Sustaining Hope in an Unjust World (Timothy Charles Murphy) -- A Review
SUSTAINING HOPE IN AN UNJUST WORLD: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up. By Timothy Charles Murphy. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019113 pp.
Pursuing justice in the world can be a fulfilling experience, but it can also be frustrating. It always feels as if we move a couple of steps forward, and then we get pushed back three or more steps. So, why bother with pursuing justice if it doesn’t seem as if you’re getting anywhere. Taking a broad view, the “arc of the moral universe” might be long, but as Martin Luther King and others before him declared, it does “bend toward justice.” But in a world filled with injustice, where do we begin? What causes should we pick up? Is it immigration, climate change, racism, sexism, heterosexism, economic inequality? It is true that many of these issues intersect, but where do we start? Answering this question is not easy, and can be overwhelming. We may feel compelled to act, but then we become paralyzed by the immensity of the problems around us, and that often leads to cynicism. This is especially true at this moment in history when the government of the United States is mired in a Constitutional crisis, while authoritarian populist parties are on the rise. Yes, populism is the name of the game, but the forms it takes tend to be authoritarian. So, what's a person to do as a result?
Numerous books have been written, and numerous more books will be written about how to engage in social justice. Some of these books have and will show us how to root our actions in our spiritual traditions. All of this is good. I've even tried my hand at it myself, as has Timothy Murphy, a United Church of Christ minister and activist. Writing out of his own experiences as a Christian and an activist, Murphy offers us a vision of how we might become engaged and stay engaged. The subtitle of the book catches the drift— "how to keep going when you want to give up." I know the feeling.
Murphy takes up the question of social engagement from what might be called a realist perspective. He recognizes that when it comes to social justice, winning isn't guaranteed. He understands that uncertainty about victory can paralyze us, but Murphy wants us to pursue the dream, even though there is no certainty of success. I am in agreement with him on this. Justice has always come in fits and starts. As the famous quote reminds us, the “arc of the moral universe is long,” and we are simply one phase of that work. It is good to remember that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s accomplished much, but it left much yet to be accomplished. Unfortunately, we’ve seen an erosion of elements of that hard-won effort taking place at this moment. For instance, when it comes to voting rights, we’re seeing efforts to push back on guaranteeing all citizens the right to freely cast their votes. So, what should we do? Do we give up or do we press forward?
This is a rather brief book (under 120 pages), but it's accessible. That should be expected from a pastor who hopes to preach each Sunday a sermon that connects. The expectation is that it will be used by groups—there are discussion questions, along with recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. There is much to like about the book, though at times I wondered if this was a book rooted in the Christian faith or in radical politics. I realize that pursuit of social justice requires a willingness to entertain radical ideas, I'm just not sure that the kingdom of God and democratic socialism are one and the same. That being said, this wasn't the main theme of the book. It is, however, the ideological foundation for much of his vision.
The book starts with a description of social activism, which is rooted in a progressive vision of church and politics. From that foundation, he notes there are many causes to be engaged in, for this is a progressive agenda. Knowing that there are so many possibilities, he uses the first chapter to help the reader focus their energies. He lays out some of the challenges before us and then invites us to consider what kind of activist we see ourselves as. He includes a short quiz designed to help us discern our sense of calling, and like most such quizzes (including ones I’ve tried to devise), its effectiveness is questionable. I know from experience that the writing of quizzes and surveys is fraught with difficulties.
Following that chapter, Murphy speaks to some of the issues that call for our attention, so that we might make the impossible possible. He admits to occasionally tilt at windmills in Quixotic activism. The question that faces those engaged in activism concerns whether to pursue their visions of justice no matter how unlikely their achievability. Do we go for broke or should we pursue a more incremental vision? He finds incrementalism problematic, but he offers a "case for visionary gradualism," by which he means being strategic. Do we pursue wins or engage in actions that are well-meaning but doomed to failure? I think that Murphy has more radical designs in mind, but he understands that without wins we will walk away empty. In my own experience with community organizing, I was taught that it’s important to find early wins and then build upon them. That seems to be what he has in mind. At the same time, one should continue to give witness to the long term vision, and he offers Jesus as an example. When it comes to the lordship of Jesus, the vision is one of service rather than domination. Hope is found in participating with God in the transformation of the world.
He offers a chapter that reflects on the suffering of this world, which involves developing a theodicy and examining what kind of God we believe in. With faithfulness in the midst of suffering (chapter 3), comes a call for "perseverance amidst injustice" (chapter 4). This chapter is a call to walk up from our naivete. It is an invitation to examine our history and ideologies of whiteness. I want to note here that while there is an ideology of whiteness/white supremacy to be opposed, I wonder if there is a way of expressing this that doesn't put up immediate walls of resistance. I don't have an answer or an alternative description, but I do think that some of the rhetoric, though correct, can lead to defensiveness that is counterproductive. In other words, it seems as if we often end up preaching to the choir. So, while Murphy wants to expand the conversation, at points I did feel as if he was writing for the choir.
The final chapter addresses the need for the creation/development of communities committed to justice. We need each other if we are to move forward in hope. That may be all we accomplish, but it may hold the key to long term success. Again, there is a similarity to what I’ve learned from my community organizing experiences. Building the coalition is the starting point. There is a recognition here that many of the problems we face do not have easy solutions. There are many big problems facing us, and we often have only small and inadequate solutions to offer in return. Nevertheless, even if the solutions are inadequate, something needs to be done. One thing that stuck out in this final chapter is the need to draw new people and new energy into the efforts. He notes the problem of veteran activists who get frustrated with those who are new to the cause. They make it known that they are not impressed by the "lateness" of these new activists to the table. Where were they earlier on? When such attitudes are on display, people will get discouraged and walk away. Thus, if there is to be hope there must be a more welcoming attitude. With that, I agree.
I have my quibbles with some of what I find here, but I think for many it will be a helpful word. Theologically, Murphy writes from a Process perspective. While I'm not a Process person myself, I do share the relational vision of Process Theology (I prefer Open Theism). While Process Theology is the theological base for his vision, I believe that we can learn from the book, even if, for instance, we happen to be evangelical or postliberal or Barthian. My concern when reading books like this that are directed to the church and to Christians is whether the vision is rooted solidly in theology or in political ideology. At times, in the book, the political ideology of progressive politics does seem to get the upper hand. It is important, I think, to remember that there is no divinely appointed governmental system, be it a monarchy or democratic socialism. However, with discernment we can keep things in their proper place, knowing that a relational vision for the church, one that reflects the nature and purpose of God, leads to participation in God’s movement toward the full revelation of the realm of God, one that includes engagement in acts of social justice. It is important to remember that the biblical story emerges in a variety of political situations. No system is prescribed, but justice is demanded. So whatever the system, let us pursue justice, and the key here is sustaining hope, while pursuing justice in an unjust world, and in that Murphy gives some something to think about.