And So We Press On

By Jessica R. Church ’21 M.Div.

These days, I wear two hats. I am a student at Yale Divinity School finishing my last semester for a Master of Divinity degree. I read, write papers, join Zoom classes, and pop into chapel. But I also work full-time for a political organization focused on democracy reform.

At first glance, it is easy to think these roles don’t have much to do with one another. On the contrary, both demand a posture of hope. Both ask me to believe that a better world is possible.

A spirit hovers over us that refuses to accept our lives as meaningless and our present condition as final.

Please don’t misunderstand memaintaining this posture is not always easy. Nor should it be in the face of oppression and death. In my academic work, I pore through books of criticism containing persuasive arguments about why the world we live in is ill-fated to ruin. Reading about racism and imperialism, climate change, and capitalism, I nod my head. Every few paragraphs I sigh. The authors are usually right. The American project is flawed, maybe irredeemably so.

Defying Bad News

In my political work, I am striving to reform a campaign finance system that lets corporations and the wealthy spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. A disastrous Supreme Court decision in 2010 opened the floodgates, and now the nation’s vulnerable pay the price. In this job, I am also struggling to protect and expand voting rights in the face of an onslaught of state-level anti-voting legislation targeting communities of color. In January and February of 2021, more than 250 anti-voting bills were introduced in state legislatures around the country. In many of these legislatures, the district lines are so gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates that Democrats have little or no recourse to stop them. And if we are to come to grips seriously with the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the determined attempt by one party to overthrow legal election results they didn’t like … well, it’s a lot. Nobody would quite blame you for throwing your hands up in the air and giving up.

When I think about tackling all the problems I’ve described above, one of the biggest challenges in front of us is that many people in this country don’t actually think those things are problems. They would rather carry on and maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is killing people.

Nihilism Doesn’t Work

There are plenty of reasons to drift into hopelessness. The scale of the problems we’re facing in our public life can feel insurmountable, like looking from the bottom of a nihilistic pit. But a nihilistic stance, I can tell you, doesn’t make life any easier to live. In fact, it makes it much harder. Wholesale hopelessness does not serve life. Wholesale hopelessness serves death.

And so we press on.

From where I sit as a straight, white, able-bodied woman with economic privilege, I see it as my responsibility to make sure I always keep my finger on the pulse of daily longings and struggles. We each come to this tension between hope and doom, hope and violence, hope and hopelessness, from a different social location. For some, like me, hope is a little easier because they’ve not had the experience of the world beating them down. For others, hope may feel impossible to muster. Taking seriously the ills and injustices of this world, they know maintaining a posture of hope comes at a cost. Those who manage to keep their finger on the pulse of reality and yet dream of a better world carry a heavy burden.

A Human Necessity

But it’s not impossible. In fact it’s a human necessity. In The Search for Common Ground, Howard Thurman writes of utopian dreams: “Even when [people] are sure that what they seek is a dream that can never be realized in their lifetime or in the lifetime of all who live at the present moment, they dare to say, nevertheless, that it will come to pass, sometime, somewhere.”[1] To have a utopian dream is not naïve or silly. In Thurman’s argument, it is an enduring feature in humanity’s conscious life. Thank God for that! It is this dream that moves us forward.

As Christians, the dream we seekand the fact that we seek a dream at allis shaped by our sacred texts and the theological claims we hold dear. For me, those claims look and sound like this: the world was created by God out of nothing and it was good. God so loved the world that God took on vulnerable human life. Jesus said to his followers, whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me. And finally, loving God and loving our neighbor are the greatest commandments of all.

Sometime, Somewhere

This is what shapes the dream I seek, even if it can never be realized in my lifetime, for I believe it will come to pass, sometime, somewhere.  

Can religion help heal our divisions? The answer is not that it can or it can’t. That is missing the point. The answer is that our faith can embolden and empower us even to try. It gives us the hope needed to press forward in the face of mounting obstacles, and it gives us the community to lean on when we grow weary.

To invoke Thurman once more, there is a spirit that hovers over us which refuses to accept our lives as meaningless and our present condition as final. We dream of a better world, and settling for anything less than this denies the profound intent of our own spirit, which is one with the intent of the Creator.

Keep your finger on the pulse, my friends. See and recognize the pain and the suffering. Do not be blind to the divisions that plague us. But always dream. Always dream of a better world. Dream big.

Jessica Church ’21 M.Div. works for End Citizens United, where she is director of state and local campaigns. Previously she worked for the National Women’s Law Center, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and the South Carolina Democratic Party. She spent the summer of 2019 with the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign.

[1] Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground (Friends United Press edition, 1986), p. 44.