My deep concerns about justice and the abundance of unnecessary suffering makes finding hope very challenging. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is of little comfort to me because the arc of the moral universe doesn’t appear to bend toward justice on its own. It is the mighty efforts of people who refuse to give in to injustice that bend it in that direction.
As both a cynic and a skeptic, I find hope a particularly challenging commodity to find, especially in recent months. As an atheist I don’t have faith to fall back on or to justify hope. But I do find hope, against my cynicism and despite my skepticism, not because history teaches me that we are inevitably moving toward justice, not because I have faith in a divine being who will ensure it despite human failings, but because the alternative is despair, and we deserve better. My work developing a social justice major, my writing about the problem of evil, and recent events in our country have me thinking about hope a lot lately—searching for hope, really. This essay is a reflection of my thoughts on how I came to choose to hope.
When we rest, we both resist the idols of the world that would deny our connection to the divine while also tapping into a power that belongs to us, that is given to us by God.
Over this last year of COVID-19, Christian Nationalist uprisings, the murder of Black and Brown people, and the general fatigue of living in so-called “historical moments,” like so many others, I have had difficulty with focus, feel uninspired, and live with a kind of perpetual brain fog. My body has also asked for a lot of sleep.
Though I would claim the habit of occasional insomnia, this year feels like an exception. Rather than a second wind at night, there have been many occasions where I’ve settled down with my spouse to watch an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation,” a nostalgic creature comfort from my adolescence, and I have fallen asleep, drool on my pillow, by 7:30 p.m. This year of isolation may be a time for exploring all that Netflix has to offer, but I am afraid I’m not going to stay awake for it, so I’d better not risk watching any new television shows that are more than half an hour in length.
I serve as Chaplain at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Indiana and know that I am not alone in my exhaustion. We’ve been teaching hybrid courses. We’ve been contact tracing on top of the work that we usually do in a given semester. We’ve been trying our best to foster a sense of community in the thick of anxiety, uncertainty, and masked social distancing. By the time that the Winter term rolled around, it felt like we were simply extending the previous term, sleep crusted in our eyes as we roused from a holiday break. Faculty members asked if I would provide some kind of “opening worship” to begin the semester, and I turned to the Revised Common Lectionary to see what it had in store: the call of the prophet Samuel, roused from his slumber by the voice of God. I was immediately drawn to the text: here was a call to vocation while sleeping. Samuel didn’t carve out a time with God when he was feeling perky and entirely focused, but this didn’t matter. “Is it you, Eli? Why do you keep waking me up? What? You didn’t call me? Great, I’ll go back to sleep.”
It wasn’t until Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Must Climb,” that I realized the more subtle and insidious tragic failing that threatens us. In our own lives the failings are often smaller and less histrionic than tragic failings of an Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, or Lear. For us, the danger is settling for “just is” instead of “justice.” Gorman’s homophone warns of the seemingly small slippage from our true end and aim into weary, complacent, resignation. These small tragedies will, if they are great enough in number, led to further national tragedy.
Biden’s inauguration occasioned another flurry of internet chatter and reflections on his often used quotation, “when hope and history rhyme,” from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles Philoctetes. Making “hope and history rhyme” has always s been an inspiring phrase for me, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the literary genre of tragedy and its usefulness to vocation, I was struck by how apt tragedy is for educating us in the type of civic engagement that lines of Heaney and the young poet Amanda Gorman call us to.
Teaching in the shadow of threats to our health, our livelihoods, our social fabric, and our very environment demands that we begin to foster in our students both empathy and honesty.
America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty.
As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.
Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate:“Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.