What an interesting way to meet — to engage in an exchange of letters about hope and change in the political arena. In such an exchange, one of us might have represented the perspective that victories by forces of greed and injustice comprise ample evidence that political hope and progress are dead in the water; and the other might have argued that a long view reveals that, despite obstacles and defeats, hope is alive and progress is happening, if slowly. But because hope is not a function of circumstance, it can be chosen even in the roughest of times. And so I want to open not a debate but a conversation about how we nurture hope and work for justice, and how we deal with political defeats and frustration.
I choose “hope” and I participate in political campaigns (most recently for Prop 47 in California, reducing incarceration for nonviolent crimes), not because I always feel hopeful about politics, but because I need to be part of hopeful efforts toward a just society, as I need friendship and fresh air. We cannot deny climate change, increasing resource disparities, or the violence done by armies and governments to the vulnerable. It is because these realities are so discouraging that I take seriously my responsibility to nurture a sense of possibility in myself and in others. Judaism — both religiously and historically — calls us to act from hope even when we feel hopeless. We are called to choose life, to light candles in darkness, to show up for each other in mourning, to turn from our own discouraging habits toward acting on our principles. And we are called to pursue justice, because it will not unfold before us without effort.
There is a passage in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s novel The Five in which the reciting of the mourner’s kaddish is a locus for the fight against despair. A mourning father “stands at the edge of the pit and presents his bill, his accounting for the damages, to the Lord of the Universe. He is furious. He shakes his fists and he vilifies the heavens.” But next to the man is Satan, who is waiting to take advantage of the man’s rage at God. The grieving man begins to say kaddish, a prayer that praises God, saying, in other words: “‘You, Satan, keep out of this! Whatever grievances I have against God — that is our business… Somehow we will settle the [matter] between ourselves…’” Here is Judaism’s powerful acceptance of reality, including our sorrow and rage, and at the same time the affirmation of the ongoing possibility for healing and hope. In fact, it is grieving that makes room for hope to reappear in time.
To capsulate: Pursue justice, and seek real victories, but do not rely on them as your source of hope. This is how I understand Psalm 118:8: “It is better to take refuge in the Eternal than to trust in people.” Relationships are the key to both life and political organizing, but when people cannot or do not come through for us, our hope is not at stake. And if we have chosen hope and a commitment to action, there is endless interesting material from which we can learn, in both victories and defeats.
What has nurtured your commitment to working for justice? How do you balance choosing projects or campaigns that are more likely to succeed versus causes that are dear to you? I look forward to learning about you and from you. Yours, Julie Saxe-Taller