Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Embracing Hopelessness???

Advent Decoration
Rainbow Mennonite Church
This past Sunday, Dec. 2, was the first Sunday of Advent in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church. All around the world churchgoers were challenged to think deeply about the theme for that significant Sunday. That theme was hope
De La Torre’s Emphasis on Hopelessness
In recent blog articles, I have mentioned Miguel De La Torre’s 2017 book titled Embracing Hopelessness—most recently here on Nov. 25. This seems to be an appropriate time to consider—and to question—his main point.
De La Torre (b. 1958), professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver (Colo.), is an accomplished scholar, prolific author, and one recognized by his peers as a notable leader in the field of social ethics. He was elected President of the Society of Christian Ethics in 2012.
Early in his book on hopelessness Miguel starkly states his pivotal idea:
Hope, as a middle-class privilege, soothes the conscience of those complicit with oppressive structures, lulling them to do nothing except look forward to a salvific future where every wrong will be righted and every tear wiped away, while numbing themselves to the pain of those oppressed, lest that pain motivate them to take radical action. Hope is possible when privilege allows for a future (p. 5).
From that perspective, Miguel is quite critical of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s emphasis on the “theology of hope” as well as of the philosophy of progress as seen in Hegel’s dialectical idealism or Marx and Engels’s dialectical materialism.
“Hope, and the historical progress upon which it rests,” Miguel argues, “fosters a demobilizing conformity” (p. 64). By contrast, “The hopelessness I advocate,” Miguel writes, “is not disabling; rather, it is a methodology propelling the marginalized toward liberation praxis” (p. 139).
Thus, he avers, “It is not hope that propels people [such as the Central American asylum seekers] to the desert where more often than not death awaits; it is desperation. . . . Hopelessness is an act of courage to embrace reality and to act even when the odds are in favor of defeat” (p. 140).
What Can We Say?
De La Torre’s rhetoric, it seems to me, is quite extreme—and perhaps it was his intention to use such rhetoric in order to draw attention (and perhaps to sell books). Consequently, I have serious questions about many of his contentions.
His ideas, however, must be taken seriously.
For example, it seems to be quite clear that in the past, touting the hope of Heaven was used as a means to pacify people in the present who longed for a better life on earth. The primary example is, undoubtedly, the use of “pie in the sky” promises to enslaved people in the USAmerican South.
And if one believes that the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice, as MLK and President Obama believed, perhaps that belief spawns a hope that stifles action. If things are going to get better anyway, maybe we don’t really need to do anything.
Does that kind of hope impede the struggle of or for those at the bottom of societal structures? Perhaps.
Still Embracing Hope
Nevertheless, I cannot embrace hopelessness.                                  
I agree with Miguel’s contention that hope should never be allowed to blunt social consciousness or countenance inaction in the face of injustice.
But more often than not, surely, hope spurs people to action in the face of despair, to active endeavors toward betterment instead of acquiescence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.   
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Precisely!
Let’s remember those words as well as these from Romans 15:13. 


  1. This is very interesting, Leroy. Thank you.

    I've not read De La Torre's book. It sounds quite worth reading. It seems that the book and your blog might be getting at something I've struggled with my entire adult life. Do we exercise praxis in a strictly legal and pacific way, such as recommended by those whom MLK was addressing in his letter from the Birmingham jail; do we take a more confrontative MLK-Gandhi approach, pushing the limits with civil disobedience; or do we call for even more militant, hyperbolic confrontation such as that of the Black Panthers and some of the New Left and other movements of the sixties and seventies?

    The approach we take might have to be situational. I think of Bonhoeffer who appears to have taken increasingly radical steps as he "read" the situation. I've read, and preached, that in any other period of German history Bonhoeffer probably would have been a pacifist.

