Saturday, August 5, 2017

HB 18


Hope for the Other

            Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Christianity for a number of faults.  One of them, he thought, was the Christian doctrine of resurrection and a blessed afterlife.  On Nietzsche’s account, hope for immortality is pernicious, in that it encourages a person to be satisfied with a miserable life now because of the consolation to come.
            You don’t have to be virulently anti-Christian to be suspicious of hope.  A contemporary Christian writer, Timothy Jackson (Love Disconsoled), wants to expunge hope from the list of Christian virtues.  The center of Christianity, Jackson says, is the ethic of agape love.  Genuine acts of love are undermined by self-regard, which expects some reward for good deeds.  True agape love must be totally centered on one’s neighbor, willing and acting toward the neighbor’s good without consideration of one’s own good.  Hope brings in consolation, Jackson says, and true agape must be “dis-consoled.”
            There is just enough right in what Jackson says to make it initially plausible.  Love really is the most important of the virtues, the heart of Christian ethics.  We are commanded by Jesus to love as God loves (Matthew 5:48).  Though we can’t actually do that (certainly not by an act of will), but we live as disciples with perfect love as our goal.  Many theologians have argued that God’s love—agape love—is “disinterested,” in the sense that it seeks the good of the beloved without regard for the good of the self.  A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas would say that God is eternally blessed, complete and entire.  Since God is completely happy, God does not need anything and he is not made happier by human worship or obedience.  God commands our worship because he loves us.  We move closer to our best selves when we obey God.
            Someone might object that Jackson’s view contradicts scripture.  The New Testament repeatedly praises hope as a proper virtue for Christians.  This objection is completely accurate, but Jackson would not be persuaded by it.  If hope detracts from love, he would say, we must shed hope in favor of love.  Jackson is picking out what he thinks is the crucial part of New Testament teaching and trying to be faithful to that.  In practice, many preachers do this by returning over and over to those biblical texts which seem to them to express the more important truths.  As a theologian, Jackson is simply more open about it.
            Nevertheless, Jackson is wrong.  It is simply not true that hope is always self-regarding.  David Elliot, in Hope and Christian Ethics, points to a common scene: a graveside gathering of family whose loved one has been buried.  According to Love Disconsoled, the Christian minister might praise the dead person as a faithful disciple of Jesus and perhaps urge the family to emulate him or her.  But the minister should not talk of eternal life.  “Love’s priority implies the moral irrelevance of an afterlife,” says Jackson.
            How is it an act of love to disconsole those who are grieving?
            Jackson, or someone speaking on his behalf, might say that we hope for an afterlife for our friends and loved ones because we want to see them again.  That is, we sneak in self-consolation by introducing hope for resurrection.  But is that true?  Do I hope that Karen (my wife who died in 2016) will be raised to eternal life so that I can enjoy her company?  Not really.  What I hope is that Karen will experience perfect happiness, what Thomas Aquinas called beatitudo, the beatific vision.  She has moved out of my life (except in memory) and into the life of God.  I would not hope for her to have something less.  If in heaven there is a solidarity and fellowship of saints (so that we see each other again), well and good.  But my hope for Karen is that she experience the highest good, which is God.
            Hope is not opposed to love, because we hope for others as much as ourselves.
            There is another point to be made about resurrection hope.  The New Testament clearly teaches that we hope for eternal life.  Aquinas said our goal was friendship with God.  Perhaps we need to live forever because our real hope is to know the infinite God.  It will take eternity to truly know him.
           
