“I just don’t know what else I can do.”
After an evening of eating with people who live on the streets of Chicago and then giving bagged lunches to people who were escaping the January cold in Union Station, the students had reached a point that good people always reach eventually. It’s not quite compassion fatigue, but it’s not far away from that either. Just by walking from Grace Place, an Episcopal church in Chicago’s South Loop, to Union Station—about a mile—we had gotten a taste of the winter outside. What good is a bagged lunch in the face of freezing in the streets?
|Preparing to deliver bagged lunched with South Loop |
Campus Ministry. (Photo by Kacie Greer)
The question came up in our debriefing session in Union Station just before the students boarded their train to return to the suburbs. I didn’t have enough time to delve into root causes and how through grass-roots organizing and advocacy for smart public policy we can address them. It was a shame, too, because that same day I had been part of a public meeting with S.O.U.L. that 1,000 people attended where we addressed public transportation, abandoned properties, and state and federal budget crises. Just imagine the homeless shelters, health care, and public jobs that we could fund if we had a more progressive tax code! That’s what else we can do!
The thought stayed with me when I saw Les Misérables with my girlfriend in a Naperville theater. Victor Hugo’s story that the movie is based on touches a lot of themes—justice, mercy, idealism, courtly love—and between the tears that Tom Hooper’s rendition provoked, I kept thinking about what runs the entirety of a story that covers 20 years. Hugo seems to say that among the Platonic ideals, there are few permanents. Not beauty; the beautiful Fantine dies and is buried in a public grave. Not justice; the principled Javert throws himself into the Seine because he can’t face a world where a fugitive can be free. Not idealistic revolution; the barricades are broken and all the revolutionaries are killed. The one constant seems to be,well, death.
However, somehow the protagonist Valjean continues to help everyone around him. He knows about mass incarceration, lack of health care, and the exploitation of low-wage workers, yet he only joins the June revolutionaries to get close to the man whom his adopted daughter loves. Of all the characters in Les Misérables, why does Valjean survive?
Then it occurred to me. I had just finished an intensive J-term class about prophetic proclamation that was taught by the famed Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Until that class, the only sermons I had heard from Rev. Wright were the ones that the mass media had cut up and edited to make him look like a Black nationalist demagogue. In fact, Rev. Wright turned out to be one of the great voices for reconciliation with whom I have ever come into contact. One the sermons that the news media didn’t show the public back in 2008 was titled “The Audacity to Hope”, which Barack Obama would later borrow for his best-selling book.
In this sermon, Rev. Wright waxes philosophic about a painting where a young woman is playing a harp while the world below is similar to the one Victor Hugo described a century prior. Full of injustice and pain, how can a person still find room for hope? And that is the great existential movement of Christianity—the movement from the conviction of personal and social sin to the liberation of grace. However, the movement does not end with the recognition of salvation by grace. The pilgrim’s progress continues in the guise of love, the kind of love that drives Valjean to the Parisian barricades and sewers. It is the all-sacrificing love of a parent for a child, what the Gospel writers called ἀγάπη, or “agape”.
Friends, that is what I propose drives us to help other people despite the seeming futility of the endeavor. We continue to do acts of mercy and organize for social justice, but it is only because of the love movement afforded us by divine grace. We do indeed have the audacity to hope, or perhaps as spoken by the kindly bishop who saves Valjean from prison labor, “l’audace d’espére”.