Traditions of hope


The phrase “traditions of hope” combines two emphases often in conflict: past and future. Blame for the past and plans for the future create tensions and emotions dominating current discourse.

A prayer in a recent worship service was startling: “Bless the curmudgeons for they remember the good they’ve seen.” The idea is provocative! Could that be a way to understand traditions that lead to hope?

“Curmudgeons” evokes an image of old men sitting around a potbellied stove telling stories about the good old days and complaining about the world going to hell in a handbasket. Is that how old people remember the past? Some remember rays of light revealing the existence of good? They might remember participating in activities that created positive changes. They remember celebrating small steps forward that made things better. They also remember mistakes and failures. They understand well specters of good and evil that haunt both the past and the present. Neither good nor evil is monochrome.

Some local traditions of hope: During abolition John Speed, a Quaker who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad on North Street, and Mrs. Elston, also a Quaker, who in the 1830s took a freed slave girl, now known as the “mother” of Bethel AME Church, into the Elston Homestead where she lived into the 1870s. Indiana law required African Americans to have secure positions to remain in Indiana. Was welcome an example of chattel slavery or Christian charity? During the Civil Rights movement Paul Mielke stepped forward as head of the local NAACP and appointed the first African American woman to a professional position at Wabash College, Eric Dean visited local barbers to ask if they would welcome African Americans for haircuts (only one said yes), and Ted Bedrick stood alone on a sidewalk downtown in opposition to a KKK march.

Memories of tiny lights of hope are essential to understanding who we are and the underlying dynamics that affect contemporary society. That is not to say that we should or could go back to the way things were as good old days. Memories of traditions of hope are launch pads toward a better future for individuals and society.

A source of disappointment and frustration is that traditions of hope are hidden by some activist leaders of groups who praise their past heroes while criticizing, stereotyping, and demonizing others. Steven Webb, a former Wabash professor, indicated that groups naturally develop special rhetoric and narratives that include conflict and climaxes to protect identity by juxtaposing or filtering events in the larger world. Leaders arouse emotions by highlighting earlier and present evils. Resulting emotions fuel tension, anger, turmoil, and hatred. These provide little grounds for hope.

Elders and other generations must recognize that our uncertain future will mirror neither the past nor the present. Current, rapid change and divisions demand that we cooperate to develop new pathways to a better future.

Our deficit of hope is a huge problem. True hope is not something we create, but results from our nature as humans. We are uniquely created to be free, rational beings with volition. That propels us toward a future that encompasses both time as longing for the future and space as layers of understanding. Hope beckons us toward a brighter future, which we distort in our finitude as we stumble over pride and sloth.

A few positive steps are possible. Recognize that our creation makes us part of one human community, support leaders and groups that work together to overcome division and hated, and lift up neighbors whenever, wherever and however possible. Accept hope as our natural birthright. Thereby create traditions of hope for others.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.