           

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost Worlds


Reflections on a Visit to Pont du Gard

            On a recent study trip in Europe I visited the Pont du Gard.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Fittingly, the visit provoked thoughts about world history.
In the first century, when the Christian movement was just beginning, the Romans built an aqueduct to bring water from a mountain spring to a “colony” town called Nemausus (Nimes) in what is now southern France.  The uneven terrain of the region required a winding route for the system, more than 31 miles, digging through hillsides and leveling out depressions, so that the water could flow downhill all the way.  The aqueduct had to cross a river valley (the Gardon River), so the engineers built a bridge, consisting of three tiers of arches, and the water flowed in a covered canal on the top.
            The Pont du Gard and its bridge are a marvel of precision.  The canal on top of the bridge descends about 1 inch, a gradient of 1 to 18,241.  The 31-mile aqueduct descends 41 feet over its whole length.  Once completed, this gravity-glow system provided Nimes with water for baths, drinking, and fountains.  And the system worked, with little maintenance, for four or five centuries.  (Would your city’s water system last that long?)
            But even Roman engineering breaks down with no maintenance.  The empire fell to invading Goths, Visigoths, and other barbarians.  Without periodic cleaning, mineral buildup clogged the aqueduct and the water ceased.  For more than 1000 years, Nimes, like other medieval cities, depended on wells or local streams for water.  In medieval times, cities often had higher rates of disease than the countryside, because concentrated populations depended on limited or polluted water sources.
            Many Roman structures were destroyed by people who picked them apart, one massive stone at a time, as resources for other projects.  The Pont du Gard, though it no longer carried water, continued to serve as a bridge over the Gardon valley.  Medieval lords could charge tolls for wagons and horse traffic, so they protected the structure from looters.  In the last two centuries, governments have taken care to protect it as a tourist destination.
            What did medieval people think when they looked at the Pont du Gard?  Century after century, it stood there, 160’ high and hundred more than 1000’ long, a massive and beautiful structure, far beyond the ability of any living man to design or any lord to finance.  Most likely, they knew that it once carried water, but probably none of them had any understanding of how precisely it had been built.  We cannot see inside their minds, but we imagine they felt some awe at the knowledge of the ancients.
            The world’s literature has many examples of the myth of the golden age.  The Greeks gave us the lost city of Atlantis, the Hebrews told the story of Babel, the Babylonians told of kings who lived for thousands of years, and there are similar stories in other cultures.  Common to such stories is the idea that our distant ancestors were greater than we are—richer, smarter, longer-lived, and/or more holy.
            It’s one thing to tell a story of the golden age.  It’s something else to see proof standing like the Pont du Gard over a river valley.  For more than a thousand years Europeans could see—not just at Pont du Gard but also at other sites—clear evidence that Roman material culture surpassed anything they could build.  The richest noble in his castle in 950 or 1250 lived much less comfortably than upper class Romans of the first century.  (Besides baths and fountains, the Romans built houses with heated floors—in Britain!)  Reflecting on the Pont du Gard and other such structures, Europeans knew there really had been a lost age, an age when people knew more than they did.
            We can suppose that belief in the lost age was part of a medieval worldview.  But not in the modern world!  The recovery of ancient texts, the discovery of the new world, and especially the development of modern science brought a new idea, fundamental to the modern worldview, the idea of progress.  It’s not that we are smarter than our forebears, but we build on their accomplishments.  So we know more than any previous generation.  In the future we will learn even more, so human progress is potentially unlimited. 
To get a sense of the confidence of a modern worldview, try the novels of Jules Verne, e.g. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The height of modern confidence in progress probably came in the 19th century.  Science and technology had produced railroads, telegraphs, electric lights, steamships, and inoculations and other ways to fight disease.  With the birth of scientific psychology and sociology, humanity could expect progress on “spiritual” problems as well.
The 20th century was not kind to the modern belief in progress.  People continued to make scientific discoveries and develop new technologies, but the uses of our technologies frighten us: nuclear and biological weapons, pollution of land and sea, totalitarian use of communication, eugenics, global climate change, and others.  Is it possible that people will come to look back on a lost age, an age when our ancestors did not know what we know or do what we can do, as better than ours?
Post-apocalyptic science fiction imagines a world like that of medieval Europeans.  A classic example is A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a story of monks living in a post-nuclear war world.  That’s not the sort of story I have in mind.  Post-apocalypse stories parallel the medieval experience; in such stories, the ancients are envied because of their knowledge and power, knowledge and power we no longer have.  I have in mind the opposite, where the ancients are envied for their ignorance and lack of power.
Philosophy has always said that knowledge is a good thing.  The post-modern idea that knowledge may be dangerous or bad is philosophically revolutionary.  Without wisdom, technology merely provides power.  So some philosophers of the 20th century (Jacques Ellul, for example) turned their attention to the dangers of technology.  In the 21st century, with technological power in the hands of terrorists or tyrants, we face horrible possibilities.  Global climate change confronts us with not possibility but virtual certainty of hardships.
The Pont du Gard is a beautiful bridge.  It stands as a reminder that engineering can make good things, things that improve human life.  It also symbolizes a lost world, a world lost through the loss of knowledge.  We stand at a time when we may long for a lost world, a world lost by the acquisition of knowledge.

