pwned by goats.

  3. Lane says:

    Great post.

    50 odd comments anyone?

  4. bryan says:

    final thought of the evening (for me at least):

    Love is great when you can get it, but not really something you can found a politics on.

    Why not, exactly? It seems a politics of love (a la Jesus, a la John Lennon) has more to do with giving than getting. Or are my political ideals shaped not only by the two Js already mentioned, but by Charlie Brown Christmas Specials? I used to take the notion quite seriously — as theology, as politics — that love was all you need.

    Is it just that the current climate makes it nearly impossible to love?

  5. Tim Wager says:

    I’ll do my bit. Even before you name checked Rorty I was thinking his influence was all over this one. Very inspirational, really, in that way Rorty can be when you’re feeling like absolutely everything in the whole wide world is just crap or on its way there.

    It sort of reminds me of E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers for Democracy,” not necessarily in the specifics of what you argue, but in the tone – resigned to the imperfections of our current political system, but nevertheless hopeful for its possibilities.

    You can knock out a mean sermon-like non-sermon in a short time. It gives my poor heart cheer.

    P.S. Have you read David Mitchell’s _Cloud Atlas_? A great great novel. It takes a long time to get to a point that is very similar to yours. Great writing and entertaining characters on the way there. Well worth it.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Yeah, what Bryan said about a politics based on love. I was sort of thinking that myself. Love not in a romantic sense, but in a brotherly and sisterly way.

  7. dave — what does “pwned” mean?

  8. Dave says:

    Maybe I should have phrased it more carefully. You can base your own politics on love, I guess, but a general politics based on love doesn’t work.

    Paul says love never fails, but really it fails all the time, often with disastrous consequences. You need something else to hold the commonwealth together when love fails, if love even had anything to do with it in the first place.

    Bush’s Evangelical followers are convinced he’s a great leader because he has the love of Jesus in his heart. The rest of us look at his actions and can’t imagine his heart is any bigger than the Grinch’s, pre-conversion. Whether he loves or not, he needs to be constrained by constitutional and statutory structures and bound by a commitment on the part of the polity to liberal republican democracy. A good war crimes prosecution would be worth more in Bush’s case than all of John Lennon’s love.

    Less pathological cases are just as illustrative. Suppose you love your neighbor, but he decides to build a twenty-story apartment complex running right up to your property line. What’s called for isn’t love but zoning ordinances and a fair court system for enforcing property rights and regulations.

  9. Dave says:

    Haven’t read Cloud Atlas, but it seems like I read a good review a while ago. I’ll check it out.

    I admit I am thoroughly corrupted by Rorty. Although before I encountered him I had already been terminally infected by later Wittgenstein, so with Rorty it was an easy fall.

  10. bryan says:

    dave — good point re: love’s limitations, though i tend to think of it as something that operates, and needs to operate, outside the apparatus of the state, not something that would replace the state or provide its foundation.

    re: wittgenstein — i finally got the latest matmos album, which you’d really like. but i thought of you in particular when i listened to it last night b/c the opening track is called “roses and teeth for ludwig wittgenstein.”

  11. Scott Godfrey says:

    I’m really glad that I got a chance to read your post this morning. I find your enthusiasm and hope about America to be heartening.

    I too have been thinking a lot about a politics of love, equality, and freedom, as of late. However, what I’ve had in mind is more internationalist in concept.

    I have begun to think that the only way we’re ever going to be able to really move toward the aforementioned goals is to reach over the artificial boundaries of nationality, race, and statehood. I do not think we (America) can achieve the goals, internally, without doing so; the world is too interconnected, through trade, debt, military allegiances, and ecological degradation, for any lasting peace to prevail without doing so.

    The demands of the billions of starving and disenfranchised (which will get much, much worse as the drinking water crisis, and global warming intensify) will simply not allow it. This will perpetually lead to external conflicts, which will, logically, lead to less freedoms for Americans more jingoism and a movement toward isolationism, which at that point will be quite logical.

  12. Dave says:

    Bryan: Yes, love needs to operate outside the state. The flipside to the idea I tried to articulate in my comment is that love itself gets perverted when it’s tamed and regulated by politics. It’s a wild, anarchic force and must remain so. On the other hand, isn’t there some relationship between love and empathy? Empathy seems very close to ethics and to a moral politics. Rawls, if you misread him the right way, offers a way to exercise empathy in the construction of basic political institutions.

    Scott: My enthusiasm and hope about America come and go. I agree with you that we need to move in an internationalist, cosmopolitan direction. There is no moral difference between the death of an innocent Iraqi civillian and the death of an innocent American civillian, but you wouldn’t know that from the public discourse in the U.S.

  13. Scott Godfrey says:

    True dat, my brother; stay strong!

  14. Tim Wager says:

    It’s hard to view Rorty as a ‘corrupting’ influence, though there is an underlying complacency to some of his thought that I find sort of scary. If “‘truth’ is what works,” – that is, if it is malleable and changes over time due to shifting consensus – then it becomes easier to surrender to the dominant news media and a President who claims that whatever he says 3 times is true. Throw enough power, money and air time behind any statement and it can work in enough people’s minds that it becomes ‘true’ – e.g., we are winning the war, we are helping the Iraqi people, Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Laden, etc. We are pwned by this ‘truth’ and can do nothing about it but hope that later on a different (i.e., more accurate, longer lasting) ‘truth’ will emerge.

    I haven’t read _Achieving Our Country_ (which should prevent me from speaking about it, but won’t), but it seems to me like there’s a generous helping of Robert Frost in it. “The Gift Outright” is a poem about America becoming America. It’s sort of a creepy poem, imho, because it has a predominant air of manifest destiny to it. (Side note, when Frost was supposed to read a poem he wrote for JFK’s inaugural, he got to the podium but couldn’t read what was on the page because of blinding sunlight, so he recited this poem from memory.)

    Cut off the end point and you may have a good idea of Rorty’s sense of ‘achieving’ America, which I take to be this – we have an inheritance (intellectual, spiritual, political, economic) to which we are born and which we must accept (aka, the ‘truths’ of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, accompanied by their dark side – economic disparity, racism, sexism, discrimination of all stripes and sorts) wrestle with it as much as we want (you can’t invent a new language wholecloth, after all!). We can alter this inheritance to some degree, but it will remain (dare I say?) essentially the same, imperfect but not thoroughly bad, and after all we can’t reject it entirely so we might as well get used to it and maybe every once in a while praise it (imperfect as it is).

    Altering ourselves – shaping, making new, ridding ourselves of prejudice – is even part of this inheritance, and so it admits of its own imperfection (which, in a double twist, helps make it somehow more perfect). When we’re miserable because the current dominant ‘truth’ does not fit with ours, well, we can fall back on hope for change (keep voting, people! keep donating to the causes of your choice!) and keep our eyes on the horizon for the emergence of a ‘truth’ that better fits our outlook.

    Despite my somewhat cynical attitude leaking out here, I still find a great deal attractive and irrefutable about this stance. I mean, what else have we but violent revolution (which, if you’re reading this Mr. NSA guy, I don’t advocate)?

  15. nicole says:

    Dave, you always get it just. right.

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