In South Africa, prior to the abolition of apartheid, people used to light candles and place them in their windows as a sign of hope, a sign that one day this injustice would be overcome. At a point, the authorities began to crack down on this. It became illegal to have a lit candle in your window, as illegal as carrying a firearm.

The children did not miss the irony of this. They soon had a joke among themselves: “The government is afraid of candles!”

Eventually, as we know, apartheid was overcome. Reflecting upon the forces that helped overthrow it, it is fairly evident that candles, lit religious candles, were more powerful, ultimately, than were firearms. In retrospect, the children’s taunting notwithstanding, the government’s paranoia about candles was well founded. A lit candle is more dangerous than any firearm. Hope is more powerful than any army.

But what is hope? 

Hope should be clearly distinguished from a number of things with which it is commonly confused. Many of us, mistake wishing for hope. They are not at all the same. Wishing is fantasy, pure and simple. Thus, for example, I can wish that I might win a million dollars, marry the most beautiful person in the world, or be a one in a million athlete, pop star, or writer, but that is not connected to any reality. It is simple daydreaming: “It would be nice to have that.” You do not light a candle for a daydream. 

Likewise hope is not to be identified, as it so often is, with a naturally optimistic, upbeat temperament. The person who is naturally bubbly and always sees the bright side of things may indeed be a welcome addition to any family, organization, and community, but he or she is not necessarily the most hope filled person there. Hope is not a question of light or heavy temperament, of cheeriness or somberness. 

Finally, hope is also not a question of being able to look at the facts and see in them the possibility for better world. Thus, it is not hope when I watch the world news at night, sense a certain improvement in the world situation, and conclude that, because of this, the world is after all a good place. Conversely, it is not a lack of hope when, alternately, I watch the news, see that things do not seem to be getting better, and conclude that the world is not a good place.

Hope is not based upon wishing, an optimistic temperament, or upon what the world looks like on the newscasts on a given evening. Hope is based upon a promise, the promise of God, a promise which says that, human sin and power notwithstanding, and human powerlessness against sin and evil notwithstanding, justice, peace, love, harmony, gentleness, and graciousness will, eventually, become reality. 

If I am living my life by hope, I believe these things will triumph not because it would be nice if they did, or because I am a person who naturally sees the bright side of things, or because I watch the news and the facts indicate that things are in fact improving. The kingdom of God – justice, peace, love, harmony, gentleness, and graciousness – will triumph because God has promised they will and, in the resurrection of Jesus, God has shown that there is a power beyond human power to bring these about. Hope, in the end, is based upon the promise and power of God. 

To light a candle, then, is to say a number of things: First, it is to say that we are under a higher authority than our government. Small wonder governments don’t like religious candles! Second, to light a religious candle, is to say that we believe in the power of the resurrection, namely, we believe that God has the power to bring justice, peace, and love to this planet, irrespective of all the injustice, war, and hatred we see each night on the newscasts. Finally, to light a candle is to say, and say correctly, that gentleness and graciousness are ultimately more powerful than are threats, torture, and guns. To light a candle is to tell governments, human authorities, and powers of all kinds that there is a more important agenda than theirs, that there is a greater power and authority than theirs, and that our real allegiance is given to something and Somebody beyond them. 

To light a candle is to make a statement which is both religious and political. We should not be surprised when governments react.