             
           
           
           

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Power and Powerlessness


Reflections on a Visit to the Palace of Versailles

            In the early 17th century, a Parisian mob surrounded King Louis XIV’s palace when he was just a boy.  (His mother and her advisors managed the boy king’s affairs until he came of age.)  The young king was shaken by this experience and decided that when the time came he would move the royal court outside the city.  He chose his favorite hunting lodge at Versailles as the seat of royal power.
            Normal procedure for the Bourbon dynasty included a yearly round of kingly residences: a summer palace, the hunting lodge, the palace in Paris, and others.  The difference now was that Louis intended to make the Versailles palace his primary residence.  The king would visit Paris only when necessary; bishops, nobles, and courtiers would attend to him at Versailles.  The move helped Louis assert his power as absolute ruler of France, forcing the nobles to come to him.  No longer would he be vulnerable to a popular uprising or discontent among the nobility.  Furthermore, the new project gave Louis the opportunity to display his greatness to the world.
            “I am the state,” Louis said.  He intended that the Versailles palace demonstrate the wealth and glory of France—that is, himself.  He employed the best architects and designers available and spared no expense.  The palace included an opera, a private chapel, interior and exterior fountains, reception rooms, offices, bedrooms, the astonishing hall of mirrors, and many other features.  Gold, silver, crystal, inlaid floors, and hundreds of acclaimed paintings graced the building.  Outside the chateau, Louis’s designers turned his hunting forest into an enormous formal garden.
            Recently, I visited Versailles with a group of students from George Fox University.  Some of them remarked on the stark contrast between the opulence of King Louis’s palace and the poverty of 17th century French peasants.  Hardly surprising, they said, that the monarchy was eventually toppled by revolution.  Versailles pressed me to think about power and powerlessness, wealth and poverty.
            Ironically, our enjoyment of Louis’s palace was tempered by the mass of people crowding slowly through the rooms.  Too many people!  The indoor air became stuffy.  After a while I could hardly wait to get outside to the acres and acres of gardens, with refreshing shade and water fountains. 
What would Louis have said if he had known that millions of commoners would one day troop through his rooms, gaze at his paintings, and walk through his gardens?  More than anything, Louis aimed to establish his rule as absolute monarch; he resented the power of the nobility and worked tirelessly to bend the aristocracy to his will.  Commoners?  For Louis, ordinary people existed to work, pay taxes, man his ships, and serve in his army.  
How the world has changed!  The Versailles palace and gardens are now a national treasure, owned by the French republic, maintained for their historical significance and for the pleasure of tourists.  The crowds that file through Versailles symbolize a democratic spirit, a revolution in worldview that would have astonished Louis (so I suppose).
I am a child of that democratic spirit, schooled my whole life in republican values.  It’s easy for me, when thinking about Louis, to applaud my country for the moral superiority of democracy (and congratulate myself for applauding).  It’s easy to condemn the selfishness of a ruling class and an absolute monarch, because my political thinking starts with the moral worth of every person.  Louis and his ministers pursued policies aimed explicitly at magnifying Louis’s glory.  How could they not see that such vaunting pride was a vice?  How could they plan and praise such massive expenditures on one man while peasants died of starvation?
But that’s too easy.  We may be proud that republics (such as France or the United States) and other democratic states (such as the United Kingdom) have progressed beyond the injustice of absolute monarchies.  But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we should remember how far we have to go.  The moral foundation of democracy is the recognition of the value of every person.  And yet in our democratic states citizens still starve.  Victims of mental illness live under bridges and die of exposure.  Children grow up seeing visions of material luxury in entertainment and advertising with the knowledge they and the other children in their neighborhood will never enjoy those things.  In a word: inequality is a real and persistent fly in the democratic ointment.
Do we see inequality?  Are we troubled by it? 
Surely King Louis knew quite well that he had wealth and power far above any other Frenchman.  This fact did not trouble him at all.  Why should it?  In his mind, it was God’s will that he rule France.  And: “I am the state.”  Without any inconsistency, Louis could be indifferent to the poverty and powerlessness of others.
Citizens of democratic states can’t do that.  If we believe in the moral worth of each person, we need to do better.
Don’t misunderstand me.  I have said nothing about which public policies we ought to adopt in order to improve our democratic societies, nothing about how to provide for the poor or the powerless.  I’m just pointing to the right question.  My visit to Versailles reminds me that democratic republics ought always to ask how they will help those who have the least, those who cannot defend themselves.  Otherwise, future generations may shuffle through our buildings and wonder, “How could they not see…?”


