Stronger Than We Look: Ten Tendrils of Hope for 2017

"Through the sidewalk" courtesy flickr user wintersoul1 via Creative Commons

In years past I have sometimes been tasked by RD with working up a year-end list of religion-implicated stories that were either missed or botched in the mainstream media. This year the looming Trumpocalypse renders this kind of parsing exercise somewhat de trop. 

On the other hand, “Ten Reasons To Shoot Ourselves in the Face” struck me and the editors as slightly too dramatic, whereas “Ten Reasons to Rejoice” rang false in what we must acknowledge is a very grim time. I propose “tendrils of hope” as an apt formulation. Tendrils are living things, and they are often much stronger than they look. Readers are urged to quarrel with this list or make up their own list. The point is to keep hope alive.

Here, then, are ten tendrils that offer reason to remain hopeful despite it all:

1. Clarity, maybe. This year we gained an opportunity to achieve greater clarity about how fear and hate reinforce each other, how inspired demagoguery foments both, and how fatal to the health of a body politic a deliberately induced tribalism can be. We would have known a good bit about this already had we ever paid serious attention to the formation and perpetuation of patriarchal white supremacy over the course of 500 years, and we won’t get real clarity now without reference to that ghastly history. That said, the triumph of a certified demagogue may work as a splash of cold water, providing a rude awakening. If so, it will be good to see so many more Americans finally “woke.”

2. Courage. Related to #1, we are also witnessing a widespread awakening to the idea of a civic duty to resist, beginning with a duty to resist the lies and fake news that are deployed to stir up hatred. Some key media figures, notably Charles Blow, are talking up active resistance, but everyday people are having their own conversations about how to live responsibly as winter soldiers rather than as sunshine patriots.

3. Contested faith, first instance. While al-Qaeda and ISIS vie for control of fanatical forces in Syria and Iraq, across the world we can also see significant pushback within Islam against Wahhabism and Salafism and against all forms criminality committed under cover of piety. Reza Aslan speaks credibly of this as an Islamic Reformation moment.

4.  Contested faith, second instance. Let’s not forget Pope Francis’s continuing emphasis on forgiveness & restoration. Yes, I know: these hints and gestures are baby steps at best. But they remain significant in the context of a ginormous institution that was self-asphyxiating for so many decades. Plus Francis is slowly but surely reshaping the College of Cardinals—the ultimate “electoral college” from a Catholic point of view.

5. No peace without justice. There is no sign of diminishing energy, and in fact there is strengthening determination everywhere, to move forward on all the critical issues raised by #BlackLivesMatter.

6. Spirit of Standing Rock. The powerful Native American spirituality shining through at Standing Rock has not only given strength to the anti-pipeline protest in North Dakota but has also prompted long-overdue repentance on the part of some Christians. As well, the significance of American military veterans showing up in numbers offers another marker of the very important conscientization now going on among the veterans of America’s more recent imperial adventures.

7. Prayerful Democrats. It can’t be bad to see sober reflection among the leading national Democrats about having lost their way. Finally there’s some recognition that they can’t cater to the whims and wishes of the 1 percent and still expect to pass muster as the “party of the people.” We can also take heart from the evident determination of the progressive states, led by California, to defend immigrant communities and to push forward on climate change mitigation in the teeth of Trump’s wrecking crew.

8. People vs. Pelf. While Americans may have just elected a self-dealing manipulator, this year also witnessed a startling string of people’s victories against kleptocratic regimes in Latin America, Africa and Asia (offering hope that operators of Trump’s stripe can’t always get away with it).

9. Bracing scholarship. This year gave us a further flowering of the important new scholarship that goes to the buried truth of White Male Violence Disorder and that also goes to the religious roots of same. I will mention just one new book that will shake the foundations for anyone who reads it: American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, by Ned and Constance Sublette. But there is also a welter of excellent reporting on the present-day deformations created by this gruesome history. Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City comes to mind.

10. Bracing art. We are surely blessed to have a huge outpouring of powerful new art that complements the new scholarship in its capacity for telling hard truths and fueling revolutionary love. I am thinking here of the new work by Anna Deavere Smith, Ava Duvernay, Nate Parker, Barry Jenkins, Lynn Nottage and Colson Whitehead, among others. This despite the unhelpful hagiography of Broadway’s “Hamilton” and despite ongoing efforts by triumphalist biographers (e.g., Jon Meacham and Joseph Ellis) to ennoble deeply problematic figures like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson.