I have to admit that after the first debate, I’ve been a little down. It seems like our whole country is taking a collective sigh as the election draws closer. It is hard to find two candidates as disliked as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But it isn’t just the election that is setting people on edge. Racial tensions are high, violence in Syria is continuing to escalate, and if you live in the midwest, as I do, you’re underwater.
These are dark days indeed. But as Christians, we have a counter-discourse we need to offer to our sad state of affairs: that of hope. Hope is both a natural and theological virtue, but in both cases it pertains to the future. Hope is that power of the human spirit to keep moving forward even though the present looks grim. As a theological virtue, hope looks forward to a future that is in God’s hand and is promised to be good, and experiences the assurance that God’s aid is offered in achieving that goal.
Hope navigates a middle ground between two extremes of presumption and despair. The former is a failure to trust divine aid, and a misestimation of the power of the human will to bring about all the good we plan (Think: “Nobody but me can fix it”). The latter is a failure to trust in God’s promises, that the future is in God’s hands and that the future is a good one.
The effect of hope on the present is two-fold. First, there is a certain detachment from the present because of its impermanence. After all, God is in charge and has promised something better, something beyond our control, awaits us. But there is also a boldness in addressing present problems because we believe in God’s sovereignty and God’s assistance. Hope motivates to take charge rather than wringing our hands, and to find creative ways to respond to the challenging times we find ourselves in.
So, how do we model Christian hope in these dark days? I have a few proposals.
1. Don’t be so negative
One of my favorite podcasts begins with an exercise where each host, one from the left and one from the right, says something positive about a member from the opposite political persuasion. This is an excellent exercise for dark days when the temptation is to only be negative. Saying something positive reminds us that there is something to redeem, even among those who hold a worldview most diametrically opposed to our own. Looking for something positive to say can be a challenge, but nevertheless reminds us that things aren’t as dire as they seem. And saying something positive can give hope to others.
Pope Francis encourages us to do something like this as well, showing the connection between hope and mercy.
I now ask of you one thing. In silence, let’s all think… everyone think of a person with whom we are annoyed, with whom we are angry, someone we do not like. Let us think of that person and in silence, at this moment, let us pray for that person and let us become merciful to that person.” (Angelus, September 15, 2013)
2. Find the good
Closely related to the above suggestion, another exercise of hope in these dark days is to find something good to talk about. For example, median incomes grew by 5.2% in 2015 (that’s about $2,800). While this is good news to be sure, there is even greater reason to celebrate.
Bucking recent trends, the wallets of the poor and least-educated swelled the most. Income at the twentieth percentile (meaning the level at which exactly one-fifth of the population earns less) grew by over 6%. The average income of households headed by someone who left school before ninth grade—typically reached at age 14 or 15— grew a fulsome 12.5%, compared with just 3.2% growth in those headed by someone with a bachelor’s degree or more. Just as the disadvantaged are usually the first to lose their jobs in a recession, they have been the last to benefit as the economy has recently closed in on full employment, argues Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank. That also helps to explain a fall in the poverty rate from 14.8% to 13.5%—the largest annual percentage-point drop in poverty since 1999.
Does this mean inequality is over? Of course not. But it does give us something to celebrate and something to help us hope too in a better future, regardless of what happens in the election.
Nothing says “hope for the future” like some good old-fashioned sacrifice. Hope and courage are both related in that both look forward to some future, but difficult good. G.K. Chesterton wrote that courage demands a person “seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.” If we truly have hope in the future, a hope that God promises is not in vain, we should be willing to engage in a little dying to self in the present. Maybe vow to to volunteer once at the Catholic Worker House between now and election time, or to make a double contribution to Catholic Charities. Or even fasting and abstinence can be a sign of hope.
Fasting as a regular part of a life of prayer can be a discipline reminding us of our need for God’s grace to effect real and lasting change. Fasting and abstinence are very old Catholic practices that we tend to associate with particular liturgical seasons but can serve a great purpose when incorporated more regularly in a life of prayer. John Chrysostom observes that fasting is a way of putting on the whole armor of God:
Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow.
Fasting then is a way of disciplining ourselves to be always reliant on God’s grace and not our own power.
Again, Pope Francis’ words can help us here:
The evil one is clever, and deludes us into thinking that with our human justice we can save ourselves and save the world! In reality, only the justice of God can save us! And the justice of God is revealed in the Cross: the Cross is the judgement of God on us all and on this world. But how does God judge us? By giving his life for us! Here is the supreme act of justice that defeated the prince of this world once and for all; and this supreme act of justice is the supreme act of mercy. Jesus calls us all to follow this path: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
Okay, now I am going to get controversial here. This is a dire election. I was going through my local ballot recently, frustrated because it isn’t just the presidential election that leaves me without a candidate I love, but my congressional election as well. I am going to have to choose between two candidates that hold positions diametrically opposed to my own. And for Congress, unlike for the presidency, there are no “third party” alternatives. And yet, I am committed, absolutely committed to voting.
It is technically legitimate for Catholics to choose not to vote if their conscience will not allow them to cast a ballot for any candidate. But lest we opt out too early, I think that Christian hope can motivate us to vote anyway, to choose a candidate that is, as far as we can tell, a lesser evil than the other and to offer that vote to God to bring some good out of. A reluctant vote especially is an act of hope. A reluctant vote recognizes that no politician can be a savior, and that the political process will always fall short of the good that we want it to accomplish. But a failure to vote often seems to emerge from one of the two vices to hope: either a deep despair that good will come out of any candidate or a presumption that God’s sovereignty’s negates the political process.
There is no good Catholic candidate to vote for this November, but that’s okay. Catholics can joyfully cast their votes as a way of saying that we are doing the best we can with what our democracy has to offer AND that we trust that our God is still, despite the unworthiness of our candidates, going to work some good out that fallen democratic process.
And let us not remember that our ultimate Christian hope is in God’s kingdom. Let us not forget to pray that God’s kingdom come.