Radical Optimism

Paula Northwood June 7, 2020

Scripture: Psalm 8

“The more troubled and difficult the world becomes, the more important it becomes to be optimistic. And the more deeply we need to root our optimism. When we cannot reasonably base it on the way things are going, we know that we have to base it on the ultimate reality of God. We know it has to be radical.” This is a quote from Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World by Beatrice Bruteau. Especially in times like these, we need optimism.

I was listening to How I Built This with Guy Raz on NPR a few Saturdays ago, when Guy was talking to the inventor of the Impossible Burger, Pat Brown. Brown said a scientist has to be “insanely optimistic” because they fail so many times before they have a success. Of course, we have all heard this description of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. That’s not what Pat Brown did. Even though it might not make logical sense, he tenaciously tried different things until he got the result he wanted.

We often use the glass-half-full metaphor when speaking of optimism. I was talking with someone about optimism, and she said that her mother was an optimist and taught her to be one, too. But now that she is a mother, also juggling work, home schooling and a multitude of daily tasks, she understood that it is not always enough for one’s glass to be half-full. Sometimes you need to fill that wine glass right to the top.

Our text this morning is a familiar psalm. At first glance it may not seem to speak of optimism, but if we look closely, it holds some insight. Psalm 8 speaks to the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation and our place in it. It is a psalm of hope and purpose. It also reveals that people who suffer at the hands of evil forces are made in the image of God and valued highly by our creator. The psalm proclaims that humans are God’s agents on earth. All creation—humans included—is interconnected and reveals a majestic creator who is insanely optimistic.

Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” It’s been almost two weeks since the murder of Gorge Floyd in our city by our police, I ask us, “What is our opportunity here?” Several years ago, our church made a renewed commitment to Racial Justice. A couple hundred of us attended a racial justice training. We engaged speakers and held book studies and conversations, but, in many ways, we have been stymied. Here is your opportunity to reengage. How will we tackle the underlying problem of racism in our city, our country, even our church?

At this moment, it may feel like we are in a crucible, pounded from every side. Depending upon where you live in the Twin Cities, you may have held in tension your safety or your family’s safety with your desire to participate in the struggle. Many of us have tried to fall sleep filled with fear not only for ourselves but our city. We have felt helpless and hopeless. We ask, “How will things ever change?” I know it has been hard. But I want to encourage us to sit in this uncomfortable place and be open to its lessons.

I have found the 2017 Sojourners article “For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies,” by Courtney Ariel, to be helpful during this time. Becoming an ally with our friends of color is certainly a place to start. Here is what she suggests:

Listen more; talk less. You don’t have to have something to say all of the time. You don’t have to post something on social media that points to how liberal/how aware/how cool/how good you are. . . . Try just to listen and sit with someone else’s experience. . . . [Don’t] “whitesplain,” meaning to explain or comment on something in an over-confident or condescending way. This adds to the silencing of the voices of people of color.

Being an ally is different than simply wanting not to be racist. . . . Being an ally requires you to educate yourself about systemic racism in this country. [If you haven’t read] Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me . . . [, do so.]

Use your voice and influence to direct the folks that walk alongside you in real life . . . toward the voice of someone that is living a marginalized/disenfranchised experience.

Please try not to [say], “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” . . . People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world. . . . Your shock and outrage at the existence of racism in America echoes the fact that you have lived an entire life with the luxury of indifference about the lives of marginalized/disenfranchised folks. . . .

Do the deep work of transformation, restoration—and reparation. . . . Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with it. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.

Ariel continues:

I believe that this is holy work, the work of justice, the pursuit of it. It doesn’t need an audience, and it will not always have one. It will happen most days in ways that are unseen. It might mean providing a meal or shelter, listening, using your particular area of expertise to help someone in need of that expertise . . . , bailing a protester out of jail, or paying a family’s rent one month . . . , or marching at a rally with marginalized folks alongside other allies. There may not always be a practical, tangible way to pursue this work, but I believe you will know it when you meet it face-to-face.

However it looks, it will be something that you do without needing to be thanked or receive praise—you are not a savior. Marginalized/disenfranchised folks can and will survive without you . . . . However, I urge you to pursue this work, knowing that a system of white privilege afforded you access to opportunities while denying them to so many others.

Above all, I urge you keep trying. You’re going to make mistakes; expect this. But keep showing up. Be compassionate. Lead with empathy, always. Keep learning and growing. If you do this, I truly believe you’ll be doing the work of an ally.[1]

This is our work to do, individually and as a church, and it is hopeful, optimistic work. We must keep trying. Even if it’s hard, we must keep trying.

The late great poet Maya Angelou, taught us through her writing that optimism is far more than a naïve faith in tomorrow. It’s an attitude birthed by a series of tough choices. Optimism comes from choosing not to be the victim of unfairness. She wrote, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Optimism puts us in control of negative events. Sometimes the only thing we can control is our reaction. We have a choice right now. What has been your reaction to the death of George Floyd? What has been your reaction to the protests? What has been your reaction to the riots?

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr has written about the medieval holy woman Julian of Norwich, who bequeathed us a radically optimistic theology. She had no problem admitting that humans sin. We rupture relationships, we demean people, we dishonor the Divine, we make unfortunate choices, we try to hide our faults. And yet, Julian insists, “While sin may be inevitable, all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.” Can we take that kind of optimism in?

This assertion is meant to penetrate the fog of our despair and wake us up! Julian repeats her declaration three times—most emphatically the third: All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well. She does not ask us to say that everything that unfolds is the will of God. She squarely faces the inevitability that we will miss the mark and that there is evil in this world. Even so, she is convinced that the nature of the Divine is loving-kindness, and she wants us to absorb this into every fiber of our being. It is the same optimism that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

I said a few weeks ago that we walk on this exquisite edge of possibility. It is a hard place to stand, to breathe of both worlds: the one burning behind us and the one in front, not yet formed. The humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.” We ground our faith in the ultimate reality of God. We root our optimism in the deep, abiding love of God. We can tap into that reality at any moment.

Yes, we will face much hardship in the days to come. The whirlwind of global pandemic is not over, the cyclone of climate change has not stopped and the raging fire of worldwide racial unrest that was sparked in our city continues. But we, people of faith, must step up armed with radical, tenacious, insane optimism in order to be the change we seek. May it be so. Amen.

[1]Courtney Ariel, “For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies,” Sojourners, August 16, 2017, https://sojo.net/
articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies (accessed June 9, 2020).