           
P

Friday, May 26, 2017

God is Not Done


Reflections on a Visit to Tintern Abbey

            Not long ago a professor colleague and I shepherded nineteen university students on a tour of sites in Europe.  Caitlin, the history professor, introduced us to the story of Tintern Abbey. 
            It’s a beautiful place in the Wye Valley, just over the border from England into Wales.  In the last two hundred years, poets and painters have celebrated the ruins of Tintern Abbey as a place to get back to nature, to appreciate wild country and perhaps to feel a bit of holy otherness.  I want to reflect on the abbey’s story long before it became a talisman for romanticism.
            Cistercian monks founded Tintern Abbey in the 1130s.  Cistercians followed the Benedictine rule for prayer seven times a day, but they differed from other monastic orders in their desire for simplicity.  Cistercian monasteries aimed at economic self-sufficiency.  The Cistercian community earned its keep through a variety of enterprises: farming, manuscript copying, production of books, and (perhaps most profitably) raising sheep for wool.  The monastery had a guesthouse for visitors and a hospital space for the sick.  People of the region could buy a medieval version of retirement home with hospice care; an elderly person could move to the abbey and know that the brothers would take care of him until he died.
            Over four hundred years, Tintern Abbey experienced good times and bad.  A magnificent gothic church was built, and as many as three hundred brothers lived at the abbey at one time.  At other times, plague or mismanagement brought the abbey population down.  But from the 1130s to 1536, the community persisted, ministering by means of prayer and hospitality to an out-of-the-way corner of Wales.
            In the 1530s, Henry VIII decided that if the pope would not grant an annulment of his marriage, he would endorse Protestant theology (some of it, anyway) and leave the Roman church.  Henry himself became head of the English Church.
            It was a politically charged and dangerous move.  Henry feared rebellion from Catholic loyalists, and the monasteries seemed likely threats.  So Henry dissolved the monasteries of England.  Seizing the monastic lands made Henry suddenly the richest man in Europe, and he used his new wealth to buy loyalty from powerful nobles by distributing church property to them.  The monks were displaced from Tintern Abbey, artwork and gold were shipped to London, and the abbey lands given to Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester.  Somerset turned the abbey property into cash the quickest way possible: he stripped away the lead—including the roof—and sold it.  Almost overnight, the abbey community disappeared and the abandoned buildings became ruins.
            In my imagination I try to enter into the mind of a monk of Tintern Abbey in the 1530s.  Perhaps he came to monasticism as a youth, or maybe later in life.  He feels certain that God has called him to this life of prayer, simplicity, and service.  As a Cistercian he has misgivings about some church practices, for he has heard of the wealth and ostentation of Rome.  But he is convinced that Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestants, are worse, and he is appalled that King Henry has adopted Protestant notions.  For four hundred years the brothers of Tintern Abbey have been serving God by prayer and labor—and now they are turned out by the order of an English king!  My imagined monk might well have been tempted by despair.  How could God allow his church to suffer such injustice?  What possible good could come from Henry’s destruction of the monasteries?  The Cistercian monk might lament corruption in the church and yet lament even more the church’s destruction at Henry’s hands.  He could not know what we know: the long cold war between Protestants and Catholics was just beginning.  But he may well have felt despair over what seemed to be the death of Christianity.
            And yet…God was not finished with his church.  The Quaker renewal would not come for another 115 years.  John Wesley and Methodism a century after that.  Pentecostalism came 150 years later still.  There are many other examples.
            For me, the ruins of Tintern Abbey are more than a romantic poet’s wilderness.  These ruins speak to me of Christians whose world was broken, who had reasons to despair over the church.  And they remind me that even when the world I know seems to be going to hell, God is not done.
           

