Global protests and the nature of hope

By Mercedes McGuire 23 Jan 2020

In 2019, men and women around the world took to the streets to voice their deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Chile, Columbia, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iran, France, Spain, Sudan and Algeria are but a few of the 47 countries which have been marked by waves of mass protests in recent months – in total, that’s a quarter of the world’s nations out in protest. Some demonstrations have been sparked by particular events (increases in fuel, food and transport costs), whilst others reflect ongoing political tensions, such Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

While each protest is different, they also reveal deeper underlying issues that are global in their nature. Stagnating incomes, limited opportunities, growing inequalities, government corruption, ineffective political processes, weakening of mechanisms to express discontent and the alarm, complexity and consequences of environmental degradation are common issues that leave many feeling unheard and deeply frustrated. While protests are initially catalysed by specific events, the once latent discontent
of millions is not easily satisfied without significant reforms to the underlying political and economic structures that shape daily life. These protests reflect a deeply held conviction that things can, and indeed must, be different. 

Caught in the terrible tension of hope

Anger is easier to express than the pain, fear or vulnerability that often drive it. While these protests are fuelled by a legitimate sense of anger, I believe that underneath lies an equally real sense of fear, vulnerability and pain connected to real circumstances. At the heart of these feelings is longing. Longing is another form of hope. To have the capacity to long and hope for something that we cannot yet see, something that defies our current experience and that cannot be guaranteed, is a form of faith. These protests call attention to the need to fundamentally re-imagine the current economic and political systems that leave millions alienated and disenfranchised. They also clearly assert the instinctual knowing that the world as it is, is not as it should be.

‘The conflict between what is and what ought to be is not spiritually bearable unless we believe that
somehow, sometime, it is going to be resolved.’ [1] If there is no assurance that one day wrongs shall be made right, then our hope is in vain. It’s not hope, but rather delusion – empty optimism and rose coloured glasses without the substance we need to anchor our lives.

But, what is the nature of the Christian hope? Is it reserved for an eternity beginning after death but with no bearing upon the everyday existence of billions of people and their cry for justice, for rightness, for life? Or, is our hope – as some brothers and sisters in parts of the world may think – found in messianic political figures who will make their country great again by sweeping away what seems to threaten conservative values and supporting Christians to gain positions of power and influence? Can such a movement – one which seems to prioritise single issue politics while neglecting a holistic biblical framework that espouses justice, mercy, and loving-kindness – transform the earth (by force) to look like the heaven we long for? To some, this is absurd: our hope lies only in eternity. But that line of thinking has also contributed to an anemic version of Christianity, one that has little to say to the societies that we live in and thus remains woefully incomplete. While our hope is eternal in nature, is there then no hope that can be fulfilled this side of eternity?

Biblical hope is not naive optimism that suggests that things will inevitably get better. Neither is it exclusively futuristic, reserving all hope for a peaceful existence post-death. Biblical hope is robust. It emerges out of the lament that comes when we honestly confront reality as it is. No one does this
better than the biblical prophets who lived in a dualistic reality; they looked honestly on the abysmal nature of the human problem, while also seeing through to the other side and providing a roadmap of choice to get there. The prophetic literature is concerned with how the world is uttered to death and to new life (see Walter Brueggemann’s ‘Meditation upon the Abyss: The Book of Jeremiah’). Yet no amount of human choice and goodwill could ultimately solve the problem, thus the hope of the prophets was just that, prophetic. It was met in the person of Christ, who not only saw the depth of human suffering, but took on the substance of our flesh in life and in death and became the way through to the other side.

Here we are, thousands of years later, inhabiting the tension between what is eternally, and what is manifest here on earth. Walter Brueggeman offers an incredibly succinct observation that society, ‘lacks an adequate script for truth-telling about the abyss, the loss, and the possibility. Without the script, the victims and the perpetrators of abyss engage in denial that does not face reality or in despair that does not hope.’[2]

The world in protest echoes the groans of creation described in Romans 8 – depicting suffering and new birth. Christians can provide a unique witness in this hour by inhabiting that tension as people of hope – rugged, biblical hope. We must allow the Lord’s Prayer to be incarnate in our lives and consequently, to bleed into the turbid affairs of the earth. Our hope lies in the unwavering nature of God and His ultimate and redemptive commitment to humanity; our witness is to the kingdom that Jesus has prepared and declared to be at hand, yet which is also coming. A dynamic life of faith is neither limited to the affairs of earth nor ignorant of them. It lives in the tension between heaven and earth – drawing from the presence of God to see and engage with the world around us and offering the cares, concerns and hopes of this world to God in prayer and intercession. In so doing, our lives become a form of intercession.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble (2003), p.40.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Meditation upon the Abyss: The Book of Jeremiah’, Word & World (22:4, Fall 2002).

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