Waiting & Hoping

While standing on the platform, expecting a train to Machu Picchu, I noticed the sign to the waiting room. In Spanish, a waiting room uses the word associated with hope (‘la esperanza’): it is the ‘sala de espera’. At times it can feel in the UK that ‘hope’ would be a more fitting description for a waiting room on our less reliable routes. However, it led me to ponder whether there is any real distinction between waiting and hoping. Looking up the Spanish led me to an interesting thread, which includes discussion about the Bible translations of the two terms. Although there are alternative words in Spanish, in many cases – where either waiting and hoping would be used in English translations – it is the single verb ‘esperar’ that is favoured.

Perhaps the principal difference lies in the passivity of waiting. As with the example of a train station, waiting is what precedes movement and change. On the other hand, hope can be part of the journey. The people who travel from across the world to Europe, or across the border in the USA, are hoping to find safety and a new way of life. Writing about hope and waiting in the lives of migrants, Bendixsen and Eriksen ask questions about the different ways in which this can be experienced by people in an uncertain state of seeking refuge:

“What is it that we ‘do’ when we wait for something, given that waiting is normally defined as the opposite of ‘doing’ something? In what way can waiting be converted into political resistance? Waiting does in fact entail an engagement based on anticipation – an in-order-to motivation – of an improved life. How do conceptualizations of the future influence the ways in which people wait? And what can we say about people’s capacity to act in future-oriented ways even in a condition of temporal limbo?”

Bendixsen, S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2018). Time and the other: Waiting and hope among irregular migrants. Ethnographies of waiting: Doubt, hope and uncertainty, 87-112.

In his seminal book The Stature of Waiting WH Vanstone sees in the act of waiting the unfolding of Christ’s purpose. From the moment when Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers his willingness to be subject to the actions of others becomes the driving force of his mission. Here, waiting is not an absence of purpose but the only way in which salvation can come.

There are many things that can incline someone to journey hopefully. Often there is a life-long dialogue between the difficult experiences that are all too real, and the hope that is far more than simply wishful thinking. Such hope is strongly connected to the now, and sees the world as it could be and should be. Because of this connection hope itself is not static, but shifts as both our understanding and desire grow. Most often it is killed off by certainties we have decided are fixed and beyond change. For anyone finding faith difficult, Ronnie Scharfman expresses both the struggle to hope, and the hope-against-hope that faith might be found in the struggle:

I have always hoped
that struggling towards You
is You.
But I am never
And that is, perhaps,
You, too.

Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Prayer’ in The Poet’s Quest for God, 21st Century Poems of Doubt, Faith and Wonder, ed. Brennan, O., Swift, T., and Myddleton-Evans, C. Eyewear Publishing Ltd., London. 2016

The hope of faith during Advent requires courage. It is a time when the liturgy of the Church makes no bones about the darkness and suffering of the world, or the fact that the world as we know if will come to an end. Given the multiple crises assaulting the planet at the moment this seems less difficult to imagine. Holding any hope is an act of courage – a defiance of doom and a way to connect with others who share the idea that there is a better way. Perhaps this brings waiting and hoping back together, because our hopes are seldom realised quickly, and dissatisfied waiting can be a vocal irritant to the people who block the path to change.

Cartoon Catastrophe

In the cycle of the Church’s year we are now in the ‘Kingdom Season’. It lasts until Advent Sunday and features a lot of readings from apocalyptic Bible passages, with an emphasis on judgement and the end of the world. The season concludes next week with the last Sunday in the Church’s year – a celebration of Christ the King.

Sitting in Morning Prayer at York Minster during these days matches the appointed readings to the panels of the Great East Window. It is an experience that spans time. The Book of Revelations probably dates from the final years of the first century AD. The window was constructed between 1405 and 1408, and I ma sitting listening to one, and looking at the other, in the year 2022.

In some respects the window feels like a cartoon strip telling the story of the Book of Revelation. A way for people with limited reading ability to follow the Biblical account of the end times. The colours and depictions are vivid, with suitably grim and menacing monsters and angels variously inflicting several plagues. Each frame gives life to a passage from scripture, which can easily be followed with the excellent navigator website. Given the content of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it is hardly surprising that it has enjoyed a very mixed reception. For George Bernard Shaw Revelation is “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”. DH Lawrence hated it so much that he wrote his own commentary.

It is certainly true that outside the context in which it was written, the text is often puzzling and perplexing. When I did a course on the Book of Revelation in the 1980s, I recall being told that the text was meant to be heard – to be read aloud. Maybe it sits uncomfortably on the page because the visions and drive of the apocalypse is designed to be a crashing and pulsating narrative. The various sequences and repetitions suggest that this may be right.

In March 2020 many may have felt that apocalyptic events were unfolding in our own time. Perhaps there was an expectation that, however difficult, this was a trial humanity had to undergo before sunnier days would commence. Writing in the final weeks of 2022 it now appears that crises of major proportions are fact of life. Maybe there is something in the Book of Revelation that suggests an initial calamity precipitates subsequent disruptions? In choosing ‘permacrisis‘ for its 2022 ‘word of the year’, Collins Dictionaries is reflecting the challenge people are experiencing in attempting to return to turbulence of more familiar proportions. Along with the continuing lack of inter-governmental action on climate change, evidenced by the debates at Cop27, there is growing awareness of the plummeting diversity of species on the planet. It is certain that climate change and loss of biodiversity are connected issues. More and more of our planet bears the fingerprints of human involvement and, consequently, there is a vanishing number of true wildernesses in our world. On top of which, this year is likely to be the warmest on record for the UK.