Monday, April 10, 2017

HB 17


15. Hoping for …

            Environmentalists are sometimes hard pressed to say what they are hoping for.  What is the “object-state” they desire?  It won’t do to describe some world where anthropogenic climate change never happened; that would be to wish for an impossible world.  Hope always aims at something possible, even if it is unlikely.
            Christians who pray for God’s kingdom to come face a similar problem, because shalom is such an all-encompassing object-state.  We pray for God’s will to be done.  But history—right up to today’s news—shows us a world where people freely accomplish much evil.  We might wish that people had acted differently yesterday, but the past is fixed.  We cannot hope that the past be other than it was.
            How can we hope when we are not sure what future object-state is possible?  What follows is an earlier essay I wrote that may give direction.


Radical Hope

            Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow people lived his life in hope.  At least, that is the thesis offered by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.  Plenty Coups hoped for a good future for the Crow people, a future in which they would keep their land and maintain their cultural identify as Crow.  And he held this hope in spite of his belief, grounded in visions he experienced as a boy, that the coming of white people to the plains would irrevocably change the Crow way of life.
            Lear says this is “radical” hope.  Radical hope looks forward to a good future even when the very concepts one uses to describe a good future have been robbed of their meaning.  The Crow people had a rich traditional way of life; centered on nomadism, buffalo hunting, and intermittent warfare against rival tribes.  Their traditions included religious rites (such as the boy Plenty Coups’ vision quest), sacred dances, celebrations of successful hunts and raids, and many other things.  White domination devastated the Crow way of life; by this Lear means not just that the Crow lost their independence but that they lost what philosophers call “thick” concepts of the good life that the future would hold.  Plenty Coups had only the “thin” concept that the future would be good after the storm.
Lear wants to make Plenty Coups available as an exemplar of wisdom for secular people.  He recognizes, of course, that Plenty Coups’ hope was grounded in religious beliefs.  Plenty Coups and the Crow elders interpreted the boy’s visions as messages from the Great Spirit, telling the Crow people to imitate the Chickadee, to listen and adapt.  Nevertheless, Lear denies that religious beliefs are necessary for radical hope.  He says that the goodness of the world is greater than finite people can possibly know.  Even secular people may rationally believe this.  Therefore, Lear argues, even secular people can hold to hope in times of cultural devastation.
Lear says nothing about which forms of cultural devastation that might threaten his readers.  What are the great anxieties of our culture?  Disastrous climate change?  Terrorists who obtain and use nuclear weapons?  A failure of liberal political regimes such that, when faced with terrorism, liberal states collapse into tyranny?  Technological horrors as depicted in science fiction dystopias?  A 21st century version of Big Brother?  Each of Lear’s readers is free to read Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups in light of her own deep fears.
Radical hope is not an ostrich-like denial that bad things may come.  Lear emphasizes the realism expressed in Plenty Coups’ visions (and the interpretation the elders placed on them).  Native American tribes had no way to prevent the onslaught of European invaders.  White trappers would be followed by white miners, white settlers, and white soldiers.  The invaders would bring their own definitions of justice, by which they forced the natives off their land, killing as many as necessary to take possession.  Crow leaders—to the degree they understood the situation in terms of realpolitik—knew that Plenty Coups’ vision was true.  The storm is coming, and we cannot stop it.
