On Hopeful Resistance

On Hopeful Resistance

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

~ Emily Dickinson

I am not sure that I have ever before read a poem that I adore so fully and disagree with so heartily all at once. I am not sure if that is even an entirely possible state of mind, but it certainly seems to be the one I am in as I read Dickinson’s rhythmic words. 

I did not used to feel this way about this poem. Not long ago, I found it to be only beautiful, merely soothing, simply grace. “The thing with feathers” — what a gentle, calming thought. The idea that hope could swoop down, land within me, beat its little wings and fill me with hope, why would I want to do anything but wrap my arms around that idea, embrace it wholeheartedly, maybe set up a few directional signs for the little hope-bird so it would arrive faster? Come to me, hope. Fill me up. 

While I haven’t abandoned this little imaginative figment entirely, I no longer find it to be enough. I never did, I suppose, since I am one who believes her ultimate hope is in Christ, that He is the only hope in life and death. But I did find that repeating those little mantras to myself, words of Scripture, of creeds, even of Dickinson, was enough to reinvigorate the little bird’s wings, sending him flapping back into my presence, into my soul. 

Through a cacophony of screeching life circumstances and a growing awareness of the pain in the world around me, though, I’ve realized that for hope to take its full effect in this earthly life, I need to become more of a participant. Rather than beckoning the bird to me, or merely seeking to conjure up more belief in its potential, I need to get my own wings beating. I need to embody hope, show it to the world that it may become more real to it and to me, that Jesus may become more real to it and to me. And one of the ways I’m doing that is through resistance.

Hopeful resistance.

It sounds like an oxymoron. How could one possibly have a fragile little hope bird beating its wings within her soul while she plants her feet, arms outstretched like a shield? How could one simultaneously have the posture of openness that hope requires while embodying the posture of defensiveness resistance seems to dictate? I wondered these things too, as I felt the need for them to intertwine and take root, plant something new in me. And then my fellow co-host of the Shalom in the City with Osheta Moore podcast, Jerusalem Greer, shared a verse from Scripture with our podcast team in The Message translation, and it embedded itself into me. “I'm glad from the inside out, ecstatic;” she read, “I’ve pitched my tent in the land of hope.”

Those final words pulsed in my mind—
my tent
in the land
of hope. 

Pitching a tent, of course, is not a passive act. It is active. And when a tent is pitched in the land of hope, it is resistant, because the very ground of the land of hope says that the evil, the fear, the hopelessness around us is not the only way. Choosing to set up camp, make a home, and welcome others in with us releases us from the delusion that the only choice is selfishness and scarcity. Part of setting up camp and creating a home means that walls must go up to guard those within them, not so that tribalism can brew, but so that the vulnerable can be protected. It is one thing to defend against difficulty or unpleasantness for ourselves, prioritizing safety or a perfectly curated life. It is quite another to welcome the vulnerable in and defend them, actively resisting that which would harm their livelihood or inhibit their flourishing.

This is how the openness of hope and defensiveness of resistance find their intertwine. By inching the shield further and further away from ourselves, we using it to protect others with whom we dwell in the land of hope. When someone is resistant for only her own sake, all she is really resisting is what she dislikes or find personally bothersome. But what about resisting on behalf of others, in the name of their personhood?

What if we attended school board meetings not only to pursue our own interests, but to advocate for resources in the schools our children don’t attend?

What if we called our congressmen not only when we had a specific interest, but when our neighbors stand to benefit from our voices?

What if we attended (or even started!) a racial reconciliation roundtable in our communities, hearts postured toward listening, minds committed to learning?

There is certainly a way to do all of those things that is only resistant. We could angrily speak to school board members, even while advocating for selfless things. We could be rude and abrupt with congressional staffers, even while lobbying for safety for the refugee or health care for the impoverished. We could begrudgingly invite people to a Be the Bridge event (or do it for the sake of appearances). But when hope entangles itself with the strength of resistance, when we are as gracious as we are fierce, gentle as we are strong, joyful as we are lamenting — a third way is found. 

Osheta, Jerusalem, Cara Meredith, and myself were so taken by the idea of this third way, by what life in our time could look like if it were driven by hopeful resistance, that we declared it the theme of an entire season of the Shalom in the City podcast. If you would like to further grab hold of this idea of hopeful resistance, listen in! We talk about home and community life, books, racial reconciliation, and a host of other areas of life that are filled to the brim with need for those who desire hope not only to beat within their own souls, but to take flight in the souls of others as well.

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