“WHENEVER I am asked if I am optimistic . . . . , I say that I am not. Optimism requires clear signs that things are changing – meaningful words and unambiguous actions that point to real progress. I do not yet hear enough meaningful words, nor do I yet see enough unambiguous deeds to justify optimism.
However, that does not mean I am without hope. I am a Christian. I am constrained by my faith to hope against hope, placing my trust in things as yet unseen. Hope persists in the face of evidence to the contrary, undeterred by setbacks and disappointment.”
These words were written by Desmond Tutu in October, 2007, in an Op-Ed piece in The Boston Globe. The venerable archbishop was talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but his words could apply just as easily to the much larger world outside of the Middle East.
As we begin a new year, I find myself thinking of how challenged we are to be optimistic in this particular time and place. Our political system is broken, our economic system is broken, our judicial system is broken. Everywhere we look, we meet warnings about impending environmental disaster, and see the impact of severe, extreme weather brought on by climate change. As Tutu says, “optimism requires clear signs that things are changing – meaningful words and unambiguous actions that point to real progress.” It is hard – very hard – to see any such clear sings, meaningful words, or unambiguous actions. And so people can hardly be blamed for being pessimistic about the future.
There is a difference, however, between pessimism and despair. If optimism requires clear signs of positive change, then pessimism is the response to a lack of those signs. But despair goes deeper: despair is a lack of hope. And those of us who are followers of Jesus do not have a license to despair. As Tutu puts it, we are constrained by our faith to place our trust in “things as yet unseen”. It is this trust in the unseen that is to be our basis for hope. And when we speak of things unseen, we are not just speaking of God. We are also speaking of all the possibilities that God inspires us to imagine and to hope for, even though we do not yet see them manifested in our lives or the life of the world. We are constrained to hope that these possibilities can become concrete realities, despite all evidence to the contrary. And this hope is bolstered by the stories of our faith tradition: stories of unlikely people doing unlikely things by God’s grace, and thus making unlikely and powerful changes in the life of the world. These same stories also tell us that these unlikely moments of transformation usually come when things seem most bleak. It is just when the darkness seems finally to be complete and overwhelming that the light shines out most brightly.
This New Year’s Day, we may have trouble feeling optimistic. But let us not lose our hope. Let us move into the new year believing in the unseen possibilities, and prepared in the midst of darkness to welcome the light. More than that, let us believe in our own ability to be the agents and conduits of that light. Let us make ourselves available to the Unseen One, so that God’s love, compassion, and wisdom may be seen in and through us.