Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Article: Our Paradox Of Hope

A version of the following essay appeared in this week's edition of Student Movement, the student newspaper of Andrews University.
Our Paradox of Hope
By David Hamstra

As John McCain’s swerving reaction to the subprime mortgage crisis gave America political whiplash, Barack Obama, who was behind in the polls, kept his cool and a steady hand on the wheel of his campaign. Today, political pundits attribute the President’s ultimate success not only to his ability to inspire massive crowds of devoted supporters but also to his steady response to that crisis, which won over skeptical swing voters. In his inaugural address Obama again tempered his soaring, inspirational rhetoric with a straightforward assessment of challenges we would prefer to ignore, combining enthusiasm with realism to produce a compelling message of hope.

I watched that speech live at the Howard Center, along with a capacity crowd of the Andrews community, and afterwards reflected on the difference between our new President’s address and the short program by which our student and faculty leadership introduced it. A prevailing current of unmitigated celebration flowed through the Howard—unmitigated, because our university leaders, apparently caught up in the emotion of the moment, did not combine enthusiasm with the challenging message of Scripture.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…” (Ps. 146:3-5, NRSV).

Hope is an eschatological word. Eschatology is the way a belief system explains the end of this era and the transition into a new (and presumably better) era. There are secular eschatologies, Hindu eschatologies, and Christian eschatologies; nearly every major belief system has at least one. Their purpose is usually to generate hope in those who believe.

President Obama’s message of hope is grounded in his optimistic belief that we have the ability to solve the great problems humanity faces. His hope is compatible with the humanist eschatology, which believes human societal and scientific development can usher in a new age of peace and prosperity. Obama’s message is also compatible with the mainline Christian eschatology of postmillennialism, which believes the spread of the gospel will promote human development and usher in a thousand years of peace and prosperity after which Christ will come and take us to heaven.

By contrast, the Adventist message of hope is grounded in exclusive trust in the ability of God to save us. We are prophetically pessimistic about the ability of humanity to bring about lasting solutions to the problems of peace and equality. Indeed, we can historically point out that powerful movements for social change often result in tyranny (such as the “Final Solution”). Adventists are therefore premillennialists; we believe that the second coming will result in destruction of the current, corrupted world, which must precede the restoration of the humanity to its original state.

In short, Adventists believe things will get worse before they get better, which is why the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama presented the Andrews community with a paradox of hope. On the one hand, how could we not rejoice in an event that symbolized the triumph of the civil rights movement? On the other, how could we celebrate a ceremony that alternatively located us farther away from the second coming than we had hoped or closer to a political unity that could bring about the end-time persecution we hope to delay? And feeling forced to choose between the two responses, our university leadership ran with the former.

This paradox is not unique to Adventists but a symptom of the major problem with premillennial eschatologies in general. They do not explain in an obvious way why Christians should fulfill the biblical mandates to make things better in this world. Why work to alleviate poverty when it is only going to get worse? Why unite with unbelievers to save the planet when it is just going to burn? Why waste time with civil rights when Heaven will heal our divisions?

Yet our pioneers, who believed the second coming was so close it could happen anytime, were involved in the great progressive causes of their day, including the abolitionist movement, and attracted some of the great progressive activists of their time, such as Sojourner Truth. I propose that to them the premillenial second coming was not an excuse to let society go to hell but rather Divine permission to bring heaven to society, because their imperfect efforts would soon be validated by radical and everlasting change. In this context, Adventists can whole-heartedly celebrate the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States as a penultimate realization of the hope for racial equality, yet our joy must be tempered by the reality that our ultimate hope of perfect harmony in the human family awaits a fulfillment that transcends our faltering achievement.

In moments that call for heady optimism or hard-nosed realism, President Obama chooses to craft a creative balance. As he framed the presentation of Obama’s inaugural address to the Andrews community, President Andreasen spoke of the things we must learn from the next American president. I submit that Obama’s ability to lead by bringing together seemingly contradictory yet equally correct attitudes would be a good place to start.