Hope (2/8): Into the life of the world (b)

Reading time: 8 min.

This blog series is about people of hope: how are some people and communities able to live and act in hope, conscious though they are of a future that may be becoming harder to face?

When I listen to people who work with hope in some way, six ‘core conditions’ of well-grounded hopefulness seem to emerge. Last week we were exploring the first: the sense of hopeful people that they’re involved in – ‘rolled in with’ – the life of the world around them. They haven’t pushed the world away, as if its fate could be split away from their own. The life of the world around them, near or far, matters to them, and not merely in principle but because they feel it so. In this week’s blog we’re wondering what has taken them to this point.

Ben and Kongosi are Congolese refugees living in Bradford. Kongosi opens the door to me and holds out her hand. She’s warm but not effusive; she uses few words but all of them count. My first impression, soon confirmed, is that Kongosi combines an open heart with a tough spirit. She leads me through to the living room, past cloth artworks showing simple religious scenes; small reed crosses mark every door in the house.

Kongosi brings through the savoury rolls and Congolese doughnuts she’s baked for my visit, and while we wait for Ben she takes me through her family’s many graduation photos hanging over the fireplace; several are for degrees in peace studies. When Ben arrives he leads us in a prayer of thanks for Kongosi’s food, and to remember that in the Congolese refugee camps people have little or nothing to eat.

I expect Ben and Kongosi to tell me about their community work in Bradford, but Ben takes us back to the Congo, to an incident that marked the start of his journey in peace work. He’s on the way to a funeral, he says, when he’s ambushed by a militia from one of the country’s warring factions. They strip his shirt from him to bind his hands with it, and hold him for two hours in the noonday sun. It’s so hot that his saliva dries up.

Ben’s assailants are barely out of their boyhood. They’re red-eyed from the drugs they’ve taken, he says, ‘in order to be able to kill without pity’, and that’s their plan for Ben. After a while they realise that their captive is from their own ethnic group – they’ve picked him up by mistake – so they argue about what to do with him. They decide to strangle him and throw him in the river to drown, so no one will find out they kidnapped one of their own. ‘OK,’ says Ben, accepting his fate, ‘but can I pray first?’

Ben devotes his prayer to the boys about to kill him. He asks God to guide them out of their violence, which they don’t understand and is hurting everyone, including them: ‘Lord… I’m afraid for them – forgive them…’ I ask Ben if he was afraid himself. He says no – when you know what’s coming ‘you die before they kill you’.

But they don’t kill him, they abandon him in confusion and he struggles home exhausted. ‘The next day,’ Ben says, ‘I was talking with God: “Lord, what shall I do for my people who are killing innocent people for nothing?”’

For nothing. The sheer senselessness of the violence has rocked him. So from that day he devotes himself to the reconciliation of his riven country, beginning with his own community. In other words, after his direct experience of the violence that has been tearing his country apart (and whose causes stretch back to colonial times), he turns towards it, to face it.

In 1992 Ben and Kongosi are living in Rwanda. This is two years before the genocide, but people are already disappearing and no one wants to talk about it. The Rwandan church is in a bad way, too – the three main bishops have been in bitter conflict for a decade. One day it’s Ben’s turn to preach in church and he chooses to speak about reconciliation, specifically a passage from the Bible in which Jesus’ crucifixion is said to be a gift that brings peace.

‘When I finish, I ask if anyone present wants to receive this reconciliation now.’ Just one man comes forward. It’s Ben’s bishop, one of the three rivals. He’s been sitting incognito on the back pew in his ordinary clothes. Listening to the sermon, he’s realised that he really needs the reconciliation that Ben’s been talking about. When he kneels at the altar, Ben can tell that something special is happening: ‘You could feel it in the church in the quiet.’ The congregation are amazed, and now they’re all on their feet, pressing forward to do the same.

Ben’s bishop now asks him to host a meeting of reconciliation with his fellow rivals, and by the end of it they’ve decided together to put their enmity away. The trio then call a public ceremony of reconciliation for the whole country in the national stadium. The roads in Rwanda are quite good; people from all ethnic groups arrive from all corners of the land. The stadium is packed – even the Rwandan president has turned up – and that day they all repent of violence.

The outcome was as unexpected to Ben as it was extraordinary, ‘an amazing miracle’. Even though the 1994 genocide was on its way, Ben had helped to bring the hearts and minds of his fellows to a new understanding and fresh commitment to reconciliation.

But what if nothing had come of Ben’s work? He’s a man of faith, so he’d have done it anyway because that’s what he felt led to do. The rest, as he says himself, is grace. Even if nothing at all had come of it, the worth of his action – the value of his work in hope – would still have been the same.

So, the outcome of this story is not as important as its genesis: the day that Ben was nearly murdered by a ragtag gang of boy soldiers, when his work for nonviolence and reconciliation began. This wasn’t the day he started to care about people – he was already a hospital radiographer by profession – but it was the day he began to feel involved in their collective destiny. This much was new.

But what if nothing had come of it? Ben’s a man of faith – he’d have done what he did anyway because that’s what he felt led to do. The rest, as he says himself, is grace.

