Where do we discover signs of genuine hope for the future? How we answer this question will depend, in a whole host of ways, on our location and on those who have come to be our allies. The world looks disorientingly different when viewed from a dilapidated favella rather than from an oak-panelled boardroom. For those on the edges, in particular, there is often no safe ground in the daily struggle between life and death.
As someone specifically committed to the mission of the church in a divided world, I am constantly reminded that the Christian Gospel is premissed on what can only be called a ‘divine reversal’. Whereas the logic of the dominant order (that is, the order of the dominant – socially, culturally, politically, religiously and economically) contends that up is up and down is down, the subversive memory of Jesus, crucified and living in a broken world, suggests something quite different. In God’s order it is the last, the least and the lost who take priority, not those who (by birth, luck or manipulation) enjoy a monopoly of the good life at the expense of others.
In the economy of God what we hope for is communion – life shared fully and lived fully, both in joy and sorrow. The hope of communion is based on just, loving relationships (with each other, with the earth, with God), not on the exchange of money or the amassing of possessions.
A world increasingly dominated by the ‘rights’ and mobility of capital will make this a profoundly counter-cultural message. For many people the promise of the National Lottery (or of New Labour’s anthem, ‘things can only get better’), sounds far more alluring. The Gospel, which embraces hope through difficulty, is hard to hear, hard to believe and even harder to live.
Yet that is precisely what we are called to do. This ‘lived hope’ needs to take a number of practical forms. In Western society, which is my context, the call to the church (in particular) is to re-discover its mission to be a creative minority following Christ in companionship with all who share the desire to see a new society of shalom. This requires the modelling of alternatives at every level. Churches need primarily to be ‘contrast societies’, not institutions allied to the status quo in the old top-down Christendom mould.
Next, Christians must resist the colonisation of the Gospel message by competitive assumptions founded mainly in the modern free market. When churches begin to see their evangelical witness as a ‘product’ which needs to claim superiority to other religious ‘products’ and achieve dominance in a ‘marketplace’ of ideologies, the fundamental Christ-like metaphor of self-giving has been replaced by self-seeking.
To name Jesus as Lord is to challenge worldly patterns of domination, not to create new ones in the sphere of religion. Jesus resolutely opposed Mammon, but chose a Samaritan (who his co-religionists would have condemned as a heretic) as his chief exemplar of faith. In our economically led, multi-faith world this is a truth of enormous importance – especially for those who talk of ‘mission’.
Finally, Christian communities – in partnership with those of other faith and good faith – need to find ways of being ‘wise as serpents’ (not just ‘gentle as doves’) in their interaction with mainline social, political and economic institutions. Our hope is the promise of divine communion, but the world we inhabit is a complex, ambiguous, flawed, messy place. Just as we seek to model alternatives for society so we have to share pain and responsibility with society.
Radical change and gradual reform are not, therefore, stark choices or simple alternatives. They are part of a complex patterning of human action that requires collaboration for the cause of good between people located in different places (and with different opportunities and constraints) in our many-layered world.
My hope lies in the myriad persons and networks committed to this kind of hopeful perspective and this kind of hopeful action. It is rooted in the belief (fleshed out in the life, death and aliveness again of Jesus Christ) that divine love which absorbs suffering is, finally, more powerful than force, division, violence and death. This is a hope that can be sustained only in solidarity and in prayer — when our arms are stretched out to each other and to God.