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  • Ed Guzzo

Hope is Action: sometimes we live out a futile hope, but that isn’t the point

A doctor tends to another's wounds

The theme for the first week of Advent is hope. Both within and without religious contexts, we usually consider ‘belief’ essential to hope. “At the heart of our hope in Christ is belief in Christ” you may hear your pastor say, or you hope for the future of the country because you believe the next election will turn out good results. Why would we hope for something we don’t believe possible?

There is a problem with this commonsense assumption. Philosophers Michael Milona and Katie Stockdale argue hope is not grounded in belief, but in how we perceive our experience. We can hope for things we’re pretty sure, given the evidence, won’t actually come to pass. And yet we hope for it all the same. Sometimes we try to reject hope we believe to be ill-informed, yet it’s still hope, and it can prove sticky even if we know better and seek to reject it. We might hope our alcoholic partner will sober up because we need them to. We might hope the cancer will go away because we want to live. We might hope we’re not convicted because we want to be free. We might hope in Christ because that is what we are, Christ-ian. Despite possibly knowing the hope is groundless, we perceive a possibility or we find hope practical to maintain or hope is critically important to who we are.

In the Advent readings for the week of hope, we read about the hope that people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:1-5). This is hope for peace and prosperity.

Whether or not it’s a vain hope is not the point. It makes sense to hope because it sustains us, encourages us to act, and constitutes our identity. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11-14). Our hope enables us to realize that which we hope for. But will it work? Will what we hope for actually happen if we try to make it happen? Again, that’s not the point. We certainly hope it works, and that’s the point. “For the sake of the house of my relatives and friends I will say ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good” (Psalms 122). It is for the sake of peace and prosperity that we hope.

Hope without action is empty. When Milona and Stockdale point out hope is potentially dangerous, they point to how our perceptual experience can lead us to inaction. We might ‘hope’ something gets better without doing anything about it. Their example: someone who does nothing for the environment because they see others fighting climate change. Due to this perception, they experience a sense of ‘hope’ others will take care of the problem. But what kind of hope is this? As it’s said in James, faith without works is dead. So, too, is hope without action empty.

Is it really hope we feel when we see others fighting climate change when in response to their activism we do nothing? Are people who actually hope in a Christian message unchanged? Does someone who hopes for good things not seek them out? Inaction in response to the active hope of others is not hope, its rosey, feel-good complacency. We would like to see the end of climate change, but we don’t do anything about it. Wishing for the right things is not hope, it’s merely a wish, and one we make to feel good about ourselves.

To hope is to live our hope. Those who hope conduct themselves as if the hope has been realized. We fight climate change as if it’ll save the planet. We defy oppression as if the oppression will stop. We get angry as if the transgressor will care. We stand in solidarity as if we are one. Sometimes we live out a groundless hope, but that isn’t the point.

When we hope, we create and live an experience worth the hope it feeds. We can perceive our lived experience and see that it is good. When we live for peace, there is peace. When we live for justice, there is justice. When we live for action, we act. Is it enough? That isn’t the point. We must live for what is good, or there is no point.

There are better and worse things to hope for. There are better and worse ways of living out that hope. My point here, in this short Advent-inspired post, is to encourage us to hope, really hope, in the things worth hoping for. Real hope is infectious. I hope, as you read this, real hope finds you.

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