Despite halting attempts to live my life with hope, I’ve failed. My experience is not unique. We suffer. The recent pandemic, including its side effects of loss and displacement, is but one example. Suffering can leave a sense of hopelessness in its wake. One place I look for balm is in poetry.

As with most poetry, Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886) work requires me to pause and ponder. What is being said? Not easy to tell, nonetheless, I often do find meaning in her poems. If I understand her thrust at all, much of the meaning I glean disorients me.

This is one such poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Best I can tell, the speaker aligns hope with a bird (“thing with feathers”), followed by talk about the unstoppable nature of birdsong/hope.  Reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s (1688-1744) “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  Hope needs no help staying alive although the speaker does allow for a “sore storm” to abash (unmoor) the bird.  Is hope, then, inherent in every soul?

My friend, Faedah, aware of my current struggles, sent me this Dickinson poem:

They say that “Time assuages”
Time never did assuage
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age
Time is a Test of Trouble
But not a Remedy
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady

Could the speaker be saying that if time heals a painfully-perceived wound, there was no ailment in the first place? If one isn’t relieved or soothed by the passing of time, but strengthened from an “actual suffering” (whatever that is), just what is a Malady? What differentiates Trouble from suffering?  Suffering strengthens one? I’m not convinced. Trouble evaporates with the passage of time? Sure—given enough time, memory dissipates.  We are mere specks on a small planet among innumerable galaxies.  As poetry is wont to do, it leaves the reader off balance and, I suppose, free to conclude what they will.

Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor (Wheaton College) and a theologian-in-residence at Progressive Baptist Church (Chicago), recently wrote a piece for the “New York Times” titled “On Hope, Hate and the Most Radical Claim of the Easter Season.”

At the outset, the author tells us his melancholy temperament balks at shouting “Allelluia, Christ is risen!” during Easter church service.  He prefers Maundy Thursday, a day that remembers Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  One of those disciples, Judas, betrays Jesus, flees into the night, and commits suicide.  “I have always felt closest to God on this night in the silence, surrounded by the story of failure.”

No surprise then that McCaulley declares: “I have never been a big fan of hope.  It’s a demanding emotion that insists on changing you. Hope pulls you out of yourself and into the world, forcing you to believe more is possible.” 

McCaulley’s early life was plagued with familial drug addiction and poverty. He resented radio hosts blaming families, forced to be on government assistance, “as the epitome of what was wrong with America.” He hated TV pastors who told “Black folks like me that a blessing was on the way if we just sent in $99.95.” Paradoxically (but maybe not), he also despised teachers who “tried to help…with inspirational speeches about the power of our minds and our potential to be more than athletes or criminals….How dare they interrupt our despair with hope?” 

Could this help explain the author’s sympathy for Judas who, according to the gospel narrative, sold out Jesus to the Roman soldiers for 30 pieces of silver?  Did Judas grow up where the Jew-hating occupying force filled him with rage and fear? “Constant oppression can make pragmatism and self-preservation seem like the only realistic options.” Did Jesus (however Jesus gets imagined) offer a hope that nudged a belief that things could be different? “Betrayal was [Judas’] chance to return to the safety and dependability of hopelessness.”

The author recalls one school instructor who remained in his school district even when violence surged. The instructor’s tenacity did not engender gratitude, only an increased desire to break her.  Yet, when he saw her steadying herself in the hallway after a particularly-raucous class, he realized he risked “driving away someone whose only flaw was to care….Despair allows us to give up our resistance [pushing away something good] and rest awhile.” Judas despaired and then killed himself.

Suicide is a dramatic act.  Giving up on life (mind/heart-numbing addictions, for example) seems less dramatic.  Many people among us have given up and live in ways where hope is way too heavy a burden and, hence, disposable.

McCaulley ends his essay firmly contextualized within the Easter narrative—Jesus died, was buried, and then resurrected on the third day. Unfortunately, “atonement theology” (Jesus literally died and rose for my sins) became the popular (and often only) way to understand the Easter story.  Just like good poetry, though, there are a myriad ways to interpret Jesus.

Might we understand Jesus in a broader, symbolic sense? Symbols acquire their power because we (humans) ascribe/inculcate meaning to them. Jesus (for some) functions as a symbol of the fulfillment of our deepest needs. It’s unfortunate that Jesus has been appropriated by self-identified Christians with political agendas who insist on re-creating society in their own image—an idolatrous image reeking of misogyny, racism, and warmongering. 

