Trading Optimism For Struggle

Ta-Nehisi Coates is more Christian about hope than are many American Christians.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter.

One of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has a new collection of essays out this week, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, about the years during the Obama Presidency and their connection to our current political tumult. On Monday Coates was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the last two minutes of their conversation caught my attention. Click the video below and begin watching at 5:06 to see the exchange.

“Do you have any hope tonight?” is what Colbert wants to know and Coates is blunt: “No.” I’ve been reading him long enough to have heard Coates asked some variation of this question many different times. His writing is stark and his vision of the country and its history is bleak. He is one of our most truthful contemporary writers. His interviewers, generally white, want to know if this harsh view of our reality contains within it any space for hope.

In his previous book, Between the World and Me, the author warns his son about this country’s blindness towards the devastating truths about ourselves:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many Americans would read a passage like this and wonder if there is room for hope. We’ve been formed to think about this country more positively than this. On the political right we hear the voices calling us to return the U.S.A. to its mythic glory. On the left are those who believe the arc of justice to be long, but eventually inevitable. Coates’ vision is different. For him the evils we face are histories that cannot be easily overcome nor are they contemporary glitches to an otherwise functional society. The wickedness of the nation is endemic to it. To take but one horrifying example, about the enslavement of African people Coates recently wrote, “Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy.” The evil of slavery, in other words, is not exceptional to what the country is but is a glimpse at its foundational logic.

You don’t have to share Coates’ perspective about this country – though I largely do – to understand why he refuses to offer his interviewers and readers assurances of hope. He is not a hopeful person and his writing provides more than enough rationale. He will not tell his readers that everything will be all right. It’s one of the things I most admire about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bracing vision of this country.

This country and, if we’re honest, many of its expressions of Christianity, are addicted to optimism. We take our personal experiences of happiness, no matter how brief, as evidence that we are ok, that the direction our lives are heading will end well. For some of us this is especially true when it comes to race. It’s not a surprise to me that many of those interrogating Coates about hope are white. This country works to convince those of us who are – and those to whom whiteness extends its treacherous bargains – that the white supremacy, native genocide, and anti-black racism that lay at the nation’s roots can be transcended. We’re told that we shouldn’t remain bound to these ugly realities. With enough work – some reading, a few diverse friendships, a couple of hard-hitting documentaries, a church racial reconciliation workshop – we can move on to other concerns.

I say we are addicted to optimism because Christian hope is something else entirely, something more akin to the experience Coates describes in much of his writing. Hope, for the Christian is eschatological, which is simply to say that our hope is anchored in the God who will one day make final Christ’s victory on the cross. Such hope does not engender complacency, rather we “labor and strive.” (1 Timothy 4:10) This hope is not dependent on circumstances or the American pursuit of happiness, in fact such visible, transient hope is “no hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) I once heard Coates say something like, hope is struggle, a rather different perspective than the one which leads to our nation’s sanitized and deceptive story about manifest destiny and the like. This too hints at our Christian hope: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) To be hopeful in Christ is to dive headlong into the struggle with wickedness and injustice, a struggle which includes suffering but also perseverance, character, and genuine hope.

Optimism is not enough for this generation. We are are hard-pressed on every side: gun violence in our city and beyond; ecological disasters; the rise of blatant white supremacy; sex-selective abortions; nuclear threats and news of genocide from around the world. We could go on. There are also our countless private struggles. Optimism isn’t enough. We need hope.

Maybe the most well-known Christian language about hope is found in Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s not that we don’t want to see the expressions of our hope, the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness. It’s just that we don’t have to see it now to still struggle for it. We aren’t optimists because we don’t require experience or even evidence to throw ourselves into the struggle. Our faith is in the One who allowed evil to roll over his head, who allowed wickedness and oppression to crash upon his body, who was lynched for the sins of the world. Our faith in him is what anchors us now, eyes wide open to all that is wrong, and right. We don’t have to lie about ourselves, and we certainly don’t have to lie about this nation. Our hope is found elsewhere.

The saints who’ve gone before us testify to the trustworthiness of this sort of hope. Though all else is torn away, Christ remains- victorious in the past, glorious in the future. Christian hope will not always appear hopeful to people raised on optimism. But try it. Test it. Repent from the lies this nation has told about itself and about you. Repent from the empty promises of guaranteed happiness and easy optimism. Instead, let us “put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) More often than not our hope will appear to the world like nothing so much as struggle. But we who struggle – who hope – will come to find in this hopeful struggle the fullness of life, heaven reaching into earth as a sign pointing toward the day when all will be made new and we no longer need to hope.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

2 thoughts on “Trading Optimism For Struggle”

  1. There’s something stubborn about Christian hope, a word that I find myself appreciating more than “faith” during these rough days which Brother Coates so eloquently and sharply sees and helps us see. Sometimes faith, or it’s most popular meanings, feels restrictive and narrowly focused on thinking a certain way, believing a specific thing, and repeating a particular line of thought, thought that generally corresponds to the one holding the pen or the microphone. Hope feels bolder, broader, more nebulous, attractive, especially when black boys have to read letters like Between from their black fathers. Coates is great at making sure that a vision, a different vision, of reality is proffered in a country that would rather or easily or quickly look away. He’s unflinching. The fact that you engage with him–and from a decidedly theological perspective and, even more, from the more particular language of Paul’s letter–echoes much about how you, too, keep seeing. I pray that your vision is clear, that your sight is increasingly open, and that these troubling truths that you’re pushing up to the people of God at Bronzeville and the rest unsettle us until we’re converted. To see in the steady way that you and Brother Coates do, making presumptions I know I am and some I don’t, takes a clear spiritual hope that threads through both your writings. Explicit or not. Claimed or not. The spirituality of hope rests in your words. Thank you, Brother David. Keep that hope. Keep close to it.

    1. Well, your comment is leaps and bounds more interesting than the original post! Thank you. I do think it’s hard for Christian people to think about hope without faith, and faith without hope for the very reasons you suggest.

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