A Week of Listening: Allan Boesak on Hope and Her Daughters

I’ve always been particularly fond of the virtue of hope. Here in the Christian academy it tends to be overshadowed by faith (that’s what we integrate with learning, after all), and while hope too abides, the “greatest” of the three is love. But it was hope that was at the center of two of the most influential books in my early development as a Christian scholar:

  • Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen’s Scholarship and Christian Faith, which opens with Rodney Sawatsky’s meditation on hope as “the deep-seated confidence that this is God’s world and that the future, including the future of scholarship, need not be feared, for God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which reroots the virtue “in Jesus’s resurrection… the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power and glory.”
Barack Obama "Hope" poster, 2008
Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster from the 2008 presidential campaign – Wikimedia

So I was happy to see that South African theologian Allan Boesak’s newest book focuses exclusively on the meaning of hope. Boesak laments how, in his judgment, both the post-apartheid regime in South Africa and the Obama Administration squandered the audacious hope that had attended their beginnings.

Therefore, in light of these political realities and in the midst of growing human pain, we must ask what it means to believe in hope. Where do we go with our woundedness? Have we, like the politicians and the media, spoken too carelessly of hope? Do we have to learn that hope is only useful in politics after having been strained through the sieve of cynicism and expediency? Is it possible for us to walk away from hope, as politics and the media do now — because the hopeful politics of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama is now no more than a failed political experiment?

In short, no. For hope, says Boesak, supplies those who are broken with a “language of wholeness”; it “stirs within us the courage to create [per Parker Palmer] a politics worthy of the human spirit.” Indeed,

Our capacity to hope is truly astonishing; it is something deeply, intimately, uniquely human. It affirms in the most emphatic way our connectedness to the divine; for God, in whose image we are made, cannot be a God of love and mercy, of justice and peace, of or endless compassion and infinite grace if God is not also, in the most emphatic way, a God of hope.

If ever I needed to read such soaring rhetoric, it’s now. But only a couple chapters into Boesak’s book, it’s also clear that Boesak’s hope is not Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers / That perches in the soul… the little bird / That kept so many warm.” Rather, hope “challenges and confronts us before it inspires us.” Boesak presents his book as

an invitation to avoid the temptation to wrap Hope up in pious sentimentality that we speak of while keeping ourselves at a safe distance and keeping our hands clean, and to encounter her in solidarity with those engaged in the life-and-death struggles of everyday life. To dare to offer people hope in chaotic situations of pain, suffering, and struggle should never be easy, or cheap. We should be as conscious as the prophet Jeremiah not to shout “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace.

Yes, “her” — and Hope with a capital H. Hope is personal for Boesak, and feminine. While “for the excluded and abandoned, Hope is an orphan,” he follows an earlier African theologian in presenting Hope instead as “a mother with children….”

Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?In the most striking chapter I’ve read so far, Boesak digs into St. Augustine’s famous notion that “Hope has two daughters: Anger and Courage…. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the same.” Concludes Boesak, “Hope that lacks anger and courage, Augustine teaches us, is not Hope, because we have bereaved her of her children.”

It’s a bracing word for a reader like me, and that’s Boesak’s intent. No doubt he wants those of us who are comfortable and privileged to ask if our hope is but a “romanticized piousness, which denudes Hope of her radical presence in people’s lives, thereby shielding ourselves from Hope’s radical demands.” To reevaluate how we speak of hope: as “the language of life” or “merely the affirmation of our own imagined certainties… the sanctification of injustice and suffering… the cheap, cold, heartless comfort we proclaim as the will of God”?

And if that’s too hard, well… “This we know: the poor and the powerless cannot ever let go of hope; that luxury is for the rich and powerful.”

I know myself (and have read Boesak) enough to know that I’ll argue with him as much as I’ll agree. His use of the word “pietism” in an earlier book suggests a disappointing unfamiliarity with a historical movement and enduring ethos that treasures hope (for new heaven and new earth) as much as any other in Christianity. In light of yesterday’s prayer from Makoto Fujimura, I’m already wondering if a Hope that mothers Anger and scorns sentiment will consider beauty to be a dispensable extravagance. (Searching Kindle, I can’t find Boesak using the word “beauty” even a single time.) As a Christian historian, I too yearn for “a place where hope and history rhyme,” but history as I know and love it is written with a language that may be too nuanced and restrained (and empathetic even to the powerful) to rhyme with Boesak’s “language of life.”

But right now, I’m convinced that I need to listen to a language that “exposes the truth about life,” that I need to pay heed to anger that “refuses to accept something that is wrong” and to be convicted by courage that resolves “to attack injustice, even if one has to pay a price for doing so.”

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