Confronting Hopelessness

What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest. We never kidded ourselves that we had the political gifts to reorder society or insure social justice… But we all hoped, in whatever way our capacities permitted, to define and illustrate the worthy life…

Leave a mark on the world. Instead the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused.
~ Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, 12-13.
On one of the many flights my wife and I took on our honeymoon, I watched a film called Sherrybaby. Sherrybaby is about a young woman, Sherry, who has been released from a three year prison sentence (it turns out she was stealing in order to support a drug habit), and who then tries to reconnect with her six year old daughter. Along the way we see her interactions in a halfway house, with her probation officer, with members of a support group, and with her father and her brother’s family. I found this film to be incredibly moving — I have never seen such an accurate representation of the people with whom I work and journey. If I were to sum this film up in one word I was say that Sherrybaby is honest.
When I got back to Vancouver, I asked a film-buff friend of mine if he had seen this movie. He replied that he had but that he had disliked it immensely. I asked him why, and he responded that the movie had left him with such overwhelming hopelessness that he could barely sit through it all. Sherrybaby confronted him with a brokenness so deep that there was no possibility of redemption.
As I thought about my friend’s comments, I realised that it was exactly this revelation of hopelessness that caused the movie to resonate so deeply with me. Yes, we can never fix the brokenness that we discover in Sherry. And, yes, it is just as impossible to fix the brokenness that runs through my neighbourhood, through the men who smoke crack in the park, through the girls who work on the corner, and through the kids who sleep in Blood Alley.
I was relieved when my film-buff friend told me that he chose to watch Sherrybaby all the way through, instead of turning it off and walking away. I wanted him to know the hopelessness I feel, to be confronted, in that moment, with what I face day, after day, after day. Because we live in a culture that wants to cling to false hope and irrational positivity. And Christians are just as good as denying the hopelessness of our situation as the rest of society. Indeed, Christians, especially, don’t want to confront hopelessness and so they cloak false hopes, and apathetic disengagement, with religious language.
You see, there was once a time when I clung to those false religious hopes. There was a time when I thought that we could fix lives like Sherry’s. There was a time when I thought — as Stegner’s character once thought — that we could truly contribute and leave a mark on the world. But — like Stegner’s character — I have only found that the world has marked me. Instead of bringing wholeness to others, I have found that the brokenness of others has become a part of me. Instead of bringing help, I have received helplessness. Instead of bringing comfort, I have received sorrow. Instead of being a light and a guide, I have found myself plunged into darkness. Instead of being an agent of salvation, I have found myself a member of the damned.
This is the hopelessness that I want my Christian brothers and sisters to be confronted with. Indeed, it is only after we have been confronted with the reality of this hopelessness that we can begin to understand the true nature of Christian hope. This hope speaks of a peasant who died abandoned and hopeless, marked by the world’s whips, and thorns, and nails. And this hope continues to lead me into places where the world will, inevitably, mark me.

God bless you, Sarah. You were three and a half months pregnant when your man, your john, cut you open. Did you ever make it home?

The Heart of Darkness

In this month's issue of Harper's there is an heart-rending article about Congo's ongoing genocide (“Congo's Daily Blood: Ruminations from a failed state” by Bryan Mealer). In the last five years, over 4,000,000 people have died there, and approximately 1,200 continue to die there every day.
What is described is far beyond what I can comprehend. I can read the stories, I can follow the words, but I've realised that even my experiences with violence and sorrow at the margins of North America have not put me in a place where I'm even close to imagining what it is to be in the midst of such experiences. The brutality defies comprehension. The stories are too horrible — “all blood, rape, and gore” — and I can't even bring myself to repeat them here. I don't understand how people can do the things they do to each other.
Likewise, I absolutely cannot understand how we stand by and do nothing about such events. Because such horrors do not stop with Congo — Sudan and Somalia come instantly to mind. Our apathy staggers me. And we are not just apathetic. We've have found a way to make money off of genocide. Thus, we live comfortably in Canada (in part) because of what we have done with oil in Sudan, what we have done with telecommunications in Somalia, and what we have done with mining in Congo. Their blood is on our hands. It's in our clothes, it stains our daily bread.
So where, oh where, is the Church in all of this? Where is the mass of Western Christians committed to journeying with those in Congo, Sudan, Somalia? The fact is that it seems like an utter fantasy to suggest that there would be a large number of Christians committed to going to a place like Congo. We can't even get Christians to move into shitty downtown neighbourhoods, what hope is there that they might consider moving into “the horror, the horror” that exists in Congo? Christians think I'm crazy when I tell them they should live in a neighbourhood where *gasp* they might be robbed. How in the world will they be convinced to go and live in a place where they might be tortured and eaten?
Instead, we putter away at our little lives, we try to make a little bit of a difference where we are. Yet most of these puny acts of piety and service are done to ease our own consciences. And all the while the blood, the rape, and the gore, continue unabated.