By Tyler Schwaller
Somedays, when I am feeling especially overwhelmed by all of the hurt and injustice in the world, I find myself thinking, “Alright, Jesus, if you’re coming back, now would be a great time!”
There is something hopeful about imagining the end.
And hope is full of critique.
Because when we hope for things to be different, what we are saying is that the present state of affairs is unacceptable.
This is the vision of the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. Early Christians, living under the Roman Empire, looked to the end, to the overturning of domination and oppression. They imagined the reign of justice, a new world where God would wipe every tear from their eyes, death would be no more, mourning and crying and pain would be no more (Rev 21:4).
This is what people yearning to be free have been doing forever: imagining the end. Not simply as an escape. Not as a way to gloss over the fears and the pain that are so very real in the present. Not to say, “Don’t worry. God will fix things… later.”
This turn to the end is full of the kind of hope that rejects the notion that it is impossible to imagine a world where all are valued and can flourish.
And the bigger our hope, the more it will take to bring about a new reality
This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about when he went to Memphis in support of sanitation workers on strike. He ended a rousing speech by pointing to the end. “I just want to do God’s will,” Dr. King said. “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Dr. King was assassinated the very next day. He was not naïve. He was not saying nice, comforting words to make people feel better so they could forget about the harsh realities of their lives. Dr. King was looking to the end, to the Promised Land, as a reminder of what we’re fighting for here and now. And he knew as well as anybody—as deeply as those first century Christians who imagined the overturning of earthly empire—that it will take all of our hope to build a world where care and reconciliation and healing and just relations are a reality for all.
This is the kind of hope that says the ways we treat one another now are not good enough, that we must and we can live into an alternative vision of the future today.
This is also the heart of the gospel. Jesus preached that imagining the end is not about looking forward to something yet to come. It is about turning our attention more deeply to the present to see where there is need and then to meet that need. It is about literally feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting the imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46). Jesus has called us to do the work of making real in the present what God will make complete in the end.
Each of us has different needs in this moment. Sometimes it is incumbent upon us to meet the needs of others, and sometimes we are the ones in need of care. Pay careful attention to one another. Pay careful attention to yourselves. We can be for each other the embodiment of God’s mercy and compassion.
I regularly find nourishment in James Baldwin’s expression of this vision in his poem “Some Days”:
Some days you say,
oh, not me never — !
Some days you say
bless God forever.
Some days, you say,
curse God, and die
and the day comes when you wrestle
with that lie.
Some days tussle
then some days groan
and some days
don’t even leave a bone.
Some days you hassle
I don’t know, sister,
what I’m saying,
nor do no man,
if he don’t be praying.
I know that love is the only answer
and the tight-rope lover
the only dancer.
When the lover come off the rope
the net which holds him
is how we pray,
and not to God’s unknown,
but to each other — :
the falling mortal is our brother! [our sister! our sibling!]
There is much in this life that is precarious. Just to live in relationship to one another is a risk. But to live with hope and love is not to defer responsibility to God alone but to take responsibility to care for each other. Our prayers for one another are not what fly off into the unknown but are our very acts of loving-kindness in community.
Tyler Schwaller is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and the Ackerman/Hurdle Chaplaincy Chair at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA. He is also an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church, with membership in the Iowa Annual Conference. Tyler recently completed a ThD (Doctor of Theology) at Harvard University in the area of New Testament and Early Christianity, writing a dissertation entitled “The Use of Slaves in Early Christianity: Slaves as Subjects of Life and Thought.” His research and teaching interests include slavery in the Roman Empire; women, gender, and sexuality in early Christianity; feminist, queer, and critical race theory; archaeology and material culture; as well as the ethics of biblical interpretation. These interests converge around particular concern for how we tell the stories of those who have been marginalized and for bringing attention to people’s intellectual, spiritual, and embodied strategies for navigating their social and material circumstances. As an out, queer clergy person in The UMC, Tyler finds particular joy and meaning through kinship and solidarity with other queer folks, whose lives and loves reflect something of the Good News.