Our situation is different.  We do not know that any of the “storms” we fear are unavoidable.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the effects of climate change will be mitigated, that terror groups will be defeated, that liberal government will meet 21st century challenges, and that we will gain the wisdom to rightly use new technologies.  Nevertheless, we may say: it is possible that a storm is coming.  Radical hope enables one to look for a good future no matter how bad the storm.
But radical hope is not a Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out fine.  The good future we hope for will be different that what we expect.  Lear underscores the depth of the disaster experienced by the Crow (and other tribes as well, but his focus in on Plenty Coups’ people).  The Crow had to learn a revised set of moral concepts.  Courage is still a virtue—but what is courage in this new age?  Courage no longer means planting a coup stick in battle.  It may mean facing a new age resolutely, even when many traditional behaviors no longer make sense.  As Lear understands him, Plenty Coups led his people to a new and deeper understanding of virtue and of the good life.
If one of our deep fears comes to pass, we will need radical hope.  The concepts we use now to describe human flourishing may need to change.  Jonathan Lear never says this explicitly, but I think it is implied by his argument.
Here is an example.
The dictator of North Korea threatened this week that his country has intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry his nuclear weapons to targets all over the world, from Seoul to Washington, D.C.  Does North Korea actually have this capacity?  Military and technical experts express some doubts, but it seems clear that North Korea aims to have such powers soon.  Does Kim Jong Un merely intend to bully his neighbors?  Would he actually use such weapons?  We may hope (a kind of extreme hope) that Un would have sanity sufficient to restrain himself and never use nuclear weapons.  But what if Kim Jong Un is as unstable as some news reports say he is?
Suppose North Korea fired missiles and destroyed Seoul, Tokyo, and Seattle (to pick a random North American city).  The international response would be immediate and overwhelming, for no political leader could tolerate letting North Korea fire a second round of missiles.  Let us suppose that retaliation, led by the United States, was carefully limited to strikes against North Korea.  (We may imagine that China endorsed retaliation against Kim Jong Un, so long as China was not attacked.)  But let us further suppose that somehow, either directly as a result of attacks on North Korea or because of sabotage by Korean fanatics, fifteen or twenty large nuclear weapons were detonated in North Korea.  What we are imagining is a North Korea turned into an atomic wasteland.
This scenario is not the doomsday story that haunted the cold war, the annihilation of humanity.  Most of the world’s people would survive.  But our future would be changed in unpredictable ways.  Nuclear fallout would hit South Korea, China and Japan first, but its effects would spread worldwide.  Radiation poisoning would affect tens of millions of people.  Just as important would be the social and political fallout—but we cannot predict what it would be.  What would governments do to try to prevent a recurrence of the Korean decimation?  What “lessons” would be learned by terrorist organizations?  How would ordinary people conceive a good life in a post-catastrophe world?
The Korea example is not the worst “storm” that might afflict our world.  Worse things are possible.  Nevertheless, we may hope.  We may hope for a good future, even if we are not sure what a “good future” might look like.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

