Building hope into the structure of society

John Ashcroft, December 2006

Imagine waiting for some help. I think back to long hot waits while hitch-hiking in Africa as a teenager. Hope appeared on the horizon, and often disappeared in a cloud of dust. Hopes can easily be raised and disappointed, but when you really need help the loss of hope can be a truly crushing experience.

This was the situation for the man to whom the Good Samaritan proved to be an unexpected source of hope. Lying on the roadside, the wounded traveller may have looked hopefully at the priest and Levite – only to see them pass by on the other side. Whether we like it or not, other people may look to us as a source of hope. If we disappoint them we fail not only them, but also God who has called us to be bearers of and witnesses to hope.

Challenging False Hopes

Sadly, false hopes, dreams and delusions are prevalent in society, and they need to be challenged. When the Jubilee Centre campaigned against the introduction of the National Lottery we were concerned about some US lotteries described by Professor Charles Clotfelter in his book Selling Hope. In some states advertising spend was found to increase on days when social security payments were made and one billboard campaign targeted at low income neighbourhoods simply said ‘This could be your ticket out of here’. Selling false hope exploited the dreams and aspirations of low income groups by undermining belief in their agency (their ability to bring about changes in their circumstances) and offering a pathway with minuscule chances of success.

Recent work on the economics of happiness has shown that people overestimate the impact extra income will make on their happiness. It is a transitory effect as we quickly accommodate to a new standard of living. And if we have neglected relationships to achieve that extra income our goals and hopes will prove to have been woefully misplaced. Other false hopes may be that ageing can be postponed – many people would rather cling to the false hopes around which our life is built than abandon them for sure foundations. Or the belief that technology will solve all our ills (without creating new ones). Although alongside such false hopes there is cynicism and despair, we can be certain that if the church doesn’t offer hope to society others will, for a message of hope, whether false or true, is a powerful lure for lost people.

A Christian View of Hope

As Christians, too often our engagement in society is not seen as a message of hope but simply one of judgement or disinterest. Certainly, pessimistic disengagement from society is not an option.

Leading advocate of a ‘theology of hope’, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote: ‘Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.’

Moltmann illustrates the importance of regarding eschatology as the starting point of our ethics, and not just the postscript. Christian hope is not some delusional other-worldly fantasy or merely the hope of a better heavenly future. We believe that the ‘end’ has been achieved by Christ and are, therefore, called to live according to the changes he has already wrought, even though as Paul says in Romans (8:25) we hope for what we do not yet have.

Other ideologies, such as Communism, have offered utopian visions, and have legitimated any means to bring them into being. As Christians we believe that the unseen hope is present by the grace of God, now, and constantly open to us. The certain future is the hidden present, waiting to be brought more fully into being as we await its full and final manifestation.

Let me summarise some elements of a Christian view of hope:

  • Hope is God’s promise and is therefore sure. The certainty of the future hope of a new heaven and new earth should shape our present life.
  • Hope is a gift. This applies not just to our future hope, the gift of God through his Son, but also our present hope. Hope is not rooted in our abilities or temperament but in the gift of both opportunities and the capacity (aided by God and others) to take them.
  • Giving hope is an obligation. This is seen, for example, in the duties of the ‘goel’ (kinsman-redeemer).
  • As both a promise and a gift, hope is found in relationship with God and with others. We therefore need to foster hope-giving relationships. This sets an agenda for social action.
  • Hope should be built into the structures of society. This sets an agenda for social reform.

A positive vision for the future based upon God’s saving acts in the past, and the belief that he will fulfil his promises for the future, is an antidote to a culture of hopelessness. If the church is only associated with negative campaigns and dystopian visions of the future, it is less likely to be seen as a source of hope. This contrasts, for example, with some elements of Islam today which seem more characterised by the memory of injustice and victimhood.

Practical Ways to Provide Hope

A Christian view of hope points to a number of possibilities for social action. The first is the gift of healing and forgiveness, enabling hope for change in broken relationships. We may be able to give hope to others by creating contexts in which forgiveness and reconciliation are more likely to happen, whether through peace-building processes to resolve conflicts within and between nations or more local and personal dispute resolution processes.

A second area is the gift of opportunity. This might, for example, take the form of job creation to provide opportunities for unemployed people. Linked to this is the gift of ability, for example skills training for the unemployed or people with disabilities. Alongside these the gift of encouragement may also be needed – emotional and practical support to provide the ability to cope in difficult circumstances as well as to believe in the possibility of change.

