Promising a Better Future, Delivering a Better Present

The British ocean liner R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. As people rushed to the lifeboats, a woman passenger asked the captain what to do. The captain, according to Erik Larson’s book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, replied, “Stay right where you are, Madam, she’s all right.”

That passenger, or another like her, shouted “The Captain says the boat will not sink.” The other passengers cheered and went back to their cabins – and to their deaths. 1,198 of the 1,959 passengers aboard the Lusitania died.

Perhaps Captain Turner really believed his magnificent ship could not be sunk by a single German torpedo, or perhaps he was trying to prevent a deadly stampede. Either way it was a false hope he offered to the Lusitania’s passengers, a false hope that may have killed hundreds.

False hope is not limited to disaster scenarios. In a feature for The New York Times Magazine, Mark Lebovich writes that talk-show host Larry King intends to have his body frozen post-mortem so that he can “die with a shred of hope.” According to King, “Other people have no hope.”

Larry King’s hope in cryonics seems even less tenable than Captain Turner’s hope in the Lusitania, but humans can’t do without hope. All people hope. The question is whether the object of their hope is worthy of their confidence.

That question applies to more than cryonics. For example, it is common in the west to think of education as a nation’s principal hope. In 2010, the U.S. spent 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on the public funding of education. That works out to something like 15,000 dollars per student in the system (when those in college and graduate school are included). In addition, parents contribute about 25 percent of the overall cost of their children’s education. It is cultural heresy to question this hope, but it is not at all clear that education has lived up to its billing.

Another great hope in the west is “the economy.” Perhaps capitalizing “Economy” is better, since it is often treated as if it were some kind of god. Policymakers sacrifice to it, just as ancient Greeks sacrificed to Zeus, and are often as confused by the actions of this god as the ancient Greeks were by theirs. The essayist, poet and novelist Wendell Berry believes the economy has been “elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life.” But can this god fulfill our hope?

Certainly Americans hope in politics. Every four years we convince ourselves that the right person in Washington will turn everything around – a hope that has proved demonstrably false time and again. This year, though, our perennial hope has been turned upside down, replaced by a gloomy despair that the wrong person in Washington will bring ultimate ruin. We have swung from a false hope to a false despair, on a pendulum supported by a false belief that salvation (as well as damnation) comes out of Washington.

If Doctor Johnson was right and “Men live in hope and die in despair,” people need a hope that “does not disappoint.” That’s St. Paul’s language. That great man didn’t look to education or politics or the economy to save humanity. He looked to God. His hope was out of this world and, as such, was above its vicissitudes, yet entered this world’s pain and despair. At one point, his hope even died, only to rise again, immortal and indestructible. For the biblical writers, the difference between hope and hopelessness is an empty tomb.

Hope accompanies genuine faith, and that’s true whether faith is in politics, the economy, or God. Why then choose God? Because hope in God not only promises a better future, it delivers a better present. As the Apostle Paul once put it, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/1/2016

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