Niall Cooper: Hopes and hardships
To be sure, there are many reasons to feel hopeless as we enter 2013: The continuing threat of unchecked climate change; the countless children going hungry each and every day – at home as well as abroad; the impact of hikes in energy and food prices and the squeeze on incomes; the imminent housing benefit cuts for three quarters of a million households; the seeming war of attrition against almost anyone struggling to make ends meet on benefits; the forced eviction of thousands of families from London.
On a more domestic note, will 2013 be yet another year of declining congregations, continued division over sexuality, theology and much else, and ever greater financial pressures on many local churches?
I have been contemplating whether we have grounds for “Hope and optimism in spite of current difficulties” to borrow a phrase from Namibian artist John Muafangejo’s wonderful 1984 woodcut. More specifically – what can we offer to those struggling around us – in terms of grounds for hope, optimism and inspiration?
A couple of years ago, I asked a range of friends and colleagues to share with me their own personal reflections on this self-same question, and many were generous in their responses.
For some, to be sure, hope and inspiration comes from a personal faith in a God of love and justice. One person described it in these terms: “It is still my faith which gives me hope – specifically the belief that God loves each individual enough to die for them and that he promised that he will never again destroy the world.”
For others, hope springs from the warmth of human relationships and the inspiration of others. As Steve, a Catholic colleague from Liverpool, wrote: “I meet many wonderful people who are filled with love for others and a willingness to carry on whatever. Some of these people are connected with church but many of them aren’t. I hear scripture’s cry for justice echoing down the ages. I feel the joy that comes from being with these people. I’ve started praying regularly and it’s full of the call to be kind to others.”
Others look to less conventionally “theological” sources – amongst them music, poetry, politics and protest. A Quaker friend wrote of the power of music: “I’m a big fan of political music, especially songs. I’m a member of a small performing singing group – we sing songs of struggle and solidarity, peace and justice, women’s lives, hope, and love.”
But for others, hope is born from the pain of suffering. “I left school with four O-Levels, was made homeless by my family and lived in a squat with no job, no income, no food and no possessions. I had a child at 19 and she became my hope and my reason to get better every day – because I wanted to give her what I never had. We are talking about that rare thing – unconditional love.”
What could be a more profoundly theological message to greet the New Year with? Are we ready to offer unconditional love in the midst of suffering, pain and loss? Are we, or the church more generally, up to the task?
As times get harder, the church needs to find a role in developing a much stronger identity as a community of love, faith and witness, which is consciously counter-cultural to the prevailing spirit of individualism, consumerism and even more debt-fuelled growth. As Jon Kuhrt has written: “The challenge is how we integrate a spiritual temperature into the quest for financial equality and justice. Without spiritual confidence and integration I simply don’t feel that it will be transformative or effective.”
I believe we can do it. As we approach 2013, I believe we can draw afresh on our traditions of faith and sources of inspiration to create and live out new narratives of hope and optimism in spite of the difficulties we face.
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.