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“I, Too, Am Going to Speak of Hope” - Part Two: Going To Work in the Dark
“And so hope for me has died one thousand deaths. I hoped that friend would get it, but hope died. I hoped that person would be an ally for life, but hope died. I hoped that my organization really desired change, but hope died. I hoped I’d be treated with the full respect I deserve at my job, but hope died. I hoped that racist policies would change, and just policies would never be reversed, but hope died. I hoped the perpetrator in uniform would be brought to justice this time, but hope died. I hoped history would stop repeating itself, but hope died. I hoped things would be better for my children, but hope died. So I have learned not to fear the death of hope. In order for me to stay in this work, hope must die.” - Austin Channing Brown
In what feels now like another life, I used to be a high school English teacher. To be more precise, I taught literature and composition, choking a bit whenever I had to delve into the rarefied world of grammar. Many of the specifics of that seemingly long ago life have dissolved into the mists of memory. But one thing I do recall -- the day I was told, after taking the job, that school started at 7:20am. I can still remember the shock that split my body like a bolt of lightning. I liked the morning. I liked the romance of working during quiet hours when the rest of the world was still. But I had never considered going to work in the dark. I had never considered pulling myself from the luxury of sleep only to let the emptiness of morning wrap around me. As my car slid through the darkness day after day, I would observe the moon in her stages. Sometimes full, sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, sometimes new. I wasn’t aware of it then but one of the most important things I learned as a teacher was the warp and weft of going to work in the dark. I wasn’t aware of it then, but I was learning a critical lesson from the new moon, invisible to the naked eye.
A friend of mine recently posted a quote on Facebook by James Cone, a scholar widely considered the father of black liberation theology. It read, “You’ve got to have hope . . . because the only alternative is despair.” But three weeks after officers were acquitted in the murder of Breonna Taylor and less than three weeks before a general election which could finally fully pull back the curtain on what this nation has for so long been, I don’t know if I agree. Or maybe it is simply that in agreeing I would implicate myself in the crime of despair. Still, I do suspect that there are many of us who chafe under an imposed hope -- who seem unable to wear it well despite all that we have been told about how it should fit perfectly. Certainly there must be spiritual and emotional clothing that fits our lived experiences better.
On my own Facebook page, I once posted a video of the young descendants of Frederick Douglass reading his speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” After the reading, each of Douglass’ descendants then adds moving personal reflections. “Pessimism is a tool of white supremacy,” one intones. When I heard that sentiment, I immediately knew I wanted to turn it over and over in my mind, and yet, it too seemed like a garment with holes in the very places hardest to see. In light of the crushing and historic brutality visited on black and brown bodies, is the answer to be optimistic? Are we giving into white supremacy by not expressing optimism? I don’t think so. Ironically, it seems to me that the pressure to feel hope often comes from the very folx for whom very little is at stake. Hope too often becomes either a class privilege or an opium for the poor as Miguel de la Torre so well puts it. So, indeed, hope must die.
But I am a Christian pastor. As I write these words, I can already hear the guardians of orthodoxy moving to warn me that I am nearing the edges of the city gates and I can feel my inner “good girl” telling me to run like hell from these realities. Yet, that doesn’t make them any less true or any less felt in my body. So I return to the lessons I learned as a teacher going to work in the early morning darkness -- spiritual lessons that feel like solid ground as I contemplate the death of hope. Barbara Brown Taylor puts those lessons into words when she eloquently writes that, “Sometimes the light is coming, and sometimes it is going. Sometimes the moon is full, and sometimes it is nowhere to be found. There is nothing capricious about this variety since it happens on a regular basis [...] But humans do not easily relinquish control over how dark or bright it is, either in our houses or in our souls.”
The way of hopelessness is the way of darkness. In a strange way, that is actually good news. Christianity, and most other world religions, see the way of darkness as a part of the spiritual journey. We may not have always heard this from the pulpits of popular religion, but only a little digging into scripture or tradition will illuminate darkness as vital. And this place of hopeless darkness can actually be a firm starting point for waking up and going to work on all the projects and protests that will make the world we all need. The death of hope carries within it a kind of desperate clarity that can give birth to life-altering, world-transforming action. In the end, it turns out that we do not have to hope for resurrection to experience resurrection. That, too, is good news.
Rev. Tonetta Landis-Aina is a native of North Carolina and moved to Washington DC in 2004. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and is passionate about marginalized people finding their stories in scripture as well as about the new shapes the church will take in the 21st century. When Tonetta isn't geeking out on the Bible or trying to piece together what God might be doing in this beautitul city, she is enjoying time with her wife and 2.5 year old son who loves to assure everyone that he's grumpy.