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The Politics of Scripture

The Timeless Power of Hope

How do we maintain hope in the face of a seemingly unending time of strife, violence, and conflict? Seek out beauty, depend upon hope…and dance, even in the face of unending war. Hope does not ignore the struggle, nor does it free us from the scars resulting from our struggles. The people of Israel will always carry the scars of their trauma with them; yet, scars also signify survival.

1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack, and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
2 I will stand at my watch-post, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he* will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.*

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

What I find most striking – and even disconcerting – about the Book of Habakkuk is how timeless its first two chapters sound.

The drums of war, beating loudly, threatening imminent invasion. The irrepressible surge of desperation welling up within anyone who is in the path of that inexorable force. The yawning pit in the stomach as it appears that all hope is lost. The overwhelming desire for God’s appearance on the scene, bringing a miraculous rescue. The recriminations in the small hours which cause doubt and blame. The righteous certainty which emerges when blame is apportioned, locating the proper shoulders on which to lay it. The recognition that this situation demands societal transformation, including a call for repentance and a return to a path of justice and compassion.

Habakkuk’s context is the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the Bablyonian Empire, yet these feelings would just as easily apply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the climate crisis, the rise of far-right ideology around the world, and the sabre-rattling of autocratic states. The emotions it evokes are as present to us now as they would be to Habakkuk’s original audience.

On one level, this sense of timelessness is quite fitting, as almost nothing – save a few snippets – is known about the author(s) of this short book. I’d argue that this lack of information actually frees us to engage in an act of creative license. Akin to setting Shakespeare in a modern context, we should feel welcome to locate ourselves in the emotional landscape of this passage. We should allow its complex atmosphere of fear and hope to inspire us as we ourselves face a contemporary world which is both metaphorically and literally on fire.

The Book of Habakkuk begins abruptly, as verse 1:2 immediately jumps into mournful cries for help from the Lord. Notably, each cry for help is immediately followed by an accusation of divine abandonment.

Habakkuk is certainly not shy in his demands of the Lord! He not only accuses the Lord of abandoning him and his people when they most require salvation, but he’s also shocked and indignant that the Lord requires him to bear witness to the wrongdoing, strife, and contention which exist on all sides (1:3). Habakkuk laments the perverted state of his society (1:4) – where justice is twisted to serve the powerful – while also lamenting God’s demand that, as prophet, he bear witness such a violent and destructive time.

Habakkuk is reflecting the paradox inherent in the role of prophet: prophets are compelled to serve as God’s witness and voice to God’s people; yet, prophets are also free to push back on God and demand that God saves God’s own people. Habakkuk, then, feels that it is his duty to demand that God pay attention to the dire state of affairs that the Jewish people face.

In 2:1 Habakkuk makes explicit what had been only implicitly stated: he is the watchman on the ramparts witnessing the state of the world, relaying that information back to the Lord. Habakkuk serves in a vital dual role as both messenger and translator: bearing and interpreting the message of the Lord for the people, and voicing – to the fullest extent possible – the fears, dreams, despairs, and hopes of the people to God.

I can only imagine Habakkuk’s emotional state at this point. He’s literally stuck in the middle of a desperate situation: forced to witness the pain and suffering of his people, knowing that the Babylonian armies are likely on their way. At the same time, it seems that the Lord has abandoned Israel, leaving them to their fate.Yet, he stands firm, patient on the ramparts, hopeful for God’s deliverance. I can’t help but wonder: how does Habakkuk remain committed? 

I’d argue that it is hope which sustains him: the hope of salvation, the hope of a message from the Lord, the hope of a people who, while long oppressed, have always found God present with them in their most desperate hours. Hope, that ephemeral, yet powerful emotion that once gained aids us in moving mountains, and once lost is often lost forever, nearly impossible to regain.

I admit that all this talk of “the power of hope” can sound extremely naive and cliché. Yet, I’d argue that the loss of hope feels as if a light has gone out of the world. Hopelessness sucks in all light from around it, creating an inescapable gravitational force. Hopelessness clings to our heels, dragging us into a swirling, molasses quagmire.

