Hope as an Ethical Imperative

Having faith in the power of an ethical/spiritual vision guides our action and activism toward revitalization, justice and compassion.

An Offering in Honor of Stefan Presser, Minyan Dorshei Derekh, December 2020

Before the presidential election, I was trained to be present at a polling place to support people whose right to vote might be challenged. Though my experience at the polling place was, fortunately, uneventful, my sense of how critical it was that I be out fighting to protect our democracy and voting rights was and is very strong. My hope that our democratic process would withstand the threats against us — that every legal vote would be cast and counted — was the only outcome I allowed myself to imagine. My hope for that outcome was not a feeling, but an existential position, an ethical imperative.

As we face with urgency not only the divisiveness and suffering in this country caused by centuries of economic and racial injustice, and as we are living through climate change and a pandemic rooted in climate change, I would like to share a Midrash from Genesis Rabbah that I first heard from Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, that speaks powerfully to this moment.

The Midrash asks:

How did Noah manage to survive the flood and live to see his children exit the ark, thus begetting a new generation of humanity? How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging into the sea? How did Joseph go from being shackled in prison to a governor in Pharaoh’s court? How did Mordechai go from being ready for the gallows to executing his executioners?

In other words, what made it possible for Noah and Moses, Joseph and Mordechai, to transform the life-threatening situations in which they were living into a radically transformed reality? Fortunately, the midrash doesn’t just ask the question. It offers an answer. It says that for each of these biblical characters, the answer is the same. Ela ra’ah olam hadash. It was because they could see a new world. An Olam Hadash (Genesis Rabbah 30:8). Each of these biblical characters was able to imagine new ways of being and living. Their vision strengthened them, gave them direction and enabled them to meet the challenges of their historic moment and to prevail by creating a radically new and different reality.

The midrash teaches that it is our moral imagination, our ability to envision the world we hope to live into that makes it possible to transform our current situation and bring a new world into being. The contemporary Indian author and human-rights activist Arundhati Roy echoes this ancient midrash as she speaks directly out of and into our current situation:

“Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this … despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can … [be] ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”[1]

Hope is an ethical imperative. That means having faith in the power of an ethical/spiritual vision to guide our action and activism towards revitalization, justice and compassion. Hope is an ethical imperative because when we face extraordinary challenges, despair drains us of energy and commitment. Taking a stand for our hoped-for outcome empowers our work towards it.

In a 2011 commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Amory Lovins, a physicist, a founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an international visionary, said: “We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about. … Fear of specific and avoidable danger has evolutionary value. … But pervasive dread, lately promoted by some who want to keep us pickled in fear, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world, all the suffering and asks how dare I propose solutions: Isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can: “I can see why you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”[2]

Joanna Macy, a much-beloved Buddhist teacher and longtime environmental activist says: “Active hope doesn’t require our optimism. We can apply it even … where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention, we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we … let our intention be our guide.

“Active hope is a practice. … It is something we do rather than have. … First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify … the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves in that direction.”[3]

I’ve heard Macy put forth a version of the following question when she speaks about the dire situation of the Earth: If a dearly beloved family member or friend is dangerously ill and you know death is a real possibility, would you walk away, give up and do nothing for them because you don’t feel hopeful about their survival? How can we do that in relationship to our beloved Mother Earth?

In 2012, in her book Active Hope, Macy put forth a vision that is ever more critically meaningful today. She describes three world-shaping stories that co-exist uncomfortably at this moment in our nation:

1. The first is “Business as Usual,” the view that economic growth must continue, and that for a market economy to grow, we need to consume more and more than we already do. From this perspective, climate change is irrelevant to the dramas or choices of our personal lives.

2.  The second story is the “Great Unraveling.” According to this story, the world we’ve been accustomed to living in is in the midst of unraveling. The world our children and grandchildren will inherit will be radically different than the world we grew up in. The conditions of the next generation will be much worse than for people living today because of economic decline, natural-resource depletion, climate change, mass extinction of species, worldwide pandemics, social division, increasing numbers of climate refugees and war. This is the story that punctures the illusion we can continue with business as usual. It is the story penetrating our consciousness and breaking through denial ever more fiercely these days. The pandemic has brought climate change up close and personal to privileged folk in the first world.

The stories of “Business as Usual” and “The Great Unraveling” are contrasting accounts of the state of our world. The story of “Business as Usual” is increasingly being disrupted by the reality of the mess we are in. The pandemic is part of that mess, and it is crucial that we understand how the pandemic is rooted in climate change and the economic growth story. This will be true, whether or not a vaccine helps us out of our current crisis in the coming months.

