Finding Hope in the New Year

By Jim Tonkowich Published on December 31, 2015

In his 2015 Year in Review, humorist Dave Barry writes that some people have criticized him in the past for being too negative, for focusing entirely on “the stupid, the tragic, the evil, the disgusting, the Kardashians.”

His solution is “a List of the Top 10 Good Things That Happened in 2015.” After item #1 — “We didn’t hear that much about Honey Boo Boo” — he gives up saying, “We apologize, but 2015 had so many negatives that we’re having trouble seeing the positives.”

What follows is funny, but in a sad way. For example, after reporting that no U. S. official attended the march in Paris after the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo, Barry reminds us that Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris up a few days later with James Taylor who performed the song “You’ve Got a Friend.”

“This bold action,” writes Barry, “strikes fear into the hearts of terrorists, who realize that Secretary Kerry is fully capable, if necessary, of unleashing Barry Manilow” or even worse “Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand (code name ‘Doomsday Duet’) to sing ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.’”

Okay, so he’s making that last part up. Nonetheless the hapless sentimentality of Secretary Kerry and James Taylor is not made up and should strike fear into all of our hearts.

What’s the solution to all the bad news? Well, you say, 2016 is an election year so. …

Please. Does anyone seriously believe Jeb, Ben, Ted, Marco, Carlie, Chris, the Donald, or (God help us) Hillary when they insist that they personally are the solution to all our problems?

Not that we should give up on politics the way many did in 2012 thereby contributing to four more years of the Obama Administration. We should enthusiastically jump into the political process, do all we can, and elect the best possible people. That being said, to quote Chuck Colson when his friend George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, “The Kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”

Politics alone cannot solve the problems Dave Barry recites and neither can the nostalgia that often influences our political thinking.

Several years ago I attended a “strategy” meeting for Christian conservatives. In two days, the best the group came up with was: “Bring back the fifties.” That still shocks me as I reflect on how the power of nostalgia (with its accompanying amnesia) trumps rational thought and reality.

While “I like Ike” as much as the next guy and with Merle Haggard “I wish Coke was still Cola / And a joint was a bad place to be,” pining for the fifties or the Reagan years or “Christian America” or some other bygone alleged golden age yields no solutions to our current and future problems. We should, by all means, learn from the past, but pace George Santayana, the past can never be repeated. It is gone forever. We either turn our attention and efforts toward the future or we fail. And the attempt to turn nostalgia into public policy guarantees failure.

If that sounds despairing, it’s not. We should be of good cheer in spite of it all. G. K. Chesterton famously commented, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” We sink and remain earthbound when we disregard their example.

Good cheer is the result of the theological virtue of hope. Hope, as the late Richard John Neuhaus (“a man of great personal good cheer and bonhomie”) pointed out in his book American Babylon, rejects optimism, despair and presumption.

“Optimism,” he wrote, “is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what we want to see and not seeing what we don’t want to see.” “To despair is to decide against faith and hope.”  And “Presumption is a smugness, a supercilious complacency. …”

Hope, by contrast, combines clear sightedness with trust that God’s promises are true and that we have a vital part to play in their fulfillment. “Redemption or salvation,” wrote Neuhaus, “is thus viewed not as escape from this world but as a participation in the future that is already happening in Jesus Christ. That participation takes the form of service to the world, a world that is the object of God’s inexhaustible love.”

Dave Barry is right: 2015 was full of suffering, sadness, and stupidity. His 2016 Year in Review will, no doubt, chronicle more of the same. Yet Jesus continues to build his Church, his Church continues to prevail against the gates of Hell (Matthew 16:18), and he calls us to be his cheerful partners in his great work.

“In the world,” said Jesus, “you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). And so, with eyes wide open in the face of whatever ills may assail us in 2016, we can and should have a Happy and Blessed New Year.

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