12/23/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Campfires of Hope

Hope is not a feeling. It is a decision -- a choice you make based on what we call faith or moral conscience, whatever most deeply motivates you.

I have said that for many years, but this Advent and Christmas season tests my words -- even in my own heart.

This is not a time that many of us are feeling a great deal of hope. I hear that from many friends and allies as well.

In fact, many events this year feel like they have sucked the hope right out of us.

And yet, even in the midst of terrible events and stories, the possibilities of hope still exist depending on what we decide to do for reasons of faith and conscience. In fact, people of faith and conscience are already making a difference in the most difficult situations and places.

And that gives me hope. This season of Advent, in the Christian tradition, is a call to patient waiting.

Christmas is the celebration of God literally coming into the world in order to change it.

My brother Bill sent in his family Christmas letter this excerpt from a poem by Garrison Keillor:

A little faith will see you through
What else will except faith is such a cynical time
When the country goes temporarily to the dogs
... one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people
Lacking any other purpose in life
It would be good enough to live for their sake.

I know many in those "campfires" who are bringing hope to what seem to be hopeless situations. So our task is to keep the campfires burning.

Patient waiting just means we don't ever know when and how something will change, and we really can't control that. If we are Christians, we believe that God's timing often surprises our own -- God might work through us in unexpected ways. So keep the campfires burning.

Christmas hope believes that the world will be changed. The world's events are clearly outside of our control, but our belief is that things can and will change -- and that hope is what helps to make them change. People of faith believe that God has a hand in all this and uses our human hands to accomplish God's purposes. So keep the campfires burning.

While the newest polls say that a majority of Americans now believe that race relations are bad, the fact we are now talking about race again -- and that many churches are hungry for that -- is a very good and hopeful thing. In a retreat Sojourners convened with national faith leaders and some of the young leaders of the Ferguson movement, I felt the campfires burning. But from Ferguson, Staten Island, and too many other places where black men have been killed by police, to Brooklyn, where two NYPD officers with young families were just murdered by a career criminal, emotions are very high and trust is very low -- on all sides. What everybody wants to feel is "safe," and it will take many more campfires with diverse people around them to move us to a better place.

Congress' rejection of reforming our immigration system -- something so many of us worked so hard on -- has deepened our political cynicism. But what awakened faith communities is what is helping keep reform possible. Congregations are signing up immigrants for legalization -- that has gratefully come from executive orders -- while churches are planning to press a new Congress for bipartisan action, telling elected officials we are not going away until a broken system is fixed. In that, I feel the campfires burning with a hope that won't quit.

The incredibly awful stories of African school girls being kidnapped, the legions of women around the globe being abused, and the rape culture in our own country fills us with shame and anger. Yet when we see the power and potential of women being lifted up in global faith communities, schools focusing on enrolling girls, pastors and seminaries wanting to challenge domestic abuse, I can feel the campfires burning.

The continuing rise of economic inequality shows the lack of values leadership in our economic elites, but a broad discussion of a "new social covenant" raises hope. And the rising voice of a new generation of believers and even evangelical scientists are putting the challenge of stewardship before world leaders who are still failing to address the real threats of climate change. Both those conversations are keeping the campfires burning.

Children slaughtered in Pakistan, innocent lives ending in beheadings, and a new, brutal terrorist state rolling across Syria and Iraq chills our hearts. But beyond agreeing that this barbaric behavior is evil, some are asking why this cycle of violence and terror keeps happening, examining how our oil economies and endless wars have has fueled such extremism, honestly admitting that terrorism is wrong but so is torture, and learning how we might do better by confronting evil with good, not just more evil. These are the right questions to keep the campfires burning (fueled with the promise of new energies that could bring both a cleaner and safer world).

Hope is something you decide and not something you feel. And that decision to hope is what always has changed the world.


Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.