Many of the other conversations I’ve had with well-grounded, hopeful people lead back to a similar moment of crisis, or sometimes a long period of doubt and searching. Typically, they describe a time before the crisis when they normally comprehended, or ‘contained’, their experiences of the world. Then new, challenging experiences couldn’t be contained in the usual way; they overwhelmed the earlier normality.

As with Ben, so with any of us, when a new experience breaks through and floods in, normal life is interrupted and upset. When the floodwaters recede we’re left shaken, facing a choice: we either push the experience away or it becomes part of us. We either keep trying to separate our own fate from the life of the world around us, or we ‘re-member’ them both in ourselves, allowing the life around us to take its proper place in who we are, inviting it to guide how we live.

This ‘turning towards’ the world, sometimes called metanoia, is a disturbing experience, but also a liberation, as our consciousness begins to emerge from a worldview that has boxed our humanity in. We move more freely. We’re more available to the world and we’re less ‘domesticated’ – which is to say, more ‘wild’. And there does seem to be something wild-natured about people who are well-grounded in hope.

This ‘turning towards’ the world, sometimes called metanoia, is disturbing, but also a liberation.

So, hopefulness may be a mark of wildness and freedom – and yet, as Ben’s story shows, once we’re involved in the life of the world we’re not entirely at liberty. The plight of the world around us, more easily ignored before, now starts to ‘make a claim’ on how we live, as the philosopher Kimberley Curtis has put it. Once you’re ‘rolled in’ with the life of the world, you don’t know it as just the place where you strive to get ahead, but as the place with which you share your fate.

It’s a big change in worldview, by which I really mean Weltanschauung – the term philosophers have used to encompass everything to do with how we imagine the world and our attitudes to living in it. It’s not just a ‘view of the world’; the word signifies our whole approach to living, as individuals and as society.

We’ll come back to this in a later blog. We’ll come back to Kongosi, too. For now, let’s hear from Liz. Like Ben, Liz has a story of turning points, and hers also has to do with religion, but this time as a domesticating force that was boxing her humanity in.

When Liz describes her early faith as a Christian she says it was all ‘black and white’. Her church traded in comforting certainties, neatly dividing the world between the righteous, who knew all about God, and everyone else: sinners ripe for rescue or destined for damnation. Liz’s religion made a confusing world simple, but the price was a domesticated outlook, as naïve about the world as it was sure of itself. ‘Bigoted’ is the word Liz uses of herself in those days.

When Liz went to college to study for work in the community, she took a placement at a methadone clinic. The heroin users she met had suffered and struggled more than anyone she’d known before. As she started to listen to their stories and hopes, she found they were highly resourceful and humane – in crisis but also survivors of crisis. The ‘sinners’ box just couldn’t contain them any longer.

Getting to know a Muslim woman troubled Liz again. She had to face the reality that ‘actually, this woman knew a God as well’. If she met the woman as an equal, then she had to recognise her faith as an equal as well. Liz’s encounters were shifting the frontiers of her humanity, her religion couldn’t keep up.

In her second year of college Liz’s brother killed himself. She still doesn’t understand why. ‘My world,’ she wrote later, ‘with all its taken-for-granted understandings and structures, had been smashed to smithereens.’ The loss ‘completely obliterated my faith’; by now not one stone was left in the edifice that had been her religion. Liz still had a feeling for a God – ‘I couldn’t believe there was nothing so I held on to something’ – but she’d stopped presuming to know anything about him/her/them/it.

‘My world, with all its taken-for-granted understandings and structures, had been smashed to smithereens.’ […]
‘I couldn’t believe there was nothing so I held on to something.’

These days Liz works on a housing estate as a support worker for people without homes. A ‘new faith’, as she calls it, has grown in this soil, between the paving stones of a society that pushes its unwanted to the edges. Liz has come to appreciate her religion not as some privileged truth, a tidy slice of heaven, but as an uncertain journey she has to share with others amid the injustices of a messy, unjust earth. That new faith is ‘much more grey’ than the old, she says, not nearly as sure of itself. And yet she talks of her uncertainty with ease, as if it’s a freedom. Which it is. Liz is no longer seduced by the fantasy that everything must be known; it’s enough to know that, whatever God may be, it’s there in every person.

As with Ben, so with Liz, a tidy worldview had domesticated her humanity and kept her distant from the plight of the world around her – from the world’s ‘agon’, a Greek word meaning something like passional striving. Her worldview had reached a point where it could no longer contain life’s events, just as the sheer force of human(e) experience had overwhelmed Ben. For both, something had broken – not apart, but open, releasing them for a larger freedom, a wilder way of life rolled in with the life of the world.

But let’s not imagine that we have to wait to be captured by a gang of boy soldiers before a life-changing turn towards the world becomes possible. Every day is filled with ordinary experiences that ‘make a claim’ on how we live. Every day, if we so allow, can disturb us, interrupting normality, pushing at the frontiers of our humanity, inviting us into a larger freedom, and provoking the same, vital turn towards the life of the world that Liz and Ben want us to know.


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