Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #154. First published in the St. Cloud times online May 1, 2020; in print May 3

“I'm not optimistic, no. I'm quite different. I'm hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope.”

This is the response by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a decade ago, when asked, “After all you've seen and endured, are you really as optimistic as your book, Made for Goodness, says you are?”

These words of Tutu were posed to me and several others in a recent conversation, “Why Cultural Heritage Matters,” sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Center, where I’m a board member. Our conversation was prompted by a television program with the same title, produced by Twin Cities Public Television in cooperation with the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s.

In the program, Fred de Sam Lazaro, director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas and a regular "PBS NewsHour" contributor, interviews the Rev. Columba Stewart, OSB, the library's executive director and the 2019 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest honor given by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Kevin Lindsey, CEO of the humanities center, who moderated our conversation, wanted Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis; the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs of the Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights and program director for racial justice at the Minnesota Council of Churches; Dr. Shana Sippy, co-director of the Religious Diversity in Minnesota Initiative at Carleton College and assistant professor at Centre College; and me to reflect on what it means to us to be prisoners of hope not only in general, but also, specifically, in this time of pandemic disruption, fear, anxiety.

Archbishop Tutu himself draws on a cultural heritage far deeper than optimism: the Hebrew prophet Zechariah (9:12) – “Return to your strongholds, O prisoners of hope.” The people addressed had generations in which optimism would have done them no good whatsoever. It would actually have added to disaster by lulling them into complacency. As Dr. Sippy noted, optimism is a privilege of the powerful.

Rev. Jacobs, member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, recounted the history in which his ancestors were told that their language and their stories were devil-speak.

He is a prisoner of hope, not optimism, when he now visits classes where children are learning their native tongue, and when he reflects on this statistic: At the beginning of the 20th century there were 237,000 Native persons in the U.S.; today they are at least one full percent of the population – realizing the hopes of his ancestors, including his grandmother and her father, who were subjected to cultural erasure.

From an indigenous elder he received a poster she held during the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017: “We the Resilient have been here before.” Hope is not a johnny-come-lately.

Similarly, Rabbi Zimmerman called attention to what James Baldwin wrote in 1962: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Then she gave this an unforgettable theological twist in a phrase that sums up Moses and Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah and all the rest: “Thus says the Lord: ‘People! Get your act together!’”

Applied to current circumstances, this means that in the coronavirus we’re facing something that cannot be changed by wishing it to go away. “Believing” that it will “disappear” by some “miracle” isn’t hope at all; it’s delusion.

What the virus is doing to us, though, can be faced, and is being faced and changed by the careful, steady, courageous efforts of researchers and public health experts and all the health care workers whom we celebrate. They are the Resilient who have been here before. We are fortunate that they are prisoners of science and facts – and thus of hope.

Archbishop Tutu’s “prisoners of hope” triggered for me a memory from 2003.

On March 14 that year, in Paris, my wife and I attended, along with thousands of others, an international “Concert for Peace” in Notre Dame Cathedral. Everybody knew war was coming. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had brushed aside French and German opposition as the sound of “Old Europe.” In the 800-year-old cathedral that night the cultural heritage of Old Europe sounded stunning in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Fauré’s “Requiem.”

Beethoven and Fauré couldn’t halt the invasion and its catastrophic effects; the Bush administration had made clear that nothing would stop it. The composers weren’t able to protect Notre Dame from the devastating fire in 2019. But the “Ode to Joy” and the “Requiem” weren’t silenced, aren’t silenced and won’t be silenced.

Our conversation was recorded on a nodal point of cultural heritage: Earth Day, the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day before the start of Ramadan, a little more than a week beyond Easter. As Dr. Sippy pointed out, all our traditions demonstrate that change is possible, nothing is static. These traditions imprison us – not in shackles, but in hope.