I am a huge fan of dystopian literature and film, although I am finding I am not a particularly big fan of actually living in a dystopia. And with staying at home so much, I am not sure my partner and I made such a great decision to binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale during a pandemic.
I feel like we’re all just on edge. We’re angry, frustrated, incredulous, exhausted. Some of us are just hanging on by our fingertips. I fully expect any day now that the machines will achieve self-consciousness, the Terminators will show up, the aliens will abduct us, Gilead will rise, or the Death Star will blast us out of existence.
People are acting out, calling police on Black people for walking down the sidewalk, pointing guns at people, trolling people on social media, hurling insults at people wearing masks because they care about protecting their neighbors.
We are deeply divided, to the detriment of us all, while people are getting sick and dying, losing their jobs, falling behind in school and suffering from violence in their homes and on the street, while we are told the virus will just disappear, Confederate statues are our history, vote by mail won’t work (remember, I live in Oregon where we’ve been successfully voting by mail for 20 years), and religious freedom belongs only to the zealots who would deny many of us basic human rights. If this isn’t a dystopian story, I don’t know what is.
Recently I was preparing to preach, and so many things presented themselves as sermon topics that I put out a call on Facebook to see what people need to hear in a Zoom sermon at this dystopian moment. While the details varied, almost all responses were some version of “we need to hear hope.”
“To have hope we must have the will and the ways to get there.”
What is hope? Hope is “confident expectation.” The Bible tells us that the three highest virtues are faith, love and hope. Psychological research tells us that hope requires two things: agency and pathways. That means to have hope we must have the will and the ways to get there.
Theologically, Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of hope tells us that hope is the resurrection, not in the sweet by and by, not in a future utopia, but in the here and now in God’s in-breaking community on earth. As Moltmann tells us, the resurrection is present and ongoing, and God’s kin-dom is already here, erupting into our world and making all things new.
In many ways, that’s a little hard to believe right now. We’re living in a dystopia created by fear, greed, resentment, white supremacy, misogyny and the love of power. It’s 1984. It’s Gilead. It’s Outbreak and Contagion and The Matrix all rolled into one. So what’s my evidence for hope?
Here are 10 reasons why I have hope:
First, after three and a half years of mind-boggling lies and atrocities, we’re still outraged. We have not become accustomed to the insult, injury and corruption. We are not numb to it.
Second, thousands and thousands of people wearing masks have showed up day after day to protest ongoing violence against Black lives, and not just in the big cities. Lebanon, Ore., had 400 people show up for its Black Lives Matter protest. Corvallis, Ore., had 2,000 people at the first protest and 4,000 at the second. Oregon had protests in Brookings, Coos Bay, Burns, Enterprise and John Day. People protested in 44 cities and towns in Oregon. Small towns in every state protested right along with folks in big cities. From Kona, Hawaii, and Homer, Alaska, to Miami, Fla., and Kennebunk, Maine.
Third, Confederate statues and monuments to people who enslaved Africans have come down. Buildings named after people who owned enslaved Africans have new names. The Washington Redskins are finally getting rid of that offensive name and logo. Oregon State University and the University of Oregon have at last dropped the moniker “Civil War” for sporting events.
Fourth, policies are slowly changing. Cities are starting to restructure police funding to provide more money for social workers and mental health workers and less money for armed police. They’re banning chokeholds and mandating more training in negotiation for officers.
“We don’t get to call ourselves allies just because we read a few books. But it’s a start.”
Fifth, white people by the thousands are reading James Baldwin, Ibram Kendi, Angela Davis, Brittney Cooper and Audre Lorde. Do we white folks always get it? No. Sometimes we shed white tears and show our white fragility. And we don’t get to call ourselves allies just because we read a few books. But it’s a start. The needle has moved ever so slightly. But now we have to get out there and do the work of solidarity.
Sixth, while some willfully ignorant individuals refuse to wear masks and go viral on social media for having a meltdown in Costco, most people are wearing masks. Most people are showing concern for their neighbors by listening to the epidemiologists, keeping physically distant and wearing a mask.
Seventh, people are amazingly resilient. Our struggles have made us strong. Remember, when aliens invaded in The War of the Worlds, it was our evolutionary resistance to viruses that allowed humans to triumph.
Eighth, most of us still know, no matter what we’re told, that 2 + 2 = 4. We are thinking for ourselves; we are fact-checking before we post; and we are refusing the deceptions, falsehoods and lies that would have us believe that it’s OK to sacrifice the most vulnerable for the sake of the stock market. The dichotomy between individual health and economic health is a false one. We don’t have to choose to keep people safe or to save the economy. We can do both, and we can demand that of those entrusted to lead our nation.
Ninth, as we learn from Jurassic Park, life finds a way. When we hope and when we work for change, George Floyd is being resurrected in our protests, our demands for justice, our refusal of racist structures and institutions. Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddie Gray, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, all of them and all of us are being resurrected in the ongoing transformation of God’s in-breaking community. It does not bring them back, and we cannot gloss over their deaths with statements of piety. We must reckon with the very real loss of these people. And we must honor their lives by engagement in the work of justice so others do not die needlessly.
Finally, we are not alone, even in physical distancing and isolation. We have one another, and we can reach out through phone calls, text messages, emails, FaceTime, and even Zoom church. We could even send someone an actual handwritten note through snail mail. Imagine that!
As my friend Anita Helle pointed out to me, this time requires a reconstruction of our emotional interdependencies. Many people on my Facebook post noted the necessity of authentic communities of love and justice to survive this dystopian moment and to build what comes after. Even in our isolation, we can create solidarity in our care for one another and our work for justice.
As Henri Nouwen writes, “Those who have entered deeply into their hearts and found the intimate home where they encounter their Lord come to the mysterious discovery that solidarity is the other side of intimacy. They come to the awareness that the intimacy of God’s house excludes no one and includes everyone. They start to see that the home they have found in their innermost being is as wide as the whole of humanity … . It is of great importance to see the inner connection between intimacy and solidarity. If we fail to recognize this connection, our spirituality will become either privatized or narrowly activist and will no longer reflect the full beauty of living in God’s house.”
In this intimacy and solidarity, we can find meaningful work to do, even in this “desert,” as my friend Amy Koehlinger called it.
We have reason to hope. There will be an after to this dystopian moment. In the meantime, we have work to do to foster hope. We can proclaim good news through Zoom church. We can wear masks. We can march, protest, write letters to representatives, run for office, vote. We can fight the machines, the aliens, Big Brother, Darth Vader, Gilead and the forces of racism and misogyny, remembering the words of the civil rights movement song, “Freedom is a constant struggle,” and the assurance that God is making all things new.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds a master of arts and doctor of philosophy degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.