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.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

HB 15

13. Global Hopes

            Many of our hopes are small scale, personal hopes.  We hope for a new job, for rescue when stranded, and for better relationships.  At a slightly larger scale we might hope that our school or business prospers, or that our city government solves its budget challenges.
            Recently I’ve been reading essays edited by Andrew T. Brei, in Ecology, Ethics, and Hope (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).  The thinking in this book emerges from the intersection of environmentalism and moral philosophy.  The authors are convinced that human destruction of nature, primarily through anthropogenic climate change but also exhibited in less extreme environmental ravages (air and water pollution, desertification, extinctions due to habitat loss, etc.), is either an accomplished fact or inevitable result of industrial society.  They all agree that climate change, caused by human release of carbon monoxide, will be an existential threat to civilization in the current century.
            What can we hope for in the face of global climate catastrophe?  But wait!  Before answering, let us consider other catastrophic possibilities:
1.     Since the mid-1950s human beings have had enough thermonuclear weapons to eradicate our species—and probably most other species as well—by means of heat, radiation, and nuclear winter.
2.     We’ve also invented non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical agents.  Such weapons, if used on a large scale, could depopulate vast areas.
3.     No one outside of government can know how far research has “progressed,” but many of us worry that bioengineering will enable the production of super-germs.  If released, either by accident or act of war, bio-weapons could kill almost everybody.
This list could be extended.  We are familiar with science fiction movies and novels that frighten us with economic collapse, race wars, totalitarian states, or meteors smashing into Earth.  Our apocalyptic imaginations range from pure fancy (invading aliens) to the very real threat of nuclear holocaust. 
Catastrophic climate change is different, say the contributors to Ecology, Ethics, and Hope, because climate change is not a mere possibility.  Anthropogenic climate change is already happening.  Given the extent of carbon monoxide we have already pumped into the atmosphere, even more drastic climate change will occur in the decades ahead—even if we could somehow stop producing greenhouse gases immediately.  But much of the general public, encouraged by certain business and political leaders, does not believe the scientific consensus.  And there are other people who, knowing that climate change is real and accelerating, have despaired that anything can be done to stop it.  So a great many people respond to the global climate change crisis with disinterest or lethargy.
As the title of his book suggests, Brei and his fellow authors recognize the situation as a moral crisis, not just a matter of scientific or technological expertise.  Our planet’s environmental crisis demands immediate and extraordinary action, they think, and such action is much less possible when people despair.  When preaching to the general public, environmentalists must offer people hope; without hope, people are very unlikely to take the dramatic actions needed to stave off disaster.
So we return to the question: How should we hope in the face of global catastrophe?  A number of other questions lie under the surface of this first one.
First: what is it we should hope for?  What is the “object-state” we desire?  Environmentalists differ in their answers.  At a minimal level, we should desire and work for a global environment that supports human life and civilized societies.  In some scenarios, climate change so devastates the natural world that industrial society collapses, decimating human population and leaving the survivors in a new stone age. 
More likely (though how can we estimate probabilities for a world fifty years hence?), industrial and technological civilization will survive.  Rather than depending on the natural world for resources (food, clothing, building materials), humanity will fabricate most of what it needs by means of genetic engineering, 3-D printing, and new inventions.  We would survive, and in some ways thrive, by using our technology to adapt to shifting climates.
Environmentalists have a word for this homo sapiens dominated world: the anthropocene period.  It is a new age of the earth, with a climate driven by the activities of one species.  Authors in Brei’s book say that we have already entered this new phase of our planet’s history. 
And that’s bad, they say.  These authors agree that nature—the wild, untamed world—is a good thing.  In the anthropocene era, nature ceases to exist; the whole world is controlled, used, polluted, fenced, or (possibly) protected by humanity.  The object-state we should desire and hope for, these environmentalists want to say, is one where nature is still nature, where our species lives symbiotically with other creatures and the natural systems of earth.
They want to say that, but many of them believe that it is already too late.  A pure “nature” is lost.  The best we can hope for is to minimize negative effects of the anthropocene.  So there is division among environmentalists.  They may agree that we need hope, but they disagree about the object-state we should desire.
Second: as a global crisis, climate change affects everybody, but no one person’s actions can bring about the desired object-state.  When an individual thinks of a pathway to a goal (e.g. taking a college class to get a better job) and acts on it, she often feels more hopeful, and her feelings help sustain her along the path.  But the only pathways toward solutions to the climate crisis involve hundreds of millions of people.  The contribution of any other person is so small compared with the need that it approaches zero.  How should we hope when our hopeful actions are infinitesimal compared to the task?
Third: the authors in Brei’s book identify despair as a vice.  Some of them admit to struggling with despair in their own lives as they think about the magnitude of climate change.  They do not use the word “presumption,” traditionally used to describe another vice related to hope.  (In Aquinas, despair is the vice of abandoning hope because the object of the hope is too hard, while presumption is the vice of assuming that hope’s object is already or easily attained.)  The environmentalists do recognize that some people have convinced themselves, without good reason, that “everything will turn out okay,” and thus fail to take necessary actions.  Though they don’t use the word, the vice they describe is presumption.
I think these features of environmental hope can be found in other cases of global hope.  In particular, the questions of object-state and individual action will attend to hopes in regard to eliminating poverty, preventing war, ending starvation, extending education to all, and other worthy “global” hopes.  What is it that we hope for in such cases?  What role, if any, does action play in such hopes?