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The Anatomy of Hope

Rev. Jim Conn

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Social justice activists often think that when things are terrible, people will rise up and protest those conditions until they see significant change, and sometimes they do. But usually, especially in recent decades in this country, they don’t. My friends, as well as other readers of the Frying Pan, often ask, Why not?

I always return to one of the classic analyses of dramatic social change, Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution. The book follows the trajectory of four historic revolutions: England, France, America and Russia. In each, he argues, regime change did not happen because conditions were at their worst. Instead they occurred when the circumstances of everyday life were actually getting better but did not match the hopes of people. Revolution happened, Brinton says, in the widening gap between expectation and reality.

That explanation probably clarifies why demonstrations in Greece and Spain have met with frustration, while mass protests in Brazil have led to changes. It helps explain why various demonstrations in this country have not sparked a massive movement for social and economic justice in a long while.

There are other dynamics as well. When people can see clear results to an immediate problem, they are more likely to change their behavior. When they cannot experience visible outcomes, they are less likely to shift their personal actions or call for public policy changes.

Take global climate change. We know it is happening. Only Rush Limbaugh and a couple of scientists reject the available data, and one of those recently recanted. Every other knowledgeable observer on the planet thinks our Mother Earth is headed for disaster. People know that something must change. Unfortunately, the behavior changes an individual can make are miniscule in relation to the dimensions of the issue, and the problem remains invisible and far off. Business finds that making the necessary changes is too expensive in the short run and the dominant economic model only values short range results.

Most people are unwilling to make personal sacrifices – much less radically change their lives by embracing careers in social activism – when issues feel distant and immense, and virtually unchangeable.

On the other hand, when the results of personal risk are close at hand and personally beneficial, people will take the route of direct action. A person suffering a chronic and life-threatening health problem will change their diet, begin exercising and even stop social drinking if it will make life better. On the other hand, while underwater homeowners will do everything they can to keep their homes, they are unlikely to join a movement to change the practices of financial institutions based thousands of miles away.

So how do activists keep, well, active in the face of such distances? How did a few black and white civil rights activists ride buses into the South knowing they would likely be beaten if not killed while virtually no one even knew it was happening?

For me it comes down to the difference between optimism and hope. I am not an optimist. I do not believe that what I do today matters much in the great scheme of things. If I do civil disobedience in front of Walmart, for example, I do not think the world’s biggest retail corporation will change its behavior toward its employees. No cause/effect. No If/Then. I engage in those actions because maintaining a consistent witness against injustice and corporate callousness holds meaning for my life. I feel called to it by my faith tradition. It may also encourage others, activists as well as employees. Maybe.

Hope goes beyond optimism. Hope believes that some movement toward justice will come, but when or why or how remains a mystery. Like the people who filled the streets of Brazil recently, the Freedom Riders had no idea of the consequences of the risk they took. There was just the outside possibility that conditions were ripe, as Brinton describes them, and that a persistent presence of action might spark something far beyond anyone’s range of visible expectations. That’s not optimism, that’s hope.

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