According to McCaulley, Jesus’ return to his disciples after three days—a result of that “indestructibility of hope”—is the most radical claim of the Easter story.  Hope made all the difference. Not atonement theology, but “…encountering the person [Jesus] who, despite every disappointment we experience with ourselves and with the world, gives us a reason to carry on.” 

Judas could not fathom Jesus (or anything) as a vehicle of hope.  Pain will do that. 

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

5 thoughts on “HOPE, PAIN, DESPAIR, AND JESUS by Esther Nelson”

  1. Wow Esther what an incredibly complex and achingly honest essay… “Hope is the thing with feathers…” is one of my favorite poems because there is something about birdsong that moves me like nothing else pulling me out of sadness/despair/hopelessness even if just for seconds…. and we have lost 3 billion birds…and are losing more as I speak..What is this telling us?
    On my wall I keep a saying that belongs to Terry Tempest Williams : “Hope is a force field; it is not associated with personal want or need”. This saying reminds me that I have no control over the experience of hope and at this time of year especially except for wildflowers, peepers, and birdsong I repeat an old cycle of hopelessness which seems to intensify each year – I do believe that “actual suffering strengthens
    as sinews do, with age”… and we are not taught this truth – whatever wounds we start out with do seem to develop more strength with age – and no one wants to go there.. (we don’t get old – we get wise – really?) especially in this smiley faced culture that in reality faces extinctions of all sorts…I’ve also reached the conclusion that deluding oneself with hope is one way American Culture FORCES us to participate in the GREAT LIE that all be well when it isn’t. A most powerful form of DENIAL. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us…regarding Jesus: what I see is a man who lived his truth and died – a man of integrity who suffered deeply – the twisted message of Mainstream Christianity revolts me. There is no resurrection from suffering -it’s life.


    1. Dear Sara–Thank you for your heartfelt response. Your last sentence rocks: “There is no resurrection from suffering -it’s life.” Reminds me of how the first noble truth in Buddhism often gets translated: “Life is suffering.” More meticulous scholars tweak that translation to say: “Life is out of kilter.” Much like a broken bone which is out of kilter with the rest of the body. How do we manage in the world, then? I so agree with your assessment of our culture: “I’ve also reached the conclusion that deluding oneself with hope is one way American Culture FORCES us to participate in the GREAT LIE that all be well when it isn’t.” I think our survival–both individual and communal–depends on our finding meaning and purpose for ourselves through any means possible. Suffering as we live in this world is inevitable. How to manage that suffering is difficult to figure out. Seems it comes down to what each of us finds meaningful. Yet, that quest for and capture of meaning so often (most often?) comes at the expense of the planet and all its inhabitants–both what we call sentient as well as non-sentient.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I do agree – no matter what we do we are making it worse – every tine I drive a car etc I am participating in a culture bent on destruction – for me finding meaning in nature is fraught with despair – there are moments though – like that bird song or a kiss from one’s dog or having a conversation like this one that stops time… different for all of us but it is all we have

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Esther, thank you for this amazing, truthful, and heartfelt post. I haven’t commented before because I’ve been thinking about it ever since you wrote it. In fact, I had been thinking of writing a post about the spiritual effects of pain, but in my case constant/chronic physical pain. But you have said just about everything I could have thought of to say! You have also made me think about my family heritage of the idea of hope – what was hope to the people who raised me – my parents and grandparents. I think that in my family, hope was not an optimistic attitude that may or may not be realistic, but rather that force that causes you to get up every day and keep on keeping on no matter what is happening in your life. There are two reasons to do this. First, Creation in all its manifestations is beautiful and our bodies and our lives are the only way we have to experience it, so life is a gift no matter how difficult it may be. And second, we have responsibilities to the Earth, our global community, and our loved ones to do what we can to make things better. I think those ideas of hope do relate to your post, too. Anyway, I really loved this post and I thank you for writing it.


    1. Thank you, Carolyn, for your response and insights into this thing we call “life.” There’s something to that idea of getting up in the morning and keeping on in spite of our circumstances. I’ve never lacked for tenacity and “stick-to-itiveness” (as my teachers would oft comment). Your right that it’s only through our bodies that we experience Creation (to enjoy AND maintain) so appreciate that reminder. The particular pain that Dr. McCaulley theorizes about in his NYTimes article is Judas’ inability to receive anything good offered to him that could have steadied him in his life . So much easier to keep up the behavioral pattern of despair. The author sees that same behavior in himself as a younger person when he pushed away his teacher “whose only flaw was to care.” Enough pain of any kind can inure one to any kind of balm.


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