The End and Beginning of Hope: A Theological Reflection on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hope is a dangerous word.  We all hope, in some form or fashion, in a vision of reality we wish were true.  These visions diverge, sometimes wildly, person to person, culture to culture, faith to faith.  One person’s hope can be another’s despair; one person’s dream, another’s nightmare.  It is precisely for this reason, you might argue, that the liberative message of Christianity should bring us clarity: we hope for equality, freedom, healing, justice, peace (Luke 4:16-21)!  

But still a tension remains: do we hope in this life or in the next?  Theologians have debated this point for millennia, and while I will not end the debate here, I stand firmly on the side of both/and.  Hope in a changed world today and hope in a life to come.  I am trying, daily, not to lose hope and faith even in the midst of the exemplification of despicable personal morals, the destabilization of international peace deals, the open acceptance of racial demagoguery, and the rise of natural disasters that are directly caused by Global Warming.  

But as a theologian, I am deeply troubled by the version of Christianity that now runs the White House.  If one were to construct a Christian message that is the opposite of the one I follow, the message of this administration would be pretty close.  White nationalism, a disregard for the truth, flippant misogyny, explicit racism, and personal vengeance take priority, all under the guise of an ideology of positivity without the moral values of self-sacrifice, justice, and peace.  A version of Christianity, for example, that uses the phrase “Merry Christmas” to connote not peace but vengeance against a perceived threat of religious persecution.

Herein lay the modern struggle of Christianity: with such vile strains of Christianity in the public eye, what becomes of the insistence on a Christian vision of hope?  How can anyone, save the already-faithful, believe that the Jesus I Preach is not the Jesus They Preach?

With this conflicted Christian message in mind, it should surprise no one that one of the most influential critics of the sitting President is a black atheist named Ta-Nehisi Coates.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates (c) The Atlantic

If you have not read him yet, you should, now.  Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and has written powerfully on reparations, mass incarceration, growing up black in the United States, and more recently, Donald Trump’s whiteness in relationship to his rise to power…just to name a few.  

Coates’ brand is to reject all instances of hope, especially as they pertain to an afterlife, and replace these with a dogged insistence on daily struggles and the importance of memory.  But like any poet, Coates’ prose transcends his philosophical approach, as his words dance between hopelessness and pride, despair and strength, loss and love.  Take this passage from Between the World and Me, a book written to his son:

You must struggle to truly remember this past. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. I am not a cynic. I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. (Emphasis added)

For an author that struggles with the idea of Christian hope, Coates strikes me as incredibly hopeful and deeply Christian.  Coates rejects hope–the word itself–quite emphatically.  This rejection seems to be connected with Obama’s “hope and change” presidency, when our only black President failed, according to Coates, to properly understand the nature of race in his role at the White House.  Coates’ rejection of this four-letter-word is also connected to a raised historical consciousness. What is the point of hope, Coates asks, when so much of history points towards hopelessness:

I’ve had people ask if the manner in which Germans came to reckon with their genocidal past gave me “hope” for my own country. I don’t know. One wonders how much this reckoning was aided by the fact that so many German Jews were killed and thus unavailable to participate as actual citizens. Is a “reckoning” with a people you’ve nearly exterminated really a reckoning at all? And we face something very different here—black people are still around. We are still here to haunt the American conscience. Must we be nearly exterminated ourselves to prompt proper reckoning?

This is neither the stuff of sweet dreams nor “hope.” But I think that a writer wedded to “hope” is ultimately divorced from “truth.” Two creeds can’t occupy the same place at the same time. If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence which verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there. Thus writers who commit themselves to only writing hopeful things, are committing themselves to the ahistorical, to the mythical, to the hagiography of humanity itself. I can’t write that way—because I can’t study that way. I have to be open to things falling apart. Indeed, much of our history is the story of things just not working out.

I love the tangible reality of Coates’ writings.  Coates doesn’t cast hope aside because he finds the answer in nihilism, darkness, and despair.  He casts hope aside because hope isn’t doing a good enough job.  It isn’t effective.  Black people are still beaten, immigrants still deported, women still raped, racists still elected.  And so-called Christians, just like in the days of slavery and fascism, simultaneously represent both the powerful and the oppressed.  Why should Coates–indeed, why should anyone–be expected to have a Christian-infused definition of hope in 21st century America?  

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I do not have the personal experience of Coates, but as an historian and theologian, I struggle deeply with the depravity of history and I think Coates is absolutely correct on the modern notion of hope.  Hope cannot exist without a deep and profoundly difficult sense of history.  Hope cannot somehow gloss over the past and pick the triumphs to tell a winning tale.  Hollywood thrives on such visions of hope, but true hope is not based in Hollywood stories.

This was the misstep that Colbert made during his late-night interview of Coates.  On October 3, Stephen Colbert, the friend of Pope Francis Catholics everywhere, drilled the author on his notion of hope.

Starting from the 5:06 mark, Colbert stops letting Coates expound on Trump’s policies and delivers him the prepared question: “Do you have any hope tonight?”  Coates smiles at the question, knowing it was coming, and answers, “Hope isn’t my job.”  Colbert pushes back and they engage in a small tussle, but we’re left with the strong feeling that Colbert isn’t satisfied.  He couldn’t get why Coates wouldn’t grab hold of the buzzword and dance the dance of the wealthy liberal elite.  If we don’t have hope, Colbert seems to say, what can propel us to tomorrow?  

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Colbert’s misunderstanding is perhaps better demonstrated by counter-example.  What are the characteristics that come to mind when we think of hopelessness?  Despair, doubt, hatred, listlessness, apathy.  None of these characteristics define Coates’ writing.  Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one might say that Coates’ arguments strike me as abundantly full of hope, just not the cheap kind.  Costly hope, like costly discipleship, is wrapped in history, in struggle, in pain, and in faith.  And for a man who claims not to have faith, Coates professes a remarkably strong love of a world that is pretty screwed up.

Coates has no desire to engage in the philosophy of Hope, or to be the black preacher that tells you “carry on, good white person.”  He simply doesn’t care.  He will fight on, he will struggle, and he will continue to open the annals of the history of barbarism so that all can more clearly see how much race. still. matters. in 2017.  But he has no patience for a cheap vision of hope that pulls back, in any way, from reconciliation, from history, from struggle, from the Truth. 

Indeed, this devotion to the Truth makes Coates’ campaign against hope so damn Christian.  This costly hope that pushes one to struggle despite the darkest histories of abuse, death, and pain seems only possible if one allows the dangerous memories of the past to transform and inspire the present.  “You must struggle to truly remember this past,” Coates writes.  “The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”  These dangerous memories for Coates are not utilitarian messages of God’s providential direction of humanity, for God did not desire the enslavement of Africans.  No, remembering the past transforms us because we can then allow our desires “to be influenced by the hopes, truths, and goals of the victims of history.”  We are transformed by the past because we give credence to the people who have lived, struggled, and suffered before us.  We struggle because others have struggled, we hold off despair because despair would cheapen the lives of those who suffered and yet found a way to hold off despair.

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To complete Coates’ Christian transformation, I would like to compare him to the Apostle James, who gently chastised his fellow Apostle Paul about faith and works.  And since I’m arguing for Coates’ notion of hope, allow me the latitude to replace the word that intangible idea of “faith” with the intangible idea of “hope” in the famous passage:  

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have hope but do not have works? Can hope save you?If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So hope by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have hope and I have works.’   Show me your hope without works, and I by my works will show you my hope.   (James 2:14-26)

When so many Christians count among the oppressors and so many Christians count among the oppressed, it seems fitting that the modern world needs an atheist prophet to remind us how to define hope.

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