3.  The third story is “The Great Turning,” one that has begun to catch on more and more: the commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth, as well as the vision, courage and solidarity to do so. This involves a rethinking of the way we do things, and the creative redesigning of the structures and systems that make up our society. This is the enormous challenge of our moment. The ethical imperative is to give ourselves to that story so it can act through us, breathing new life into what we do, and what we demand and expect of ourselves, our government and our leaders.

Such a profound transformation requires that we keep reading, learning, talking with each other, sharing ideas and practices, working together and supporting each other to make changes in our lives and insist that our government turn the gigantic ship of state towards policies and action that are in alignment with the truths about the mess we are in.  This is not a solo practice. It must be a communal practice, a societal practice, a global practice. We need each other for learning, for motivation and for inspiration. We need to be able to see with new eyes together to find and do our part to create an olam hadash.

The United States is also at a crucial point of inflection about race, brought about not only by the persistence and greater visibility of systemic police violence but also because we can see that economically vulnerable populations, mostly black and brown people, have been more devastated by the pandemic. One of the gateways between this world and the next that has been opened by the pandemic has to do with race. I have been oriented and guided by far-seeing social-justice activists who are articulating ethical and spiritual visions for American futures that we must fight for.

Here is the vision of Valarie Kaur, a daughter of Sikh immigrants who is now a civil-rights activist connected to Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign. She shared these words on Nov. 4, 2020.

“Our nation is in transition. These last convulsive years are part of a larger transition in our country. In the next 25 years, the number of people of color in this country will exceed the number of white people for the first time since colonization. And we are at a crossroads. Will we birth a nation that has never been? A nation that has never been in the history of the world, a nation made up of other nations. A nation that is truly multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-cultural,  where power is shared, and we strive to protect the dignity, the wellness, the safety of all. Or will we continue to descend into a kind of civil war? Into a power struggle with those who want to return America to a past where only a certain class of people hold dominion.

“This power struggle has been going on for a very long time in this country. The founders of our nation crafted the U.S. Constitution to consolidate power for white Christian men of an elite class. The rest of us were simply not counted in ‘We the people … ’

“And yet the founders had invoked words that even they could not constrain:  justice, freedom, equality, the guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These were magical words that … seized the imagination of people for whom they were never meant. In every generation, black and brown people, and white accomplices, have risen up in movements to unleash the magic of these words, to bleed for these words, to expand these words so ‘We the people’ would include more and more and more of us.

“These last four years, you have wept and prayed and grieved and marched and raged and fought and now you have voted and gotten out the vote. Now I ask you to stay in the labor.  Stay in the labor with love. Because America, our America, is a nation that is still waiting to be born, and the only way that we will birth that nation is if we do so with love.

“Love calls us to look on the face of anyone and say: You are a part of me I do not yet know. Love calls us to be brave with our grief and take in those wounded and neglected and abused as our own flesh and blood. To harness our rage in the face of injustice because the purpose of divine rage is not vengeance, but to reorder the world. Love refuses to leave anyone outside our circle of care. For we are one family, even those who vote against us. For the only way we will birth an America for all is if we leave no one behind. So let us vow to be brave with our love, love for others and love for ourselves. For you matter. Your life matters, and the only way we will last is if we let joy into our bodies and breath. Sing, dance, breathe, rejoice, let joy in. Joy will give us the energy for that long labor ahead. Laboring with love and with joy is the meaning of life.”[4]

For many decades, the vision of America as a nation still waiting to be born has animated the creative work of black activists and artists such as Langston Hughes, Dr. Vincent Harding, Maya Angelou and many others. In an essay written for On Being blog, titled Is America Possible?, Harding wrote:

“It is precisely in a period of great spiritual and societal hunger like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world and for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the creation of new realities — especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and songs to become embodied; to take on flesh, in real, hard places.”[5]

Still, oppressive structures, ideologies and beliefs that have existed for centuries can become so embedded within us that they take on an aura of inevitability. When this happens, our moral imagination is sapped or disabled in ways we are not even aware of. I recommend Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson resurrects the concept of “caste hierarchy” to describe how the dominant white caste, living under the illusion of innate superiority, have used power and terror to keep African-Americans in the bottom tier, deemed innately inferior: exploited physically, economically, legally and socially. She shares many stories that describe vividly the ways in which this hierarchy gets internalized psychologically and enacted in social relationships of all kinds. She explores parallels, overlaps, similarities and shared origins of how an American caste system was constructed and continues to shape our common life in America, differently, but not differently enough, from India and Nazi Germany.