Everyone needs hope, but the agenda of hope is perhaps most important for vulnerable people. Those whose misplaced hopes have failed them, or who see no hope, may be more open to true hope than those satisfied with their own abilities and prospects. Identifying, locally, the groups of people most in need of hope, and reflecting on the various ways in which hope might be given, offers one practical mechanism for prioritising an agenda for social action.

Hope Built into Societal Structures

As well as reflecting on the needs for hope of different groups of people, such as asylum seekers, homeless people, the unemployed, the lonely or those facing the breakdown of family relationships, we should also consider whether our response to the big issues of the day is characterised by hope. In addressing climate change do we offer hope to future generations? Do we fear global competition, or see within it opportunities for hope? Do we offer young workers the hope of adequate pension provision in old age? It is these big issues, as well as the need go beyond individual examples of social action and concern, which means we must seek ways in which hope can be built into the structures of society. This is important as it is more likely to address the causes of problems, and seeks to ensure that no-one is left without hope.

In reflecting on the various elements of the biblical social vision that the Jubilee Centre has studied over the years it is remarkable that all come together to provide hope in different ways. The examples below illustrate the point, but other aspects of the vision, such as welfare provision though tithes or the distribution of political power, were also important in preserving hope.

The promise of the return of land under the Jubilee land laws was not simply the equivalent of welfare benefits. It offered the hope of the restoration of economic fortune and the preservation of family roots and inheritance. The Jubilee was a powerful symbol of hope, as well as a potent practical mechanism. We need both today – visible statements of hope as well as robust mechanisms for ensuring that the loss of hope cannot pass down from generation to generation.

The remission of debt was another source of hope. Deuteronomy 15:7 instructs us to freely lend to a poor brother in need. Lend not give, for debt can be good, preserving dignity and providing opportunity. It is interest and permanent indebtedness that the Bible condemns, with the provision for the remission of debts after seven years. Both lending and debt forgiveness are therefore signs of hope. Low income countries, as well as individuals, mired in debt still need this hope today.

The release of slaves was another example of the commitment to ensure that Israelites should not be permanently without hope. Deuteronomy 15:12 requires that in the seventh year the Hebrew slave is to be allowed to go free. The apparent provision in Deuteronomy 23:15 that slaves could run away without being returned to their master implies a hope of escape from exploitation. The exploitation of some migrant workers (particularly those who are working illegally) and the growth of sex trafficking show that the hope of release remains important today. Moreover, the Sabbath provided the hope of rest and time with family. This is particularly important for vulnerable workers who might otherwise be exploited.

A criminal justice system that ensures access to justice and restores relationships offers hope for both victims and offenders. Deuteronomy 24:17 was a reminder to ensure access to justice for the most vulnerable and powerless groups. Those who have no hope of justice suffer doubly – the loss of whatever has been taken from them, and the loss of their dignity as their powerlessness is rubbed in their face. But the biblical vision also sought the reintegration of offenders. The Christian belief in the possibility of forgiveness for all means that no matter what you have done, no-one is beyond redemption and restoration. No-one need feel utterly hopeless in their guilt.

The biblical command to ‘love the alien’ offered the hope of belonging and fair treatment to immigrants. Jonathan Burnside has shown in his Jubilee Centre paper on this issue that foreigners had the option not to assimilate and still have basic rights protected. But there was also an inclusive option – those who wanted to affiliate to the people of God and share in their festivals and blessing could. The values and identity of Israel were to be preserved, but the hope of inclusion was open to all. Crucially the choice seems to have been vested in the migrant and not the host – the opportunity to assimilate was a general invitation.

Biblical teaching offers pointers to a range of reforms and renewed institutions which might bring hope. It is a long-term project, for hope rests on a countercultural set of values: love, justice, faithfulness, mercy and righteousness. Institutions can be built which seek to reflect these values, but our capacity to offer hope also depends on the extent to which we can learn to practise these values. When daunted by the scale of the task, we must never forget the sure foundation for this hope. First, because it is founded on God the Creator and Redeemer who has already ensured the renewal of all things. And secondly, because of the work of Christ in us.

This article is based on an address originally given at the Hope for Europe round table in Warsaw.

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2006

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