HB 16


14. The Kingdom of God as a Global Hope

            The prospect of catastrophic climate change illustrates what I am calling “global” hope.  A global hope is, as one would guess, a hope for something big, something that affects whole cultures or the whole planet.  The environmentalists who contributed to Ecology, Ethics and Hope have the whole planet in mind.
            Three questions, identified last chapter: What is the “object-state” our hope aims for?  Second, how can a person hope when he knows that his own actions will contribute infinitesimally to the object-state?  Third, how can we avoid the vices of despair and presumption in regard to global hopes?  These questions interpenetrate each other, so that what we think about one affects how we answer the others.
            Hope for the Kingdom of God is a global hope.  It’s probably the most global object-state ever imagined.  We pray: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Kingdom of God is that place or time where God’s will is done.  It is not limited to earth; if we ever visit other planets we will take our prayer with us.  We pray these words often, but what do we mean?  What does it mean for God’s will to be done?
            Biblical images come to mind: Isaiah’s mountain of the Lord, where lions lie down with lambs and children play with serpents without danger, or Revelation’s new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth, or Jesus’ parables of feasting in the King’s presence.  Such images reinforce biblical themes of peace, justice, solidarity, hospitality, integrity, and holiness.  Or, as Paul put it: “The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Perhaps the best word to describe the kingdom of God is shalom—peace/wellbeing/wholeness in the inner person, between persons, and in all creation.
            In one sense the kingdom of God is too encompassing.  We can’t get our minds around it.  When we hope for the kingdom, we hope for wellness, for healthy ecosystems, for material prosperity, for peace between nations, for the appreciation of beauty, for human solidarity, for peaceful communities, for interpersonal justice, for exuberant enjoyment of natural goods, and more.  The kingdom of God seems to include everything good—do we hope for all goods at once?
            In one sense, yes.  When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we know that the rule of God both includes and transcends the particular goods we have in mind.  We hope for God’s universal rule to come. 
            That isn’t the whole story though.  In very many cases (I do not say every case), hope consists partly in actions.  Andrew T. Brei and his fellow environmentalists prize hope because it often sustains people in the pursuit of difficult goals.  Our climate change crisis demands radical change, they say, and it seems very unlikely—given social, economic, and political realities—that the human race will change its behavior fast enough.  The environmentalists think we must encourage hope so that we can sustain ourselves in a desperately hard struggle.
            But it is impossible for a single person to act toward all the goods implied in shalom.  No one person can feed the hungry, heal the sick, build communities, educate children, oppose aggressors, celebrate beauty, restore damaged ecosystems, reconcile enemies, and so on ad infinitum.  Necessarily, we focus our actions on some particular goods. 
            It’s not just that we are limited in our ability to act.  As finite creatures, we can’t thoroughly imagine the kingdom.  At times we may catch glimpses of the goodness God plans for us—in some spectacular beauty, in the wonder of worship, in the joy that comes when broken relationships are restored.  The New Testament says that the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives is a “down payment” or “first installment” of the glory of the kingdom.  Nurtured by such experiences, we hope for something greater than what we can comprehend or imagine.
            There is a sense, then, since we can neither act toward nor imagine God’s kingdom in its fullness, that the kingdom of God surpasses our hope.  Nevertheless, we can act and imagine in accord with our hope.
            An example: I hope that the civil war in Syria will end, and I hope that the refugees from that war will find new homes.  It seems that I can do very little to bring peace to Syria.  I cannot help tens of thousands of refugees.  I haven’t the ability and resources to effectively help even one refugee.  And even if I could do these things, achieving peace in Syria is a small part of shalom.
            But!  I can join the refugee resettlement committee at my church.  Together we can help a refugee family to settle in a nearby town.  After that family is settled, we can help a second family and more.  Our committee can cooperate with Catholic Charities and other groups to create a network of refugee help.  Because we are concerned to help refugees, we can petition our government to be more welcoming to refugees.
            My example illustrates a simple truth, often repeated: though you can’t do everything, you can still do something.  It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
            Our global hopes will all share this feature.  The object-state we hope for will be “too big.”  Sometimes we will wonder whether anything we do will be of real benefit.  We won’t know how to precisely describe the object-state.  Yet it will still be possible to hope—to license ourselves to think, imagine, anticipate, and work toward some aspects of the object-state.
            The kingdom of God is both “come” and “coming.”  To the peasants of first century Galilee, Jesus said the kingdom was “right at the door” and “within you.”  Through repentance and faith, we live in the kingdom now.  The New Testament also says we must endure until the Lord returns, bringing the kingdom with him.
            Hope is similarly double-edged.  We desire and look for some future good, and in doing so we experience a good right now.  We hope.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Cold Case


