This article first appeared on Communicators In Action on January 20, 2012.
Hopelessness is easy.
Perhaps you’ve seen the story of Aaron Schwartz and his tragic end. Schwartz was known by many as an intelligent and creative internet folk hero and free information activist. He was a co-creative in the birth of RSS (at just 14 years old), Harvard University fellow, and the co-founder of the social-networking site Reddit. In 2011, he was charged with stealing almost 5 million academic articles from MIT, and his trial was scheduled for next month. But this month, he hung himself in his New York apartment. Many are alleging that his depression and despair was due to bullying by the federal criminal prosecutor. As lawyer and friend, Lawrence Lessig notes, “For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”
Aaron lost hope.
In American culture today, a young person living an average life goes to high school, where you then work to make it to college or university. A student may pull out a loan to pay for their education, and would pay for that loan through work after college. However, there have been recent jumps in student loan defaults, which is probably due in part to the fact that 1 in every 2 students from the class of 2012 are either jobless or underemployed. Hope is sparse for today’s students.
One can easily pile these cultural and personal narratives of hopelessness onto global ones. Freedom House released its 2013 Freedom In the World rankings on Wednesday, and things don’t look very good: “The findings of Freedom in the World 2013 . . . showed that more countries registered declines [in freedom] than exhibited gains over the course of 2012. This marks the seventh consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.”
Are you losing hope yet?
Fortunately, when buried in stories and reports that make mankind appear to be a species doomed to pointless, painful life, we can remember our heroes — changers and doers — who give us a reason for hope. This coming Monday, we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. King was known not only as a civil rights activist, but also as highly moral and a great orator. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent advocacy of black equality. In his Nobel acceptance speech, King said, “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”
Here, King recognizes the heart of hope: refusing the “isness” and reaching for the “oughtness.” For every notion of hope implies that there is something wrong with the world and declares that viable solutions exist. To despair, and to lose hope, is to see both how things are and how they ought to be, but failing to believe that the “oughtness” can ever be reached.
The “isness” of King’s time was racism at work, in schools, restaurants and motels. The “oughtness” of King’s time was that such discrimination not exist. King had several reasons to lose hope: his struggle for equality was a constant, up-hill battle against police brutality and hostile politicians; he actively tried to convince moderates and others critical of his “extreme” behavior to adopt his cause; and he forthrightly promoted non-violence as the method of protest to his fellow man. Things didn’t always go as planned (including the day he was assassinated), but he maintained a tenacious optimism that is still respected to this day.
But why can we have hope? What is the foundation of our hope? King inferred his source of hope when he refused to accept “that man is mere flosom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the events which surround him.” It would seem obvious, therefore, that the source of our hope has very much to do with the source of life itself.
Darwinistic evolutionary thought would tell us that we are in fact flotsam and jetsam, that we are incapable of controlling even our own actions because we are merely dancing to our DNA. As Richard Dawkins famously said in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” A Hindu would simply say that the evil of unjust discrimination is the result of bad karma (meaning they brought it upon themselves and deserve it); and a Buddhist or New Age believer would say that the evil is an illusion, just as reality is an illusion.
Thus, the difference between justice and injustice towards African Americans — from the views presented — is either a pitiless indifference (bad luck), the deserved result of karma, or an illusion.
Does that sound right to you?
Anyone who is truly familiar with Martin Luther King is also familiar with his faith. When challenged on his apparent hypocrisy in promoting obedience to some laws while violating others, King wrote in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail:”
[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’ . . . How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
Indeed, how else can one define what is just and unjust or moral and immoral if one does not have an absolute standard with which to measure them? If God does not exist, King is merely an ignorant, hypocritical, law-breaking extremist. If there is no faith, there is no hope.
As the famous verse in Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Thus, faith is what brings certainty to hope. Many view faith as blind, when in reality it is hope without faith that is blind. When man sinned for the first time, we were eternally separated from God — there was no hope for man. But God gave us His Son out of His great love to atone for our sin and to reconcile us to God. This wonderful reality, gives us hope in the terrible realities that surround us. Our hope in God is certain, since it is God who made the promise. As Hebrews 6:17-20a tells us:
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.
It is because Christ has entered on our behalf, that we may have hope. Not hope that is based in ourselves, but hope that is rooted in God. In Christ we have the strongest example of love toward others, the strongest example of justice fulfilled, and a salvation that is equally available to all. In one brief lifetime Christ has demonstrated to us human rights, justice, and equality. The foundation for each can be found nowhere else but in Christ.
In his Nobel Lecture, King addresses three major problems: racial discrimination, poverty, and war. Towards the end of the lecture, it was clear that King was hopeful of the future — he truly believed that we could make life better — but he strongly emphasized that this can only be achieved by moral strength, and Christ-like love. “I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. . . . Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.”
What is the foundation for your hope? How will you make this world a better place for the next generation?
There will always be hope because there will always be God.