It is almost 2017. Last night in our meetings we were talking about Mary and her miraculous Child, born under the domination of the Roman Empire, even more, born of sinful parents and destined to take on their sin — and ours too. Advent contains an amazing, hopeful story. But do we have any hope left, this year? Really, is there a circle where hope is alive?
It would have been a discouraging year even if Donald Trump and the Russians had not won the election, as it appears they will. It was a year full of arguing about whether black Iives matter and a year when people put “blue lives matter” signs on their lawns to talk back — in neighborhoods minutes from our meeting place in South Jersey. People of privilege scolded us that “all lives matter,” even as it became more and more obvious that such a thought is just a good idea, not a reality. Among us, we passed around great books and films that told us the horrible truth again: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow about mass incarceration, Drew Hart’s book Trouble I’ve Seen about racism in the church, Netflix’s 13th about the amendment that is perpetually subverted, and I finally just finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Bryan Stevenson’s great book
I would love to write a lengthy review of Stevenson’s book, if only to solidify everything I learned from him about the prison system, about a corrupt and broken justice system, about unjust incarceration, about sentencing juveniles and the mentally ill and about the slow eradication of the death penalty. But I won’t. I know you feel too busy or beaten down to even read this blog post, much less read a long review or even more, a book, so I won’t go there.
Let me give you just one quote in honor of Mary, whose son would be unjustly condemned and receive the death penalty. Let me give you one quote that speaks into our time and tries to encourage people who want to make a difference but who just get tired or cynical and who often end up in despair with few places to look for encouragement.
Stevenson is talking about a case he worked on for years in which a man was serving time on death row for a crime he did not commit. He says,
“I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.
I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that ‘hope’ was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.
Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted more money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.
Havel prescribed exactly what our work seemed to require….Together we hoped.”
We certainly have our work cut out for us as followers of Jesus right now, don’t we? Stevenson and Havel are great examples of what Jesus followers do when they are called to give their gifts in the cause of truth justice and mercy. Mary is a prime example of a less brilliant person, Iike most of us — too young, too poor, too powerless to do anything, who gives herself to God’s calling. We need an orientation of spirit that makes us individual witnesses, and we need to live in a circle that gives a larger witness than our individual capacities. In the face of abusive power we need to hope in a future promised and won by God-with-us, God-continuing-with-us.
Let’s be strong, not in our own capacity or even our mutuality, but in our hope — hope clutched Iike the lifeline it is, hope in Jesus who has blazed our way through the fearsome and relentlessly evil circumstances we face. We are a circle where hope is alive; but it is a flame that needs air and fuel; it needs tending and, like Mary knew when hope was recognized in her womb, magnifying.