Hope vs. Fear: How competing narratives are pulling us apart

Photo via Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival (https://www.facebook.com/anewppc/)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the divisions in America right now.

Certainly, there are a lot of ideological things over which we are divided. And while those can be more complex and nuanced than we often are willing to observe, we tend to fall within ideological camps…conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, republican or democrat.

But while we have in the past found ways to reach across ideological divides to at least attempt to forge some kind of common good, the very idea of such compromise is now seen as weakness. As selling out. Giving up.

And I suspect that a lot of that is because what we’re really competing over isn’t who controls the seats of government and policy decisions.

What we’re competing over is what our dominant narrative is going to be.

And Christianity is right in the middle of it.

What does hope hope for?

The way I see it—and I admit this is a grossly oversimplified observation—we are witnessing a battle between a hope-based narrative and a fear-based narrative.

Now, one would think that Christianity would embrace the hope-based narrative. After all, hope is what the thing we call the gospel—the good news of Jesus—is supposed to be founded in.

The problem is, many of us have lost sight of what our hope is really supposed to be in.

We’ve replaced the New Testament hope of transformed lives leading to a renewed community based in justice, mercy, and compassion with an escapist desire for a life of postmortem luxury once we shake our earthly coils.

The former seeks to sacrifice self for the good of all. It’s eternal because of its thorough inclusivity.

The latter sacrifices all for the good of self. It’s what I once heard called an evacuation theology based on a distrust that the good news might actually be good for everyone, not just a privileged few.

And when self-interest is the driver of our hope, it becomes encased in an overarching fear of losing it all.

What are we protecting?

To be fair, this is not a new problem. It’s evident in the Genesis myths of creation. It’s embedded in theologies of original sin.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and other contending sects in Jesus’ time all had their own competing fear-based narratives around which they imagined God would deliver their people from Roman occupation.

Under Constantine, when Christianity became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire, fear-based nationalist narratives gave a marginalized group of justice seekers political power and influence.

A power and influence that had to be protected and maintained.

And once something needs to be protected and maintained, fear of losing it has already taken root.

Fear masquerading as hope

It was fear masquerading as hope that led to the atrocities of the Crusades and the genocide of indigenous peoples during the expansion of various European empires…most notably, for our purposes at least, of the First Nations peoples of the Americas.

It was fear masquerading as hope that saw southern economies boom under the atrocities and dehumanization of slavery.

It was fear masquerading as hope that saw the promise of the Reconstruction era wiped away under the fist of Jim Crow.

And it continues to be fear masquerading as hope that fuels the fires of white Christian nationalism and its refusal to wrestle with centuries of systemic racism and the white supremacy that is baked into our American legal, social, and political institutions.

The way is easy and the gate is wide

But fear is easier than hope, isn’t it?

It’s so much simpler to defend what you think you have than to share it with others.

After all, we’ve worked for all of this, haven’t we?

We’ve earned it.

We deserve it.

That’s the false narrative that fear breeds. Loss of what’s been accumulated.

The lie that anything belongs to you.

Wealth. Property. Power. Privilege. Influence. Security. Control.

The way is hard and the gate is narrow

By contrast, the competing narrative of hope is anything but easy.

Because hope, real hope, requires giving something away.

The false narrative of fear says that the only way path to joy and happiness is to accumulate and protect.

Which means it always comes at the expense of someone else’s joy and happiness.

But the true narrative of hope says that we must lose our lives to find them.

That the first must become last.

It’s by far the riskier path.

Lifting from the bottom

In his remarks at the close of last weekend’s Poor People’s Campaign Virtual March on Washington: A National Call for Moral Revival, Rev. Dr. William Barber summarized it like this:

“When you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.”

Hope is only real when it exists for everyone.

Fear benefits the few at the expense of the many.

My encouragement, for people who embrace hope, is to remember this:

That fear always appears to be winning right up until it doesn’t.

Keep hoping.

Love always wins.

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