Of Hope and Despair
At the opening of a new calendar year, I often find myself thinking about the word ‘hope’. Hope is, of course, one of our seven school values depicted in the stained glass of the new window in Chapel. A New Year seems, by its very nature, to trigger a new release of hope and expectation. And yet, as we followed the various global news stories in the final days of 2014, it was difficult to find evidence that the world is a place of hope and progress. Rather, it seemed to me, in large measure to be a place of despair and profound ignorance; darkness rather than light.
This year Boxing Day marked the 10th anniversary of one of the modern world’s worst natural disasters. The Sixth Formers amongst you, and certainly the adults here, will remember the Boxing Day tsunami – a giant wave that swept across the Indian ocean, killing 230,000 people. I remember Boxing Day 2004 as a grim day – even if you were thousands of miles away from the natural disaster. I remember a sense of hollowness; a huge question in my mind about how the previous day we could be cosily in our families, in churches, celebrating the hope embodied in the birth of Jesus, and the next day wake up to a tidal wave of suffering and loss; of the very opposite of hope – deep, dark despair.
Amongst those who died was a pupil who had just left the school at which I was teaching at the time. One individual loss amongst all those tens of thousands: his disappearance devastated his family and swept through the school like an after-shock, as pupils, staff and parents re-gathered after the Christmas holidays. Again, this event came at the cusp of a new year in the western world. It was hard to see hope; still less, to detect the agency of a divine power shining light into the future. The brute force of 70 foot waves swept away lives and left a wake of destruction and despair. Particularly in the face of such indiscriminate and merciless forces of nature, the human light seems very feeble.
This Christmas holiday, on 16th December, the world reeled in shock at the brutal massacre of 132 schoolchildren and 16 of their teachers in the Army School in Peshawar, Pakistan. In this appalling and calculated attack, the deadliest terrorist act in Pakistan’s history, the Pakistani Taliban deliberately targeted the children of army officers; these innocents died in their classrooms, with their teachers, in what must have been panic and abject fear. Surely, no ideology, religion or political cause can justify these killings. It is impossible to condone such an act of pure moral evil inflicted by man on his fellow man and difficult to see the light of anything good coming from it.
And yesterday morning, three masked gunmen walked into the offices of a well-known French satirical magazine and shot the Editor, several cartoonists, a caretaker, a visitor, a police body-guard who was protecting the editor and a policeman involved in the fire-fight as the killers made their escape. This taking of life was calculated, deliberate and meant to send a message: a message in the name of some deeply twisted and politicised interpretation of religious duty. Once again, moderate Islam, a religion that loves peace, has been hijacked and debased to serve political ends and to sow fear and terror.
The wrongs of the world – and there are surely many – cannot be righted by callous blood-letting acts like this? They are acts of terror that strike not just at the individuals involved, and all who love and care for them, but also at the values of a free and caring society. How can we have hope for humans when this is what they can do?
It may or may not be easier to accept the fact of suffering caused by natural events; that the blind power of nature is capable of sweeping all in its path. We may point to the huge compassion and human togetherness that is often shown in the wake of disaster. The remarkable story, for example, of the 11 and 13 year old western children who were orphaned by the Tsunami who now, 10 years later, run a charity for orphans in one of the areas struck by the tidal wave. We may also be able to accept that the price for all the freedoms and technological advantages we enjoy is that accidents and failures can happen: that plans can crash; that new year’s parties in China can end in tragedy and loss of life; that damaged people do damage to others. We may take comfort and see hope in the global sense of outrage at the Peshawar massacre and look for political progress to come from this appalling loss. We may gain some optimism and sense of dignity from the huge turnout on the streets of Paris last night; the show of solidarity and determination to defend and stand tall in the face of terror, to defend liberty and freedom of expression as the French people define them.
But when you lump all this suffering together; when you read all these accounts of sorrow and loss, it is hard not to feel hope ebbing away; to sense the darkness overcoming the light. Indeed, there are times when a sincere hope for a fairer, kinder, gentler world seems to be no more than a comforting and wilful self-delusion.
Theologically speaking, there is, in fact, much that can be offered to reconcile belief in a loving Goodness in the world with the evident evil that we humans do, and the suffering that nature and accident can cause. This is the stuff of a philosophy course and we don’t have time for that now. Irrespective of religious questions, of which there are many, this is a profound human challenge. We could characterise it in terms of a struggle within us as individual human beings; we could characterise it in terms of the struggle in human-kind itself: the struggle between hope and despair.
I suggest today, in the shadow of the dark events I have mentioned, never mind all the others we could mention in our own experience, that we are presented with something that is, at its simplest level, a pragmatic choice between two options. A binary choice between hope. Or despair. This choice amounts to a profound and recurring test of our character. Our own experiences and the evidence of what we see going on around us will inspire, or challenge our hope. Events, disappointments, losses, failures will call us toward despair. Some, sadly, do indeed reach a state of despair. They reach a blank place where there is no hope. Despair is an option.
The other option is hope. Sometimes I think we get the wrong idea about the word hope. It’s a word that devalues in its daily use: that it is about crossed fingers; a passive state of anticipation. At a deeper level, hope is a universal human phenomenon. People hope for peace in time of war; food in time of famine; justice in time of oppression. Hope generates energy and sustains people through difficult times. For some people, hope is so strong that it inspires self-sacrifice to turn hope into reality. True hope grows in the face of adversity. Because it springs from a trust, religious or otherwise, that the world will become a better place. For Christians, of course, this hope is based on a deep trust. A trust that can withstand all the evidence that threatens to undermine it. For Christians, hope is not always spontaneous or easy. There is work to be done. As well as trusting God, believers have to develop qualities of steadfastness in our own character. As St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: ‘We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4)
Remarkably, it does seem that however much life throws at human beings, hope is a core, perhaps even irreducible, part of our human nature. Hope springs from character. It responds to stern challenges and is strengthened in the furnace of adversity. Like a cork in a bottle, hope keeps on bubbling up. However low it goes, it only seems to know one way: upwards.