Embracing responsibility, discovering hope

When the ancient Israelites grumbled at Moses for leading them out of slavery in Egypt, they were falling back into the habits of those long powerless under oppression. When they made a golden calf the moment Moses left them to themselves, they were behaving as those long unused to honouring responsibilities or holding on to hope.

The liberation which God intends is not yet fulfilled when external chains - metal or metaphorical - have been broken. God intends a conversion in which his people turn from resigned despair for themselves, because they have found hope given for themselves by God. God intends a change of heart in which people turn from being 'no people' - anonymous victims, floating like driftwood, prey to irresponsibility and escapism - because they have found themselves called to a place among God's people and to responsible participation in God's purposes.

Rules which affirm

Responsibility and hope are interconnected. When the ancient Israelites were instructed to keep the commandments of God, they were given hope. Strange as it first sounds to the modern mind, to be given responsibility to obey rules can bring hope as, receiving loving attention, we are given what is for our own good. A church minister told his daughters how lucky they were to have so few rules imposed on them at school compared to the many in his own schooldays. 'But dad, at least they cared!' his daughters protested.

To be given the responsibility of obeying rules can also bring the hope of personal self-esteem: it can teach us that someone believes we can do what is asked of us, and that we can be trustworthy in doing it. I have seen youngsters from chaotic homes grow in self-respect and self-esteem as Boys Brigade leaders insisted, week by week, that they appear smartly dressed in their uniforms. We can even grow in self-esteem when we are criticised for failing to fulfil our responsibilities: this can teach us that someone believes we can face reality, acknowledge our failings, and persevere anew in our efforts.

Hope which overflows

The hope which God intends for his people flowers in the Gospel. Here we called to do more than rules can frame: our calling is to live as adopted sons and daughters of God - alive with the life of Christ, loving as he has loved. Entrusted with such awesome responsibility, we shall never have reason to be proud in the way that obeying rules can made us proud; the dignity bestowed upon us here is utterly disarming and humbling. Meanwhile the Gospel of God's forgiveness frees us from despairing in the way that failing to fulfil obligations can make us despair. This flowering of hope is empowered by the Spirit. Therefore Paul can pray: 'May God, who is the ground of hope, fill you with all joy and peace as you lead the life of faith until, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you overflow with hope' (Romans 15.13).

Blindness which polarises

Responsibility and hope are interconnected. However, a modern habit of mind blinds people to this. It sees obligations and freedom as opposites. Obligations are seen as oppressing us, making us look for esteem from others; freedom from obligation is seen as affirming us, releasing self-esteem. Responsibility is seen as about carrying a depressing burden of expectations imposed by other people, and hope as about being freed from any such burden - freed to be ourselves.

When this opposition is swallowed by Christians, it polarises the Church. On the one hand those of more liberal inclination, eager to affirm Christian freedom, see oppression as the great enemy. In what they oppose, however, they risk failing to distinguish between subservience to oppressive demands and true obedience in Christ. On the other hand those of a conservative inclination, eager to affirm Christian obedience, see false autonomy as the great enemy. In what they oppose, however, they risk failing to distinguish between false autonomy and true freedom in Christ.

The Gospel, however, resists this opposition between obligation and freedom, responsibility and hope. On the one hand, it proclaims release from oppression. On the other hand, the freedom it proclaims is more than freedom from anything; it is, more deeply, freedom for responsible participation in God's purposes. Without this, 'freedom from' is not true freedom, for it is freedom without hope.

From coercion to seduction

We taste such freedom without hope today when, supposedly free to be ourselves, we now see the 'real' world as lying entirely elsewhere than ourselves - in the lives of celebrities and of characters in TV soaps, and not in our own relationships; in mass-produced goods, the professional job offered, the expert advice, and not in what we can ourselves take on; in the label and brand which makes us visible to others, not in the person we are. Indeed the mass media and producers may at the same time project on to us such personal redundancy, and offer an (illusory) way of escape by making some awesome purchase: 'Whoever thought that a person like me would find great shoes like these at a store nearby? It's K-Mart' I read in a U.S. store. From being a 'nobody' the consumer is invited to become a 'somebody'

Conversion to hope

Christian faith points to a surer identity and a truer freedom - the freedom of those called to responsible participation in the purposes of God. But this requires a conversion to hope. It requires a conversion both from the resigned despair of those long oppressed, and from an aimless life of consumption and escapism. Any attempt to bring hope to people has to seek this conversion by the grace of God - whether among the ancient Israelite slaves liberated from Egypt, or among the aimless consumers of our age.

David Kettle