Perhaps in the last 50 years we have become accustomed to a significant level of control in our economic and social order in the West. This is an exceptional experience for any human society, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to speculate that some fundamental issues may overpower us. In this respect at least, we have something in common with those who first heard the revelation of St John the Divine. Individually there is only a small amount we can do to meet the permacrises of the present. It requires a bigger and more international solution.

The apocalypse literature of this season encourages us to consider the shape of the future if we don’t change. The books of Daniel and Revelation suggest that we cannot predict the future as confidently as we should like. The dizzying imagery of these visions remind us that we sow today what we shall reap tomorrow. Both in personal faith and actions of collective responsibility, we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Apocalyptic literature should focus our minds and stir our spirits to work for a future where there is hope for our world.

Land and Liberation

The forced loss of land is probably the chief cause of the world’s most entrenched political and personal discord. In The West Wing, in a throwaway comment about Palestinian resettlement in the episode entitled Gaza, Admiral Fitzwallace remarks: “You know, after 50 years, one option might be to get over it”. The comment doesn’t recognise the enduring wounds of injustice which haunt people who have been forcibly removed from their land. I was reminded about this recently when speaking with some visitors from South Africa. Their families had been relocated during Apartheid under the Group Areas Act. Part of the rationale for this was the argument that they were a growing population and needed more space – which wasn’t available. However, revisiting their original home-town they had noted that many of the areas they were told could not be developed, now had housing. The forced relocation of people, accompanied by lies and coercion, leaves a stain of injustice that lasts much, much longer than 50 years.

The commodification of land is a widely accepted aspect of economic life in the West. However, this was an alien concept for many peoples around the world during colonisation. The protracted, trans-generational misery of exclusion from historic lands continues to blight the lives of indigenous communities around the world. Having land removed, or the rights to access land denied, can contribute to a disintegration of culture, customs and wellbeing that cannot be easily repaired or replaced.

“The current discussion concerning the environmental crisis emphasizes the need for a theology of land. One of the key observations of this thesis is that Indigenous communal identity includes the land, and that has underscored for me the general dislocation from the earth of modern Western people. A theology of creation must move even closer to the earth, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between people and the earth. Indigenous people understand that the Creator put them in a specific place, and this forms a vital part of their identity”.

Aldred, Raymond Clifford. An Alternative Starting Place for an Indigenous Theology. Diss. 2020p. 251

A consideration of indigenous peoples, land and theology must include the religious dimensions and complex politics of a ‘promised land’. While some territories have been ‘virgin’ (from a human perspective), most people around the world are settled on land that was once occupied by someone else. When religious legitimacy is given to the removal of people from land it does nothing to diminish the sense of anger and injustice. The Radio 4 In Our Time series has an episode giving attention to the debates in Spain that following the conquest of indigenous people in South America. The assumed benefit of bringing Christianity to anyone was a key ideological factor in the approach that was taken to land acquisition. Around the world religious ideas, and the Bible in particular, were used selectively to underpin and implement egregious acts of violence and land acquisition.

Land that is understood to be promised is at the heart of many of the most politically complex situations in the world. In the Middle East the desire for peace is met with seemingly intractable complexities of religion; geopolitics and history. Despite the interventions and attempts by many world leaders the situation remains volatile and dangerous (and not only for the Middle East).

“For those who might have heard about what befell the Palestinian Arabs, it is possible that they felt sorry for us, but in the great master plan of God and God’s purposes for history, the Palestinians who were killed by the Zionists in the war and the hundreds of thousands who were dispossessed and became refugees were probably considered collateral damage and a small price to pay compared with what God was accomplishing through the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”.

Ateek, N. S. (Ed.). (2017). A Palestinian theology of liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Orbis Books.

In material gathered before the end of Apartheid, RS Sugirtharajah’s work Voices from the Margin there is a case study from South Africa which includes the following comment by a participant:

“We want to live freely as we used to before the white man came. When I was a small boy, my grandfather had land, cattle, sheep, goats, plenty of land that they tilled and could reap good harvests and had cows to milk, And life was good. You felt you had what you wanted. But they took the land away from him; something to do with title deeds and white farmers, and that happened to other blacks as well, and the men had to work for the white farmers or come to town to work. So that’s how we came here”.

Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1991). Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.

Our ability, or capacity to restrain our intervention, seems to leave only tiny exceptions to the general rule of conquest and assimilation. A combination of economic exploitation, religious mission and academic curiosity has put an end to many distinctive cultures and civilisations. The people of the North Sentinel island might be one of the few remaining cultures almost entirely left alone. When an American missionary was killed on approaching the island even the US State Department decided not to pursue an investigation for murder. We have no idea what ‘murder’ would mean in the culture of the North Sentinelese, or what shared framework of human perception and understanding would enable a fair trial. In an earlier colonial era such acts would legitimate conquest and subjugation.

The legacy of colonialism undoubtedly leaves many indigenous people and communities bearing a burden of injustice. Today, in a different way, it is also these communities which are often those most affected by changes to our climate. A UN independent experts panel has called on the States attending COP27 to “allow for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and civil society… Indigenous peoples and civil society play an essential role in the advancement of climate action, and their voices must be heard”. When the voices of indigenous people are absent, or go unheard, humanity’s vision is diminished. This is especially true when such voices come from people often very close to the land, experiencing and lamenting the changes that make their way of live increasingly difficult. As we continue to debate and respond to a crisis from which none of us can escape, the relationship of human beings to land sites at the centre of any meaningful action. Altering our attitudes and perceptions about land, especially its commercial use, is essential for any meaningful sense of liberation.