Let’s flip the perspective, then, focusing on what hope can achieve. With hope, what depths of suffering can be endured? With hope, what can be created, imagined, overcome? With hope, what reserves of strength and resolved can be tapped? I’d argue that the possibilities are nearly endless! 

Why, then, do we often mock hope as naive and unrealistic? Self-styled “realists” – calling themselves prophets – often dismiss the power of hope and preach the message that a “realistic” view of the world demands that allow the ugliness of the world to infect us, for it is only in facing the cold, hard, reality of the world that we will survive.

Now, I must admit that there is an inherent danger in allowing ourselves to let hope cloud our perception of the world: for example, no amount of time spent consumed by the dream of utopian fantasies and saviors – whether that be God or the newest shiny technological toy – will stop climate change in its tracks. We must also actively participate in our own salvation.

These two components – hope and action – are interconnected, therefore: we only have the resolve and courage to act when we are bolstered with the medicine of hope. At the same time, we must keep our hope from mutating into a cloying, rancid fantasy through maintaining the clarity necessary to see what is actually achievable and necessary. The Lord may not stop the Babylonians from invading. However, if we insist on holding fast to a spiritual discipline of hopeful witness, we might be capable of rebuilding our world when God moves within the gears of history and the time is right: when Babylon is eventually defeated, and we are able to return home.

I’d like to offer a vision of this hope in action, using a scene from the most recent season (season 3) of the show Derry Girls. The world of this show is the divided town of Derry (also known as Londonderry), Northern Ireland in the mid 1990’s, during the final days of the three-decade-long civil war known as the Troubles. The two main sides of the Troubles were Unionists (those, generally Protestant, who sought to maintain union with the United Kingdom) and Republicans (those, generally Roman Catholic, who sought to unify with the Republic of Ireland).

While the Troubles provide the backdrop of the show, Derry Girls actually focuses the majority of its attention on telling the coming-of-age story of a group of Northern Irish teens. It’s absolutely hilarious in the brutal honesty it offers about the universal experience of the painful awkwardness of being a teenager. However, it is deeply poignant in its portrayal of the fog of despair which often accompanies challenging times of conflict and social upheaval.

In what I consider to be one of the most beautiful scene in this final season, we see one of the teens – the eccentric dreamer Orla McCool – dance her way along the medieval walls which still surround the center of Derry. Orla’s smile is wide and infectious, and in the fantastical world which only seems to exist in musicals, dances with people she meets along her journey, including performing an intricate stepdance with a row of schoolchildren. This splash of unbridled joy in the context of the walls provides poignant symbolism in this scene, as they are themselves physical reminders of unstable and violent times in Derry’s history.

Orla is seemingly oblivious to the world, deeply immersed in her headphones…until she reaches a British Army checkpoint. Orla’s smile slips, and she faces the guard directly, stating that she needs to pass. As we see Orla walk through the gate, for a second it seems that her shoulders slump, and the ugliness of the power and violence of the checkpoint have defeated her.
 
Yet, then she does something magical: she leaps up, clicking her heels, before confidently striding off. This one moment provides an indelible image: of hope in the face of despair, beauty in the ugliness of war, and childlike naivete in the face of brutal reality. Orla isn’t weak, or silly, or even oblivious: she knows exactly what world she lives in, and refuses to allow it to conquer her hope and her ability to bathe in the beauty of the world around her. These are the spiritual disciplines we need during times of despair: hope, beauty, and an unrelenting resolve to remain open to dreaming new worlds.

Eventually, Habakkuk achieves what he has been desperately hoping for: he hears from the Lord (2:2-3), who offers a vision of a new world, which – according to Jewish tradition – will see the coming of the Messiah, a saviour who will free the people of Israel from their despair. The Lord doesn’t offer a specific timeline for this salvation – again, this isn’t a fantasy – but a promise is offered: have patience and wait for deliverance, as it is guaranteed to come.

How do we maintain hope in the face of a seemingly unending time of strife, violence, and conflict? Seek out beauty, depend upon hope…and dance, even in the face of unending war. Hope does not ignore the struggle, nor does it free us from the scars resulting from our struggles. The people of Israel will always carry the scars of their trauma with them; yet, scars also signify survival.

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