The usual antonym for faith is doubt, but I suggest that the practical opposite is in fact cynicism. The usual antonym for trust is suspicion, but I suggest that the practical opposite is in fact pessimism. Cynicism and pessimism are the major tunes of our time, sung by any number of US Americans, even by many US American Christians, or at least by those calling themselves Christians. Of course, there are Christians and then there are Christians, with the former often little resembling the latter. I am an avowed progressive, liberal Christian, attending proudly a church that affirms all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, creed, or no creed. Such a description surely horrifies many other sorts of Christians. We very different Christians agree on very little. But ironically one thing that too many Christians of whatever stripe seem to agree on in this year of 2021 is that things in US America are not going very well, and appear to be crumbling with unnerving rapidity. As a result of that belief, cynicism rules the land.
This is true, I think, in nearly every area of our divided society. Our politics are fractured and fractious. Even in those areas where many of us find a kind of agreement—gun control (nearly 80% of us agree that background checks for all purchases should be tightened and gun show loop holes should be closed), the need for infrastructure improvement ( a bill for 1.2 trillion dollars appears to be passable across the aisle in Congress, though when President Biden demanded that a much larger second bill accompany the first as a two-pronged effort at addressing both physical and “human” infrastructure, not all congress people, even not all Democrats, were ready to go along), a need for immigration reform, among many other issues—we remain stuck, unable to make much work in our government. Congress’ approval rating has descended recently to its lowest ever recorded figure (13%). Now that is cynicism alive and well! Our racial house remains deeply divided. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times said that American cities are as segregated now as they were in 1990, with even overtly diverse cities like LA, where 52% are “white,” (25.9% Non-Hispanic white), 8.1% are African-American, 14.7% are Asian, and the remainder are Native American, Pacific Islander, and where numerous first languages are spoken (at least 185 different languages are spoken in LA homes), the facts remain that my city is still deeply segregated and that there has been no appreciable changes in living patterns over the past 30 years. Once again, cynicism shouts that our racial problems are finally insoluble. And then there is the appalling and seemingly intractable question of Angeleno residents who are homeless, some 60,000 by some counts. Despite any number of well-intentioned programs, and bond elections, and near-constant promises by all politicians, the homeless population continues to grow and fester in practically every part of our city. Very few of us can drive or bike or walk anywhere without encountering tents, cardboard shacks, and rough sleeping bags under freeways, on sidewalks, and close to businesses and parks of all kinds. It is a sad epidemic, and one that stays in the mind and heart of all who seek some solutions. So far, important and lasting solutions have not been discovered. Cynicism abounds when it comes to LA’s homeless population.
Next week (July 8) I will become 3/4 of a century old. In my lifetime of nearly 75 years I have had many occasions that brought hope to a societal problem, but that hope has been dashed on the shoals of a reality that always seems to impede lasting progress. In 1968, my last year of college, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to speak on my campus, bringing words of hope and joy to a nation riven by the Vietnam War and ongoing racial tensions. I was deeply inspired by what he said. A few months later, he was assassinated in Memphis, TN, followed hard on in that same year by the murder of Bobby Kennedy in an LA hotel, a Kennedy who had had a racial epiphany, one that led him to rethink his position as a white man in US America. That same year the country chose Richard Nixon rather than Hubert Humphrey (the “happy warrior”) as its president; part of Nixon’s election strategy was his use of the fears of “black crime,” bolstering his white support in the south, tipping the election his way as a result.
40 years after, I got to vote for US America’s first African-American candidate for president, and four years later I voted for him again. It appeared that the USA might be on the verge of a racial breakthrough. But 2016 brought us Donald Trump whose rhetoric about race went even beyond Nixon’s, implying regularly that Blacks were not to be trusted, and were, along with brown immigrants, the principal source of the decline of the nation. Trump’s racist dog whistles peppered his public speeches and his policies. Once again, cynicism abounded on questions of race.
In 1970, the first Earth Day was celebrated, shining a bright spotlight on issues of the environment, the dangers of global warming, rising oceans, falling lakes, thinning forests, widening deserts. 50 years later, the planet is still imperiled, and even more dangerously and horrifyingly than on that first Earth Day. What can be done to slow the rising seas and temperatures, the deepening droughts, the larger storms, the decreasing rains, the lies of the fossil fuel industry, the struggle to shift the economy from fossils to renewables? The human race faces a slow, but rapidly increasing, possibility of extinction. And the result is too often cynicism—we are too late! We have passed the tipping point! The planet’s temperatures will now inevitably rise far more than 2 degrees Celsius, and the earth will never be the same. Doom and destruction are now the lot of my grandchildren!
As an aging man, I take all this with the greatest of seriousness. We do indeed face a whole host of pressing and difficult problems that all need our immediate address. And each of us humans has a role to play in that work. But we cannot play any role at all if we allow ourselves to be caught in the snares of cynicism. Right there lie hopelessness and inactivity, selfishness and world weariness. One antidote for us Christians is to be found in the familiar definition of faith found in that odd letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. “Faith is the confident assurance of things we hope for, the proof of things we do not see” (Heb.11:1). The danger of losing oneself in the weeds of politics and societal dilemmas is the inability to remember that what we can see—all that danger and intractability and insurmountable mountain of problems—do nothing to energize us to tackle those mountains, those dangers, those intractable difficulties. What energizes us, what gives us life, is precisely those things we cannot see, namely the vast promises of our God, made at the very beginning of creation and have persisted to the present moment, the promise that justice and righteousness will eventually rule the earth, when the rule of God will come to earth “just as it is in heaven.” This is not wishful thinking or Chicken Little foolishness. This is “Hard-Headed Hope,” as an old colleague of mine used to say, a hope that is certain, a hope that you can take the bank, a hope by which you can live a life fully engaged. A Christian clearly cannot be a cynic; they are mutually exclusive, an oxymoron, an incompatible set of terms. Hang on to the hope of God; it is grand and it is forever, and then get about the work that God has called you to do.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)