    History is not a very comforting phenomenon when looked at closely by those who hope. The United States and other rich nations have made remarkable strides in the last two hundred years -- eliminating slavery, raising living standards, universal or near-universal health care, equal rights for minorities and genders, democratic reforms, etc. However, it has all come with and through conflict and human suffering. And, right now, in the U.S., we might even be regressing. We have yet to even acknowledge the structural racism and class stratification that plagues minorities and the nation. We can see in the U.S. even the ongoing festering sores from the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement; in fact, we even see festering sores from as far back as the Civil War. And, I would confess, as long as Trump-Spence are in the White House and McConnell's Republicans dominate the Senate, I have no hope for the short term in the U.S. I still firmly believe that the only relevant question for the Trump presidency is not whether it will be destructive, but, rather: How destructive will it be?

    1. Thanks for your lengthy comments, Anton. It was good to hear from you again.

      I think you would find Miguel's book to be of considerable interest, and I hope you will have the opportunity to read it sometime.

      I think the questions you raise in the first paragraph a good ones--but I don't see them as being particularly about hope. Whether the peaceful protests of MLK or the militant Black Panthers, it seems to me that both were acting because of the hope for a better future. The question Miguel is raising, I think, is whether the hope that the future will be better, regardless of the means, keeps us privileged whites from engaging in the struggle.

      Concerning your last paragraph, I certainly am not hopeful for the U.S. in the short term. But I am quite hopeful that the sordid Administration of the current President will end in two years, or before, and that the nation will then be on the road to recovery and advancement to a better society.

  2. Not long after Anton's comment (above) was posted, local Thinking Friend David Nelson, who is a good person friend of both Anton and me) sent the following comment:

    "I have had a different experience than De La Torre. It has been in migrant worker camps, among the poor in cities, inmates in prison, and oppressed people that I have experienced the most hope. They have taught me that present circumstances are not the final word."

    1. David, I appreciate you reading and responding to my blog article.

      Interestingly, Miguel sought to write in solidarity with the very type of people you mentioned. I think you would find his book to be of considerable interest, if you should have a chance to read it.

  3. Just a few minutes later, I received these comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about hope and hopelessness. I agree with you.

    "Hope is based on the prospect of the possible. It is pointless to hope for what is impossible, but what is possible can be achieved if we work to realize our hopes. Social justice for all is possible, but we cannot achieve it if we sit on our hands.

    "Once at a Bible study, some men said that we should live righteously to obtain salvation. I told them that one does not live righteously for salvation; one should live righteously because that it how we are supposed to live, regardless of salvation. We do not help the poor because we want salvation; we should help the poor because we care about them."

  4. Also this morning I received the following thoughtful comments from Brenda Seat in Maryland; she is not only a Thinking Friend but also the wife of my oldest son.

    "I have not read Del La Torre’s book and am not a theologian, but I wonder if it is such a binary choice as you present it here. I certainly understand Del La Torre’s point of hope being part of our middle class privilege. There are so many places in the world where class, tradition and culture do not allow for much or any hope. In these places endurance, duty, and courage are what get people through not some impossible hope that things will somehow miraculously change for them. It seems to me that we need to honor those who continuously struggle, who see only hopelessness in their situation and face it courageously. This doesn’t not mean that hope does not exist or that hopelessness only exists-they both coexist and are part of the whole human experience. We as white, middle class, privileged people need to be careful that we do not conflate our own experience as if it is the only possible experience and the only possible reality and instead acknowledge the reality of others and should be working towards bringing the possibility of hope to everyone."

    1. Brenda, I was impressed with your comments, for even though you said you haven't read Miguel's book and are not a [trained] theologian, I think you understand his point more than most others who have commented. I still stand by what I wrote about hope, but your comments are a good example of what I meant when I said that Miguel's book ought to be taken seriously.

  5. And then there is this comment by Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Well reasoned, Leroy. We need realism about life, but we cannot live through the 'worst of times' without hope. Think people in gulags depicted by Solzhenitsyn."

