This morning is the second Sunday of Advent, which, in Christian churches, is the first season of a brand-new liturgical year. In congregations which traditionally light the candles of an Advent wreath on each of the four Sunday’s of Advent, last week’s candle would have been a candle of hope, and this morning’s candle would be a candle of love or faith.
During this month of December, we, too, will begin to focus on the theme of hope, for hope is an integral part of this season.
Those who celebrate Advent are hoping for something good to happen. They are honoring the coming of Jesus into the world as a baby two millennia ago. And they are hoping for Jesus to come again, either metaphorically or literally, during what is, in this hemisphere, the coldest, darkest, most barren time of the year.
The rest of us, those of us who do not identify as Christian, are simply waiting for the light and warmth of the sun to return, as our ancestors have for many thousands of years, sometimes with fear and trepidation, always with hope, although not always with certainty that they would survive through the winter until the next harvest bore fruit.
Many of us are also waiting, hopefully, but not always very patiently or with great certainty, for the return of the better angels of our human nature as we witness the spectacles of callousness and cruelty played out on the political stage. We are hoping the tide of white supremacy and nationalism that have risen anew in this country will soon turn. We are hoping that migrant children and families will be reunited, and we are working toward that end. We are hoping, still and again, for a world in which no one will go hungry, where everyone will have a safe, warm place to lay their head at night, where all who are in need of affordable medical care will receive it, where hatred and violence will be no more.
We are hoping, and yet, will all that is broken in this world, and with those in power making decisions each day that seem to exacerbate that brokenness, it is easy to despair.
There is a kind of hope that leads to resistance, and I’ll talk more about that later in the month because certainly there is much that we ought to continue to resist. But this morning I want to focus on the hope that keeps us from falling into despair, first and foremost.
The thing that most challenges my ability to be hopeful these days, as I have mentioned before, is climate change, with its warming seas, its melting permafrost, its fast-approaching tipping points. Certainly, there are ways we can resist that, too. There are things that we can still do to slow the warming. All is not yet lost.
And yet, so much about the climate is out of my control, and yours. And soon, it could be out of human control altogether.
And so, these days, when I think about hope, this is the obstacle that I have to tackle first. In the face of looming climate catastrophe, how are we to look ahead, how are we to resist all the things that need to be resisted, with both realism and hope? For as Maria Popova has written, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naivete.” We need both.
Last month, during Native American Heritage Month, as we were reflecting on Memory, I began looking for sources of hope. And one of the resources that I discovered was a little book called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation by Jonathan Lear. Lear is a professor of philosophy and social thought at the University of Chicago. In this book he tells the story of Plenty Coups, who was the last great chief of the Crow Nation of indigenous peoples.
The Crow were traditionally a nomadic people, hunters and warriors, who lived along the Mississippi river in the 16th century. By 1700 they had migrated toward the territory of what is now Montana and Wyoming. There they were in continuous conflict over land and resources with other indigenous groups, including the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne, and, most prominently, the Sioux.
Plenty Coup was given his name in recognition of his bravery and success in battle. His name literally means Many Achievements. And Lear writes of the important symbolism among the Crow of what is called the “coup stick,” the stick with which they marked and claimed territory during battle, and also of the practice of “counting coup,” a ritual of acknowledging a warrior’s courage in battle. (13)
From the 1840’s on, the Crow people were “fighting to prevent [their] utter devastation” at the hands, not of the white people, but of the Sioux. Their “worst possible imaginable scenario” (23) was literally that the whole nation, already dramatically devastated at that time by small pox, could be killed by the Sioux in battle or enslaved in its aftermath.
And so, they chose to ally themselves with the US Government against the Sioux. And they agreed to move to what was, at the time, a sizeable reservation, in the hopes that they could retain their traditional lands, carry on their rituals, and maintain their culture.
Of course, from about 1851 through about 1887, that original territory was reduced significantly as the US Government ignored the treaties it had signed and the promises it had made. And, over time, everything that gave meaning to the Crow was taken away. Once they were confined to a smaller land mass, they could no longer live a nomadic life. They could no longer engage in battles for land and resources. There were no more coup sticks and no more counting coup. And as Plenty Coup himself said, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” (2)
In 1921, as part of a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he’d been invited to represent the Indian nations, Plenty Coups laid his coup stick and war bonnet atop the sarcophagus as a sign of burying them, in an act of symbolic recognition of the end of a way of life, a culture, and of everything that had traditionally given the Crow meaning.
