Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,
says the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. Like much of the epistle, it’s a sophisticated, lovely passage, well worth reading against the headlines these days.
To be clear, and at the risk of ruining many a college dorm-room debate, “faith” here doesn’t mean belief without evidence. In the ancient world outside of Christianity, it meant to be persuaded, as in deciding to trust a guarantee. Clarence Jordon’s famously plain-spoken translation gets at the poetry:
Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on unseen realities.
This fits the author of Hebrews’ purpose well. He wrote to a community of Jewish converts to Christianity who were under pressure to give up on their new beliefs. He tries to answer for them an obvious and thorny question: Why suffer for a difficult new religion that has no obvious rewards to it? Jordon’s translation captures neatly the author’s answer: because you have an audacious, even foolhardy, trust in the promises that have been made to you.
In the next few years, Democrats and other opponents of the extremist GOP’s agenda will have to ask themselves a variation on the same question. At the moment, they are completely shut out of power. Barring the unimaginable, it will be two years before they can put any check on the extremist agenda, and even then, it’s an uphill battle. It could be eight long years before they win back the kind of power they had in the first years of the Obama presidency.
This is why smart journalists such as Greg Sargent are saying things like “the silencing of Elizabeth Warren is a brutal reality check for Democrats.” Others, like Brian Beutler, are a little more optimistic. As Beutler says, the extremists are off to a pitiful start, and their window of maximum opportunity is quickly sliding past. The Indivisible Team also sees some light, but they too sound realistic warnings: liberals are going to lose a lot in the next couple of years.
Sargent observes that the difficult road ahead, facing a GOP indifferent to democratic norms and often even voter input, could demoralize the Democratic base. It’s already creating some tension between the rank-and-file demanding immediate and effective resistance and elected officials, who realistically can only accomplish so much.
Democratic politicians have some work to do managing expectations. They could also help themselves by providing a framework for ordinary citizens to take part in activism, or pushing their base to support them by taking over lower-level offices. But leave them to figure that out.
What I’m concerned with is the question of how people struggling to maintain basic freedom and decency can keep themselves going over the long run. In that wise, it’s important to remember that while marchers’ energy may only last a short while, voters’ memories last a long time. Even just keeping the protests going for the next year could pay big dividends at the ballot box in 2018.
Hebrews has some other ideas. Immediately after his statement on faith, the author launches into a salvation history drawn from characters in Hebrew scripture who trusted in God: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and many others. Many of these figures
died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
People who struggle in faith—whether sacred or secular—often find support in placing themselves in a narrative stream of the men and women who have fought the same battles before them. The “Nevertheless she persisted” tagline gifted to liberals by Mitch McConnell has already been overdone, but it has been a delight to see how many women advocating for justice it can be applied to. Chief among them: Coretta Scott King, whose words on behalf of black voters in Alabama got Elizabeth Warren silenced on the Senate floor. Sometimes it helps to remember the people who came before you. If their faith in God or the democratic process was so strong, how much stronger should ours be?
It can also be helpful, frankly, to admit a bit of alienation. It is difficult to fully embrace a land where discrimination, ignorance, and “I got mine, Jack” are so deeply ingrained, especially when those qualities run completely against the stated values of freedom, justice, and compassion. I don’t blame people a bit when they say “America never felt like my country.”
Yet one of the most American of characteristics is a restless desire to make the nation “a more perfect union,” as the secular saint Abraham Lincoln put it. The activists out there disobeying the trumpist imperatives in so many different ways could choose to settle for the familiar horror show that is America. Instead, they want a better country, a heavenly one, whether that’s understand in religious terms or the proverbial baseball field in Iowa. Average citizens are working hard to turn their dreams into reality, one phone call to the senator’s office at a time. The Israelites cited in Hebrews provide a great role model for that work. They remained firm in their conviction that God would provide a new homeland for them, and they kept traveling toward it, despite the lack of any apparent progress. Activists could learn from their faith.
Toward the end of his catalog of inspirational figures, the author of Hebrews reminds his audience of what the saints suffered:
Others were tortured, refusing to accept release…Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword…destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy…Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.
I need not rehearse the catalog of advocates of justice murdered over the years before their dreams were realized. Suffice it to say there’s a reason John Lewis’ battered body has been coming up on social media lately. Remembering the sacrifices made on our behalf and committing ourselves to honor the people who made them is a long-standing tradition, whether in or outside the church. Why cling to the trust that America can overcome extremism? Because doing so is fitting tribute to so many who gave up their lives that time would fail us to tell you of all of them.
Those same people cheer the faithful on from the great beyond, says the author, providing a “great cloud of witnesses” to stand behind them. It’s a sports metaphor, a stadium filled with spectators urging athletes to finish their races. Personally, I find the image of Mother Jones screaming at me to run like hell appealing, but you may supply your own saint for encouragement.
Because the American situation is so anomalous, there’s no way to say for sure what will happen over the next couple of years. Activists really could be betting their lives on a better, unseen reality. It’s worth remembering that the word “martyr” originally referred to a witness, as in a court case. It was the blood of Christians witnessing to their faith in mistreatment and execution that changed its meaning.
Come what may, I am persuaded that the work to make America a fairer, freer nation will go on. I am cautiously optimistic that the large-scale social action we have seen in the past few weeks will continue. People are organized in a way they haven’t been before, and they realize that the stakes are higher than they have been before. Even were that not the case, I would be confident that the struggle will continue, because I know that the present generation of activists stands on the shoulders of the saints, and it is producing the next generation even as we speak.
I’ve named a few inspiring figures along the way—Coretta Scott King, Lincoln, John Lewis—and could add a few more, of course. But I’m honestly more curious about what, or who, my readers turn to. So I’ll ask you directly:
Who in the past has given you strength and conviction to continue the work for freedom and justice?
Who gives you hope for the future, that some day the dream of a better country will be turned into deed?