  6. I wonder if there is a certain equivocation on the word "hope" in this discussion. Pandora's Box is an ancient story where hope is the last and worst monster to emerge from the box Pandora secretly opens. Sometimes hope is indeed a monster, making people do too much, or too little, or the completely wrong thing. Still, we have all encountered plenty of stories of blind hope saving a person from what seemed a totally hopeless situation. I think the bigger question is what would constitute ethical hope. There are times when blind hope is all we have left. Frequently we can do a little to help, such as a man I read about who was flying his plane home from a football game, only to have the engine die. As he steered into a controlled crash landing, he grabbed a foam cheesehead hat he had worn at the game and put it on. He survived the crash. Part of hope is keeping your wits about you.

    In the bigger picture, I believe the three most desperate crises facing the world today are global warming, over population, and rampant imperialism. Plastics pollution did not even make my list. It is easy to get very pessimistic about our prospects as a species. I do not think nihilism is the answer. Maybe God is ready to wipe us all out and start over. That may well happen. Many people have moved from denying global warming to despairing that it is too late to do anything. Meanwhile, Norfolk, Virginia and Miami, Florida are experiencing increasing blue sky flooding as the ocean rises, and California is burning worse and worse as its fire season grows in length and intensity. So I do what I can to nudge myself and my world in a better direction. As the old hymn teaches us, "This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres." We are the stewards of God's green earth. That was part of our original assignment in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes hope is simply our moral duty.

    My Sunday school class just completed reading Elaine Pagels' book "Revelations." As we started the book, a man literally stormed Mister Roger's neighborhood to shoot up The Tree of Life. Eleven were left dead. Before we finished the book, Paradise burned to the ground. And the school where my wife is the assistant director of the theatre decided to do the musical "Quilters," which uses John of Patmos' book as its backdrop as it tells the story of the pioneer women of Nebraska. Pagels made the point in the book that it was almost thrown out of the Bible several times, but survived because it kept being too relevant to ignore. I find a lesson in that. It has always felt like the end of the world, but hope has always found a way.

  7. Hope is generally the attribute I need most to survive. Faith and Love are critically important, but the greatest of these is HOPE.

  8. Yesterday I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend Jerry Cain. I found then to be an interesting "take" on the subject.

    "Let me add one more word to this discussion of hope versus hopelessness and that would be 'wishful thinking.' (Frederick Buechner wrote a precious little book using this title.) The conversation is not between hope and hopelessness but between hope and wishful thinking. Hope might be defined as the vision for a better future that inspires action in the present. If I hope for an A on the test, I spend three hours studying tonight. If I hope for an A on the test and do nothing about it, that is wishful thinking. If I hope for a raise in my pay, I can continue to work in a slovenly, surly manner (wishful thinking) or I can work more cheerfully and diligently (vision plus action). De La Torre's definition of hopelessness is moot if a vision of a better future causes action in the present. A migrant from Honduras to San Diego is motivated by hope because she is acting in the present. Let us not settle for mere wishful thinking."

  9. From Facebook friend John R. King:

    "My initial reaction to your review:

    "I find myself in a uncomfortable place of between hope and hopelessness. Sometimes I embrace one and sometimes I embrace the other. In the experience of both hope and hopelessness, God finds me.

    "But it is not about me. While I may never want to embrace hopelessness, in those who are hopeless I see the face of God. May I abandon my hope for helping the hopeless."

    1. Thanks for your comments, John. I think identifying with "the hopeless," struggling with and for them, was one of the main points Miguel was making--and that is an important point.

  10. And this from Thinking Friend, and long-time colleague in Japan, Lydia Barrow-Hankins:

    "I received an old friend's annual Advent Meditation this year in which she shares that a therapist once told her that in the midst of her self-criticism, self-loathing, and despair, that the key might to be 'learn to tolerate hope.' The idea of tolerating hope seems quite appropriate this Advent Season."

  11. Then, Dickson Yagi, another Thinking Friend who was an even longer colleague in Japan and who now lives in California, sent the following thought-provoking comments:

    "There are problems in the totally negative way Miguel De La Torre handles hope--that hope kills enthusiasm for moral action. But are you aware of the strong attack by American Buddhists against Christian hope as unwarranted expectation of favoritism from God in making all Christians happy? 'Be not dismayed whatever betide, God will take care of you.' Because of this unwarranted expectation of God’s favoritism (exceptionalism?), Christians have a harder time coping when things go wrong. Tibetan Buddhism especially presents the opposite theme of GROUNDLESSNESS.