I cannot do Lear’s book or Plenty Coup’s story justice in a single sermon. But Lear’s point in recounting the history of the Crow is to speculate about how a group of people “could be psychologically equipped to face a cultural collapse.” (62)
How does a people facing the very real possibility of utter cultural devastation, find hope, resist despair, and carry on?
It’s an important question for us, for we don’t know what our collective future will look like, given the reality of climate change, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we do know that our current way of life, and so much of what has given our lives meaning, must necessarily come to an end. The ways in which we have for so long measured success in our resource extraction-based capitalist economy must necessarily come to an end. The systems upon which we have come to rely, so many of them, will also quite possibly and quite utterly fail in their reliability.
Where can we pin our hope?
I recently came across a quote by a Sikh author named Valerie Kaur, and this feels like the right time to share it. She writes,
“The future is dark. But my faith dares me to ask: What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” “Remember the wisdom of the midwife: ‘Breathe,’ she says, then, ‘Push…’”
What sustained Plenty Coup through all the devastation that he both experienced and witnessed, was a dream that he’d had when he was but 9 years old, a dream that he’d had as part of a vision quest when he was just a boy. In his dream the buffalo, once plentiful, disappeared, and the land was over-run by strange spotted cattle from another place. His boyhood dream had predicted the end of his people’s way of life.
But it also presented him – and his people – with a path forward.
In his dream he was told to look to the little Chickadee, one of the smallest of birds, as an example of how to live in the world. He was told that while this little bird was “least in strength,” it was also “strongest in mind.” It is a good listener, a strong learner, who “never misses a chance to learn from others. [It] gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed…”
In his dream Plenty Coup was told, “It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.” (71)
It is not always the things we think will save us that are the most likely to save us.
This past week, a friend shared an op-ed on Facebook, written by a man named Chris Begley, who is both an archeologist and a wilderness survival instructor. The op-ed was titled, “I study collapsed civilizations. Here’s my advice for a climate change apocalypse.”
He says that because he has studied societies that have collapsed and because he is a skilled survival educator, people frequently ask him what he would do in the event of a disaster, what tools he would take, etc. They often imagine that if they have the right supplies and the right skills, they’ll be able to escape whatever chaos ensues and keep themselves and their loved ones alive until things settle down.
Our common “post-apocalyptic fantasies,” says Begly, “resonate with the rugged individualism and self-sufficiency that we imagine in ourselves.”
But what he goes on to say is this:
“While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive. Armed with those skills, we will turn towards the problem, not away from it. We will face the need, and we will have to solve it together. That is the only option. That’s what survival looks like.”
And I read that, and it occurred to me, hey, isn’t that why we join UU churches? To be part of a community of people committed to the sustenance and practice of values such as kindness and fairness, generosity, altruism and cooperation? Did you realize when you joined this church that we are here to learn important survival skills together?
This is where our hope lies, in community and in these values that we share. Not in wealth or in power or in might or force or dominion or dominance. Not in self-sufficiency or strength. Not in those things that we’ve been so often told are the measures of success in our society. We don’t know exactly what is coming, but a survival expert has, I believe, given us sound advice. It is not always the things we think will save us that are the most likely to. In fact, some of those things we have been told will save us are the very things of which we need to let go.
Jonathan Lear describes Plenty Coup’s dream as a manifestation of radical hope. And radical hope he defines as hope that “is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” (103)
In other words, we don’t know what is coming. It is, beyond our ability to imagine. We can imagine, we can see, what is coming to an end, what we will need to give up. But we cannot see what comes after that.
As Lear writes, “Precisely because Plenty Coups sees that a traditional way of life is coming to an end, he is in a position to embrace a peculiar form of hopefulness. It is basically the hope for revival: for coming back to life in a form that is not yet intelligible.” (95)
I will have more to say about hope in a couple of weeks but for now I want to leave you with these words from the writings of Howard Zinn. He says:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
May it be so.
Amen. And blessed be.