After the election, I read the words of Ruby Sales, the well-known Black activist, who at the age of 6 was the first child to integrate into an all-White elementary school in New Orleans. Ruby is now a 72-year-old woman, still an activist, who has dedicated her life to working for social and racial justice. And yet even a courageous activist like Ruby had her vision temporarily occluded because of how caste can get embedded in our souls, how powerful despair can be and how easily we can slide towards it. Listen for the shift in her perspective as she ponders the results of our recent election. Her words were enormously helpful to me and might well be for you, because, after the election, my vision was distorted in much the same way as hers … until I read her words:

“It is another end of a long and emotional day. Yet this day was different from all other ones in the last four years. Hope is everywhere because we have come through four years of unimaginable despair and grief. … However we are headed towards a new tomorrow where a new horizon dawns.

“Yesterday I could not see the clearing, and I slumped for a moment as I focused my eyes on the fact that 55% of white women … and 58% of white men voted [for things to continue as they have for these four years]. These stats captured my mind and spirit.

“My sight was narrowed by despair because I looked at these stats through the White gaze. It was one that extols and reinforces the power of Whiteness and raises it up to the normative majority even when it is the weakened minority.

“In doing so, I diminished our collective power while making us invisible. Instead, I centered White lives rather than our diverse lives. Consequently, I overlooked the important point that the 55% and 58% of White women and men did not represent the total universe of men and women (in America). Rather these statistics only represent a high percentage within White America instead of the broadness of a diverse multi-ethnic and intergenerational America.

“Because I fell into this trap of making this group my reference and starting point, I missed the significant and most hopeful meaning of the moment which was right before my eyes in clear sight. It is the new 21st century multi-ethnic coalition which is larger and … [more] democratized: 40% of White men voted for change.

43% of White women voted for change. 80% of Black men voted for change. 91% of Black women voted for change. 61% of Latinx men voted for change. 70% of Latinx women voted for change. 60% additional races of color voted for change.

This coalition of men, women, multi-ethnic and intergenerational formation is the evidence of a new 21st-century community coalition that destabilizes White supremacy. This new community … sets in motion the concrete manifestation of a dream that flows toward a multi-ethnic democracy. It is in this new story and vision that we find hope. … This is the hope to which we must hitch our work. It is this hope that has galvanized generations of Americans who kept on working towards it even in the nation’s worst moments.”[6]

As we gather tonight, on the third night of Hanukkah, it is important to connect with the energy of this holy season and remind ourselves, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow reminds us, that: “Hanukkah was created in a time of resisting tyranny and honoring the resistance with a teaching and a practice: ‘Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Breath of Life’ (Zechariah 4:6). And the proof of the efficacy of that practice is that one day’s energy, one day’s olive oil, met eight days’ needs! If we resist tyranny and refuse to worship idols, we could learn how to make sure that it could take only a minimum of nature’s energy to serve us… we (can) and need to create social systems that not only sustain us but allow for us and the Earth we’re harvesting to mutually sustain one another. Forever.”[7]

As we continue to light Hanukkah candles this week, and celebrate the power of faith and even the possibility of miracles, may we remember that “hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory.”[8]

May the light of these holy days help us see with new eyes, as we find the strength and courage to bring forth the world in which we hope to live and pass on to our children and grandchildren, an olam hadash.

May it be so.  

[1] Arundhati Roy: “The pandemic is a portal” |  read  | Financial Times (ft.com)

[2] Applied Hope | by Amory Lovins | Medium  https://medium.com/@amorylovins,applied-hope-8968f96d3

[3] Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, Active Hope (New World Library, 2012), p. 3.

[4] Valarie Kaur on her Facebook page, 11/4/20.

[5] Vincent Harding, https://onbeing.org/blog/is-america-possible/

[6] Shared as a personal communication by a friend.

[7] https://theshalomcenter.org  Search: Green Menorah Covenant:#8Days4ClimatePlanning Hanukkah, 11/23/20.

[8] Hope Is a Muscle: The On Being Project (Krista Tippet)  https://onbeing.org/starting-points/hope-is-a-muscle

Barbara Breitman

Bobbi has served as assistant professor of pastoral counseling at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She co-created RRC’s Program in Jewish Spiritual Direction and directs the training and supervision of its spiritual directors. Stemming from her work at RRC, Bobbi was instrumental in creating Spiritual Direction programs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and at Hebrew College. She founded Lev Shomea, the first training institute of Jewish spiritual directors and co-edited the book Jewish Spiritual Direction.

Bobbi is a licensed clinical social worker and trauma-trained psychotherapist with a mind-body orientation. She taught Advanced Practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Social Work. As an avid yoga practitioner and activist, Bobbi has ongoing interest in how contemplative practices can ground and deepen social-justice work.

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