Last year when Barack Obama was running for president the overriding theme was Hope. He had even written a book called The Audacity of Hope that outlined his vision for the United States. Many if not most the people who voted for him saw his election in almost messianic terms in that it was believed that Barack Obama would bring significant changes both in terms of government policies at home and our image and interaction with peoples around the world. Apparently the Nobel Peace prize voters thought so too, as it is widely agreed (even by Obama himself) this being given that award was not so much for what he had done, as for the hope and expectation his election to the presidency represented to the world.
For the last year Pres. Obama has been working to enact the agenda he campaigned on in spite of a crippling economic recession that reached its lowest point just as he assumed office. He has taken or proposed actions to stimulate the economy, hold financial institutions and big business more accountable, challenge people adapt to the realities of global warming, and pass comprehensive health care legislation. His vision and hope for change have clashed head on with the realities of conservative resistance and liberal dithering at home, and the brutality, oppression, and violence abroad.
Most recently Obama made a decision to send 30,000 more troops to fight an unwinable war in Afghanistan. I, like many others believe our approach there needs to be less military and more focused on education, building infrastructure and developing the economy. As Greg Mortenson points out in his book Three Cups of Tea, the best way to fight the Taliban is to build more schools. Our current approach simply kills more innocent civilians and therefore creates more “terrorists” whereas helping the common folks with their basic needs will not only raise their prospects but also draw them in to friendship.
Now to Pres. Obama’s credit, during his campaign he consistently said he would send more troops to Afghanistan. So no one should have been surprised at his decision. That’s why the Nobel Peace prize folks got a speech on just war theory because that is how Obama saw our involvement in Afghanistan. As he was deliberating these past months, I admit I was hoping that he would change his mind, but in the end he did not. So I was not surprised even though I was deeply saddened.
Despite Pres. Obama’s argument to the contrary, Afghanistan is very much like the Vietnam War: an unwinnable war, against a small and illusory enemy, supporting a corrupt government, in an effort without clear and measurable objectives. As Yogi Berra might say “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
All of this has gotten me wondering: Where is the hope we had so counted on and vote for?
Like many Americans I have generally believed in history as progress – that idea that as a nation we are slowly evolving toward higher levels of understanding and functioning that as our politicians often tell us, “Our best days are still ahead of us.” Moreover as a Christian I have generally subscribed to the idea that God is active in human history and moving humankind toward some glorious and positive conclusion, that the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world and at some point God will send Jesus to bring that process to completion.
Not any longer.
I have pretty much chucked those ideas now. I don’t see history as progress, nor do I see God moving us toward some millennium. I now see history, like I see my life, as a series of recurring patterns. The awareness of these patterns gives me the opportunity to learn and possibly change. However, the reality is that those patterns are so deeply ingrained that often change is difficult to achieve, and when it does occur, it is usually partial and inadequate. So for instance in my personal life, I find that the older I get the more I become like my parents in ways I find both rewarding and disconcerting. When it comes to events on the world stage, I see humankind repeating patterns, such as we are with Afghanistan, a pattern that reminds me disturbingly of the tragedy of Vietnam.
The even larger pattern I see is that empires fall. Persia, Egypt, Rome, Great Britain and the Soviet Union once were all great empires that dominated large parts of their world. Today those former empires are shadows of themselves. The United States as an empire is also destined to fall; it is part of an historical pattern. Whether it will happen in my lifetime or the lives of my kids, I can’t say. However, the decision about Afghanistan, along with the worldwide economic crisis triggered by Wall Street, the environmental challenges of global warming, and the growing disparities of wealth and poverty at home point to signs that US empire is beginning to crumble; we are repeating many of the same patterns of empires before us.
Despite these seemingly dire circumstances and my admittedly pessimistic perspective on our nation’s prospects, I still am a person of hope.
I am a person of hope not because I think we will break the pattern, but because I believe we survive and sometimes even thrive as a human race despite those patterns. My hope is not in the United States or Barack Obama or some romantic notion of human evolution, but rather in a God whose very Spirit gives the human race the capacity to somehow endure dramatic and often drastic changes. It concerns and saddens me greatly that millions of people suffer humanity’s arrogance and ignorance, and un willingness to learn from our mistakes. Nonetheless, it is the perseverance of those who struggle, who are oppressed, and who are neglected and maligned by the powers that be, who at the same time somehow are able to celebrate and dance. My hope is in God’s gift of resilience. My hope is in God who has sided with the dispossessed and marginalized against the powers that be, and who remains constant despite the recurring patterns of history.
As Jim Wallis writes : “Hope is the door from one reality to another. Things that seem possible, reasonable, understandable, even logical in hindsight….often seemed quite impossible, unreasonable, nonsensical and illogical when we were looking ahead to them. The changes, the possibilities, the opportunities, the surprises that no one or very few would even have imagined become history after they’ve occurred.” (quoted in Bass, The People’s History of Christianity, p. 310).
In short my hope in this age of Obama is not in our innovative and courageous president, nor a myth of human progress, but rather in the paradox that by grace God walks with us from this reality to next not because of our efforts, but often in spite of them.