Reflections on the Death of My Brother:
Thirty-Five Years Later

            Early this month, the Chelan County Sheriff arrested two people, a man and a woman, and charged them with first degree murder in the death of my older brother, Steve Smith.  35 years ago, Steve was living in Cashmere.  He disappeared, and his body has never been found.  Apparently the sheriff has uncovered new evidence in the case, evidence sufficient for him to bring charges against the accused.
            I instinctively think of Steve as my older brother.  But he was only 30 when he died.  I’m 62, shaped and changed by three and a half decades of experience since Steve disappeared.  It’s strange to imagine him dying so young.  I wonder what life might have taught him had he lived.
            Growing up, Steve and I weren’t close.  Three years older, he attended junior high when I was in elementary school; he entered high school when I reached junior high.  When I was a high school freshman, he was a senior preparing to graduate.  And our interests were different; I liked school and loved books, while Steve barely tolerated school and loved cars.  I ran track and played basketball; Steve wrestled.
            He graduated high school in 1970, which meant, for a young man with no college deferment, receiving a letter of “greetings” from Uncle Sam.  Fortunately for Steve, in the Nixon years the Vietnam War was winding down.  Steve served his time in the Army without going to Asia.
            After high school I saw Steve less than ever.  I left the valley for college about the time Steve was discharged from the service.  Two weeks after college graduation, Karen and I married, and in three months we left for California.  From a distance we learned that Steve had “settled down,” marrying Dawn.  On a vacation to the valley—1980 I think—we met Dawn, the only time we ever saw her.  Later Steve and Dawn had a daughter, Crystal.  In 1982, a few months before Karen and I moved back north, Steve disappeared.  In the meantime, a divorce proceeding granted Steve primary custody of Crystal; Dawn had visitation privileges.  I can only guess as to the reasons for that arrangement.  After Steve disappeared, my parents were given custody, and later they adopted Crystal.  Crystal is at once my niece and my sister.
            Absent a body, my parents hoped for a time that Steve would turn up.  Gradually they accepted the almost certain truth, that he was dead.  Other challenges took over their lives.  Mom was diagnosed with leukemia, and after four years of struggle she died.  In 1989 a new woman entered the picture: May.  I had the privilege of performing their wedding.  Dad’s second wife took on the task of stepmom to Crystal.  I will always be thankful for May, for her love for Dad, and for her mothering to a little girl who had lost so much.
            There is another, worse, aspect to the story.  After Dawn and Steve divorced, Dawn married a man named Bernie Swaim.  According to the Sheriff’s account, Dawn and Bernie conspired together to kill Steve.  Sometime later, they separated.
            In her life’s first decade, Crystal’s father was murdered and her grandmother/mother slowly lost her battle with cancer.  Her birth mother faded from her life.  And now that woman is accused in her father’s death.  You can see why I am so grateful to May and why I pray for Crystal every week.
            I hope that Bernie and Dawn receive a fair trial.  More than that, I hope that the process of the trial produces incontrovertible evidence of what happened to Steve.  Ideally, Bernie and Dawn would tell all that they know and take responsibility for whatever they did.  I hope that somehow, in the course of the trial, whatever its outcome, there can be freedom and healing for Crystal.  Other than memories and a few pictures, there is nothing that speaks of Steve’s years on Earth.  Nothing, that is, except his daughter.
            Like me and unlike Steve, Bernie and Dawn have lived the last 35 years.  Judging by their arrest photos (published in the papers), the years have not been kind to them.  I imagine they’ve lived hard lives.  If the sheriff’s accusations are proved, they may well spend their remaining years—the years sometimes called “golden”—in prison.  Washington state taxpayers will supply their retirement facilities, quite probably until they die.  Is there an irony here?  If so, it’s heartbreakingly sad.
            It is no surprise that human beings often do stupid and evil things.  We pray that divine grace will take our brokenness and redeem it.  After 35 years I don’t know how that might happen in my brother’s story.  Nevertheless, I pray for a triumph of justice and love.  When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re not just imagining a far-away neverland.  I hope for some measure of healing for Crystal (and others, including Bernie and Dawn) in this life.