A person sleeping beneath a blanket on a sidewalk.
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When hope is a four-letter word
December 11, 2023
Advent used to be my favorite season of the church year, until it wasn’t. The waiting and hope-filled anticipation used to bring me a sense of wonder and awe, until it didn’t. The promises of peace and light in the darkness used to inspire me, until it couldn’t. Gradually, during my decade-long struggle with miscarriage and infertility, the hope-filled anticipation of Advent turned to resentment and doubt. I tried to connect with Elizabeth who was “barren and advanced in years,” but knowing she eventually became pregnant meant I often didn’t want to read further than the first few verses of Luke 1. I cried each Sunday of Advent, before and after I preached and led worship during a season filled with pregnancy, waiting, birth, and hope.
This Advent, I find myself again wondering where we can find hope in the midst of the tremendous suffering in our world. Poverty is the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. One in 8 couples experience infertility, yet many treatments are not covered by health insurance and thus inaccessible. Sixty-two percent of the federal discretionary budget is spent on war, weapons, and the like, while tens of thousands of people, including many children, are killed in wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. In the midst of such suffering, hope feels like a four-letter word. Hope doesn’t feel distant and elusive, but like a cruel joke. Instead of singing about “the thrill of hope,” I want to cry out, “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?”
To the suffering, what is hope? Too often those feeling pain or facing injustice are offered trite and tone-deaf platitudes about keeping hope alive and continuing to be hopeful because “everything happens for a reason.” I’m convinced, though, that hope defined in such a way is false hope. False hope hangs on flimsy, wishful, optimistic thinking that everything will work out just fine. False hope can appear messy but is tied up in a neat, pretty, little bow. Such “hope” is a four-letter word.
I’m not alone in thinking of false hope as a four-letter word, similar to Bonhoeffer’s concept of cheap grace. The apostle Paul also wrote about it in Romans 5:1-5. Often these verses are interpreted with the same trite and tone-deaf platitudes pronounced to those who are suffering and offered as a thin, wishful-thinking type of hope. But Paul is familiar with a hope that is deeper. The Greek word, thlipsis, is often translated as tribulation or affliction; however, another translation is oppression. “Oppression produces perseverance and perseverance, character and character, hope and such a hope does not disappoint.”
This Advent, I find myself again wondering where we can find hope in the midst of the tremendous suffering in our world. Amid public and private suffering, hope feels like a four-letter word.
“Real hope” is what Aaron Scott, co-founder of Chaplains on the Harbor, an organization that works with the poor and homeless in Gray’s Harbor County, Washington, calls it. This community cultivates real hope with and for one another as they work to change oppressive conditions. Aaron writes, “Real hope in hard times requires a belief that the entire structure of our society can be changed—and changed by the very people who have been most shut out of dignity and abundant life. This kind of hope is the height of absurdity.” The community is not denying the oppression they have faced. Instead, they have been forged through it. Their hope is grounded in each other and their work together.
Such an absurd hope is found in Paul’s letters. It is a hope I have seen and learned from leaders and mentors who have lived through poverty, homelessness, racism, war, and disappointment. It is a hope that does not disappoint because it is not based on things working out, but in the strength of community and communion with God. It is a hope that emerges when oppressed leaders and communities are united to change the structures which led to their suffering, a hope revealed in the plight, fight, and insight of the poor and dispossessed. Despite wanting to distance myself from Elizabeth, it is the kind of hope I learned from her.
Elizabeth, Mary, and most people living in lands occupied by the Roman Empire, were subjugated people whose lives were filled with war, violence, famine, hunger, exploitation, dispossession, disease, and poverty. The Roman emperors declared a time of Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) but it was anything but peaceful. Instead, it was a time of war, conquest, and suppressing any who would try to rise up in revolt. Roman historian Tacitus described it as a time in which the Roman Empire “made a desert and called it peace.” It is in that context that Elizabeth and Mary received the good news of God’s coming reign of true peace on earth. When Elizabeth greets Mary in her home, Mary sings of the God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, the God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).
Elizabeth and others in the stories of Jesus’s birth show us how to embody a deep and abiding hope in the midst of suffering. Some things work out for them in the end, others do not. Both Elizabeth and Mary bear beautiful children; they find love and community around them. They also remain in an impoverished, war-torn world, and both women see their children executed by the state. Their hope was not in flimsy, optimistic thinking, but in knowing that the God who is close to the brokenhearted also lifts up the lowly. It is a hope in knowing the good news that suffering, death, and pain never have the last word and that even in the midst of oppression, God’s people rise up with the strength and dignity to reclaim an absurd hope in which God lifts up those who are suffering. And that is a hope that does not disappoint.
Rev. Dr. Jessica C. Williams is a pastor and theological educator, currently serving as director of Ministry Education with the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. She also teaches courses at Union Theological Seminary, Central Seminary, and Kansas State University. Previously, she pastored American Baptist churches in New York, Iowa, and Kansas.