Christian hope in times of global economic crisis

By  Fr. Emeka Xris Obiezu, OSA, Catholic Register Special
  • January 8, 2009
{mosimage}That our faith bears responsibility for discerning and responding to the “signs of the time” is a conviction Christian theology has constantly maintained. In this tradition crisis is defined as kairos, a moment of truth and judgment that reveals us as we truly are. Though that moment may indicate failure and disaster, when surmounted, it provides a sense of freedom, an opportunity for growth and renewed effort. The challenge facing Christians in a time of crisis is: “how do we understand and respond to this moment?”

Early in the present economic disaster, an American single mother returning from work with her daughter discovered that the bank had locked them out of their home. Her surprising reaction was: “I know that my redeemer lives, I firmly hope that God will see me through this.”

To a CNN journalist, her attitude seemed idealistic, a simplistic attempt to rise above the harsh realities of life. With obvious skepticism, he repeatedly reminded her of the gravity of her predicament and the improbability of finding shelter. Unlike the journalist, I see her response as reminiscent of the biblical hope described in the book of Lamentations. 

Living with the reality of the Babylonian invasion and consequent exile, Israel struggled to find meaning and a new beginning. From their plight emerged the book of Lamentations, a collection of prayerful poems. In chapter 3:21-24 the author writes:  “But this I called to mind and therefore I have hope. . . . The steadfastness of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him.’ ”  Hope is that theological virtue by which we trust that the true happiness promised by God will surely be ours even in adversity.

Like the prophetic poet, our American believer’s hope did not insulate her from the pain of the moment with a simplistic promise that the sufferings of the present life cannot be compared with the glory that awaits us hereafter. Neither did that hope compel her to continue living passively in her present condition. Included in her hope is the cry of anger that contrasts present misery with past serenity, the suffering of the vanquished, petition for release and the hope of mercy. Rather than engaging in a blame game, such hope acknowledges a collective responsibility for the crisis and calls for a common effort to redress the situation.

This concept of hope is consistent with that Augustinian hope whose two daughters are anger and courage — “anger that things are not what they ought to be, courage to make them what they might be.” Hope confronts the consumerism and individualism that underlie the socio-economic system that led to this quagmire; it bemoans the greed and irresponsibility fostered by a belief that fulfilment and prestige derive from the accumulation of material goods. It rejects the attitude that sees the “other” as a mere object of selfish interest, an attitude which measures development by economic indices, without any reference to human and environmental values.

Hope helps us recover the truth that material things are always means, never the goal of our love; that goal is God. Our hope draws us to a solidarity that cares for the common good, ensures just and equitable distribution of the Earth’s wealth and creates new relationships that give identity to individuals and groups.

Hope impels us to provide immediate relief and at the same time to challenge our social institutions and systems. Christianity does not offer an alternative economic system; yet sees what others fail to see or pretend not to see. Today, as the different branches of government are locked in a political battle of bailouts and economic stimulus packages, we need to identify the ultimate beneficiaries of these programs. While action is imperative, hope demands a more fundamental change of lifestyle.

In times of deepening crisis, we can discover the meaning and characteristics of Christian hope. We are reminded that Christian hope is both eschatological and earthly. Hope enables us to commit to concrete actions that improve life here and now. It also elicits our humility insofar as it shows us that, irrespective of our efforts, our search for happiness cannot be satisfied in this world or by any human person or institution. It belongs to the hereafter and is a gift of God alone.

Above all, as Canadian theologian Gregory Baum avers, at a time like this, our hope generates in us the confidence that, even though our expectations and efforts may be frustrated, the future will be blessed. This conviction, says Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czech Republic, keeps us striving, not just because we stand a chance to succeed, but because our goal is good. 

Hope builds, not on the certitude that it will turn out well, but that it makes sense. It is here that hope is distinguished from optimism. According to Baum, while “optimism prompts people to overlook the destructive possibilities of the present and paint for themselves a rosy picture of the future (just as our leaders seem to claim with their various bailout and economic stimulus packages), hope dares to confront the evidence of possible future.”

What our American believer wished to convey to the CNN journalist is that Christian hope in any time is, according to Jim Wallis, the American Evangelical writer, political activist and founder of Sojourners Community, “not simply a mood or a rhetorical flourish.” It is a very dynamic engine with the capacity to transform history. Concluding in the words of Havel, hope, “gives us the strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do” today. 

(Fr. Obiezu, is an Augustinian priest, associate pastor of St Brigid parish Toronto and student of political theology at Regis College.)

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