    "In terms of a poker game, Christians pray for a winning hand from a God committed to favoritism. Buddhists do not pray for a winning hand, leaving that to karma. Rather they wait to see whatever hand they are dealt. Then they play with wisdom and compassion whatever hand they have been dealt.

    "There is no reason for Buddhists to believe they will be dealt a good hand. That is GROUNDLESSNESS. For Buddhists all of life’s issues come to us as is, without hope that the gods play favorites for us (GROUNDLESSNESS).

    "I do not find Japan Buddhists critical of Christian unwarranted expectation of favoritism. But American Buddhists (who grew up in Christian Sunday Schools and know the hymns 'God will take care of you, these American Buddhists are very critical of Christian hope—as unwarranted expectation of God’s favoritism. So when things go bad, Buddhists with no expectation of HOPE as favoritism, cope well on GROUNDLESSNESS. While Christians betrayed in their expectation of favoritism (exceptionalism?) find it harder to cope.

    "Wish I was smarter to figure things out. As Buddhist and Christian at the same time, I am caught in the middle of things going extremely well and extremely bad right now. Two close friends are committed to positive happiness whatever way the dice rolls, because they are committed to positive vitalism through reading ZORBA THE GREEK. The movie has some bad scenes that the book does not.

    "I have read sharp, insightful Tibetan Buddhist essays that say, “If you are happy, you are not a good Buddhist.” A Buddhist Bishop in Los Angeles reprinted such an essay by the bundle and was distributing them among his Buddhist friends. According to that essay, Buddhists are not supposed to be happy.

    "If we surpass the barriers of ego-selfishness (No Self) to aim for others and all beings (becoming a Buddha) then our joy is no longer confined to winning the poker game for ourselves. I like Jesus who didn’t want to die on a Cross (take this cup away from me.) But he was also part Buddhist in saying Not My Will, but Thine be Done (No Self). I don’t think Jesus was happy dying on the Cross."

    1. Dickson, thanks for your long, thoughtful comments.

      I was not aware of the American Buddhists' attacks on Christian hope--nor do I agree that such hope is "unwarranted expectation of favoritism from God." I do agree, though, that some Christians (of the "prosperity Gospel" type, for example) perhaps do have an erroneous view of hope, which needs to be criticized. And rather than hope, some have only wishful thinking, as Jerry Cain wrote about above--and which is quite different from hope.

      I was particularly interested in what you wrote about groundlessness, and I tried to find more online about that. The best I could find was by Pema Chödrön, who has written about groundlessness and who says, "Begin with hopelessness."

      Not having read much about the Tibetan Buddist concept, I don't know that I can say much about it. But my impression is that their emphasis on hopelessness is quite different from that of De La Torre. He was embracing hopelessness for the purpose of being in solidarity with the people whose living conditions are such they have no hope but act out of nothing but desperation.

      By contrast, it seems that Buddhist hopelessness/groundlessness is a form of acquiescence that is embraced in order not to experience disappointment. If one hopes for nothing, one is never disappointed. And this is similar to the central idea that desire is the cause of suffering--and if there is no desire, there is no sense of loss or disappointment such as people experience when what they desire is not obtained.

      Perhaps this is a shallow understanding of Buddhism, but this is the conclusion I have come to from my limited reading about Buddhism and contact with Buddhists.

      Well, there is much more that I could, and perhaps should, write about this, but perhaps this is enough for now.

  12. Thanks Leroy. This was the first time that I could read the responses of your "Thinking Friends." Thanks for that. Have you ever given any thought to compiling and published your blogs? I'm looking forward to obtaining a copy of your present book that is in the publishing process. I need more time to process this blog. It raised new issues for me that I am struggling with. Many thanks for sending it and for being one of your "Thinking Friends."

    Truett Baker