Have you ever noticed how long it takes you to really ingest the meaning of something? At home, we’re super fond of The Series of Unfortunate Events, and the author Lemony Snickett, narrates throughout the story, and is prone to providing not only definitions of more sophisticated words but also the meanings of idioms like being in “the belly of the beast.” Snickett always forewarns how horrible the story is and how we should really look away rather than watch the tragedy unfold, and in the last episode of the second season, he says that the phrase “the belly of the beast” will be repeated three times, which it is.
On a far different note, what I’ve heard distinctly at least three times here of late, has to do with hope. I know, it’s Easter, the season of Resurrection: of course I’ve heard about hope.
But listen with me.
When I was at the Cultivating an Interfaith Mindset in Rural Arkansas gathering in Conway, Teri Daily, the priest now at All Saints’ in Russellville, shared again the story of how St. Peter’s in Conway got involved in a project in Syria, supporting a school there through The Wisdom House Project primarily under the leadership of Mouaz Moustafa. Through his contacts in Syria, he was able to get supplies to the teachers and thus the students, and they were actually able to video conference so they could communicate as directly as possible with the donors here in Arkansas. It’s amazing, really, and Teri shared how meaningful it was and is that they were able to do something so directly impactful on a horrible situation that we know has only gotten worse. In fact, the school the group supported had to close in its previous location due to bombing, yet they regrouped, meeting in various smaller locations and homes, very much an underground system. In all of this, what stands out to me most is this: Teri said that the Syrians were most grateful to know that someone in the West cared. She said they repeatedly said, “Thank you. Thank you.” They so emphatically thanked them because they had been told by the regime that no one cared, that they were forgotten by those on the outside, by the Western world (a hub of civilization and affluence). The regime was attempting to extinguish their hope, going as far as dropping flyers that told them as much. If the people fell into despair, they would lose all hope, and they would stop trying to resist. But … if they had signs that someone cared, tokens of recognition, then there was still hope, still a chance that things could be different, that they might survive the present horror.
That was during Lent that I heard the story again. Then comes Holy Week and Easter.
All the hope of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus was the one that would completely turn the tables of oppression, was crucified with Jesus on the cross. “Here’s your king,” the sign above Jesus mocked to those who had been “foolish” enough to follow him, to hope for the kingdom of which he spoke. Throughout Jesus’ life, he met people where they were, in their pain and suffering, their oppression or ostracization, and he saw them and ignited that spark of hope that there could be another way, a way that empowered them, too, with a role in manifesting a society, a world, where they mattered, where they were valued. In this scriptural raising the valleys and lowering mountains, it also meant that those in power were also called out on their hypocrisy and complicity. It stung those in power when Jesus addressed them, and we get a sense of the discomfort again in Peter’s words to those who advocated for Jesus’s crucifixion. But that’s not the end of the story, even for those who shouted “Crucify him!” There’s hope because death was not the end of Jesus Christ. There truly is a way to life everlasting. The images Jesus painted of the kingdom of heaven reveal for us–in a way we can understand it–of God’s dream for humanity. And the powers that be in this world are not strong enough to annihilate that dream for us.
And then there’s the lecture at Crystal Bridges, where Patrisse Kahn-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, addresses a full audience. I went because Black lives do matter. I went because I’m so increasingly aware of the inequity in our society. I went because I see so many Episcopalians there, even ones who may not be here at services. Her 45 minutes went too quickly. She spoke briefly about being an artist. She spoke mostly about working with others to make viral and public what was happening to black-skinned folks at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect and serve them or what’s happening to them once they’re within the not-so-seemingly just justice system. She spoke again about art and imagination. And she said that if you want to annihilate a people, if you want to dehumanize a person, you kill their imagination . . . because without imagination they have no hope. They see no other way. The way things are become the way things are, and the stop and frisk and shouting and yelling and drug war and violence and innocent murders and invisibility are normalized.
As if this wouldn’t have been enough of a moving presentation, I bought her book on impulse and have been engrossed in it, in her life. The book’s called When They Call You a Terrorist. As I read and remember and think on the way things are, I realize that most people would understand if Patrisse had lost hope, if she were numb or immobilized. But thank God for her persistent imagination, her persistent faith, her dedication to love. Her hope endures, and because she can imagine a different future, she has goals that give her actions. In Ethics of Hope Jürgen Moltmann says, “If we hope for an alternative future, we shall already change things now as far as possible in accord with that.” Patrisse, who has studied not only art but also theology and community organizing, knows this. She knows it in her very being.
And so do we, as Easter people. We know there will be times or powers that be that try our souls, but we have hope. Sometimes it’s harder to sustain, but it’s in our very being. It’s ignited when we’re in the presence of that which reminds us of the presence of Christ. Like when the disciples realized that their hearts burned within them as the risen yet unrecognized Jesus opened the Scripture to them as they walked toward Emmaus. Like when we stand in the midst of our friends and neighbors, united in a common cause for a greater good–be that a march or rally or at a bedside in the hospital. Hope is a part of the very air we breathe as I think of Jesus giving the breath of the Holy Spirit to the disciples as described in the Gospel according to John. Jesus brought forth a new Way and gives us the power to carry on to fulfill God’s dream for us.
Even if we find ourselves in “the belly of the beast,” we have our Christian hope–the same today as it was for the martyrs of old. While we–I pray–don’t have to worry about the threat of the horrors of the arena, we are at risk of being consumed by injustice, lethargy, and apathy, the things that may very well be direct opposites of faith, hope, and love. But our Christian hope, grounded in our bond and affection with and for the divine imagination, yearns for beloved community in which all abide in love, where righteousness and peace kiss each other, and where love meets our fears, anxieties, and worries, and with full faith says, “Peace be with you,” the same words Jesus greets the disciples with and still speaks in our hearts and minds today.