Dec. 1, 2019, 1st Sunday in Advent
The 6th – 12th grade boys who end up in the classroom of teacher Rodney Robinson (aka Big Rob) do not usually want to be there. Big Rob teaches at the Virgie Binford Education Center in Virginia, and this particular school is located within the confines of the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center.
Big Rob first got interested in teaching at Virgie Binford Education Center because of a desire to understand the criminal justice system better and the prison-to-school pipeline after years of teaching in public schools. Once there, he developed a curriculum for his students that taught them the ins and outs of the system, how it works, how it traps young black men. Rolled into this curriculum was history, civics, critical thinking and writing. His classroom is adorned with flag pennants from dozens of different universities, to get his students in the mindset that college is still an option for them. He gets his students to better understand their experiences, helps them develop social emotional tools to cope with life and make better decisions, and he nurtures them in becoming social advocates in their communities. As a result of all this, he was awarded the 2019 Teacher of the Year award.
Now, I’m not going to paint this as a story of how one teacher can make up for racist systems of oppression that keep urban schools underfunded and overpoliced. We know that more large scale change is needed, beyond what one teacher, no matter how incredible, can do. Yet, what Big Rob does is give students who may feel they have screwed up beyond any fixing, a sense of hope. He nudges them to believe in things the world tells them are impossible or not for them.
As we start this season of Advent, a journey towards Hope, it is a live question for us. Is Hope worth it? Politically things are awful: everyday it feels like there is a barrage of new cruelties from the highest office in our nation. Our climate is changing irrevocably. Inequities in gender and race persist, though there is more and more research to prove them.
We are not the first to wonder whether Hope is real or worth it (though we are the first people to be able to coddle our despair by having Ben and Jerry’s delivered to our door and binging Netflix).
The Israelites went through cycles of despair and hope. They would cry out to YHWH in times of exile or captivity or famine or war. Prophets like Isaiah often played the role of offering a vision of Hope. All people’s will stream to Jerusalem to learn the ways of God, the ways of justice and peace. God will be ever-present. Her word will go forth and rain down on all the earth. War will end. Weapons will be turned into tools for cultivation and human thriving.
Given the evidence, it seems impossible. War has raged for centuries, millennia. How are we to believe that not only will war end but that the very things that are used to wage war will be so obsolete that they will be transformed into implements of growth and craft and sustenance?
This is where the way in which you define hope becomes important. Cornel West, black scholar, theologian, and activist says this: “Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there that allows us to think things are going to be better. Much more rational. Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says it doesn’t look good at all! We gonna make a leap of faith beyond the evidence to attempt to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious so people can engage in heroic actions always against the odds. That’s hope!”
This is deeply aligned with what Isaiah was doing for Israel, and in similar ways for us today. He is proclaiming a vision of hope that is not based on what has come before. At some point if we only rely on what has already happened to inform what can be, we are doomed to be stuck. We must exercise what the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann calls “the prophetic imagination.” It is prophetic to hope. To believe that things in our world can be different than they are now.
And not just in incremental ways, not just in ways that improve upon the way things already are. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t celebrate when incremental victories are achieved. Better energy policies are passed: great! Incidents of racist violence decreased or more public funding for schools in poorer, more demographically black and immigrant neighborhoods: good! Some baseline restrictions on the purchase of combat style assault weapons? Yes! It is good to push for and celebrate movements towards the good when the occur.
However, the prophetic imagination must push us further, lest we grow complacent, or tired, or despairing at the pace it takes to make even small changes.
We have to, along with Isaiah, along with those who awaited a messiah’s birth, imagine beyond just a few steps ahead.
There is a passage from Alice in Wonderland where Alice has this dialogue with the Queen. Alice says: “There’s no use trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half and hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Hope calls us to believe not just in what is possible. God pushes us to imagine ends which we do not know fully how to achieve yet.
Like a world where countries did not have standing armies. Where there was no Department of Defense, but instead a Department of Peace that promulgated peace, ensured everyone had the means to live, and they had stockpiles of whatever the opposite of “weapons” is.
Hope could be a world where there are no more police departments, but rather community support teams. They roam the neighborhood unarmed, no guns or tasers, no handcuffs or pepper spray. Only the badge of their hearts and the uniform of their humanness.
A vision of Hope could be one where companies didn’t care about profits but about making things with the earth and people’s best interests and joy and flourishing in mind. Where we didn’t make cheap plastic stuff. Where everything that broke or broke down could be repurposed or reused. Where there was no need for money.
A vision of Hope is one with no national borders. Where prosperity was so prevalent and perfectly distributed no nation felt the need for fences or gates or inspections, for documents or cages. Where border agents exist solely to wave and smile at cars as they enter, welcoming them and offering road maps or car snacks.
A vision of Hope is one where the evening news is a joyful affair, reporting the inundation of good bulletins and happy updates. Positive stories of generosity and neighborliness are the norm and not a necessary exception for the sake of levity in the evening news broadcast. A vision of hope is A messiah born to two immigrants a long ways from home, born out of wedlock, witnessed by stinky outcast shepherds and animals, surviving the very real threat to their child’s life by a capricious, fearful tyrant. That is not the optimism of incremental change. That is hope which we celebrate this season. May we stretch our imagination in Hope for things beyond reason, as we await the Christ child’s birth.