In my 2017 book, Embracing Hopelessness (De La Torre 2017), I argued that hope is a middle-class privilege unaffordable to the world’s disenfranchised. They reside in Holy Saturday—the day after Good Friday’s crucifixion—and the not-yet Easter day resurrection. In this liminal space, the faint anticipation of Sunday’s hope is muted by Friday’s brutality, making hope an opium numbing Friday’s violence. Regardless of the hope proclaimed, the world’s marginalized, and their children’s children will continue to suffer due to ever-expanding poverty caused as the consequences of colonialism. Hope occurs when privilege is assured. Even filled stomachs can distract the marginalized. To embrace hope is to mask a world where human evil prevails, the worse being perpetrated by Christians professing hope. Crusades, inquisitions, genocide, and colonialism in the name of Jesus is justified by the Christian promise of hope.
When the oppressed embrace hope, liberation is stunted. “You have to have hope,” become the five most oppressive words. The first step toward liberation is crucifying hope. Over the gates of Nazi concentration camps were the words Arbeit macht frei. The violence this hope produced kept the condemned self-disciplined. Hope of possible survival led to self-policing. Just keep one’s heads low and avoid eye contact and maybe one will live. Rebellion is muzzled in hope of surviving. Hopelessness, having nothing to lose, propels toward radical praxis. To embrace hopelessness is neither resignation, inertia, nor melancholy; but the realization that often the end is still crucifixion. To be hopeless is neither ideological doctrine nor is it depressing. The inevitable is simply accepted.
Hope, when advocated by the dominant Eurocentric culture, smacks of egoism because it blames those they relegated to the underside of history for their feelings. Jürgen Moltmann states that “in the promise of God [hope] can see a future also for the transient, the dying and the dead. That is why it can be said that living without hope is like no longer living. Hell is hopelessness, and it is not for nothing that at the entrance to Dante’s hell there stand the words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” (Moltmann 1967: 32). And while Moltmann is correct observing “Hell is hopelessness,” he misses that Hell is the space which the world’s marginalized already occupy, ignoring who benefits from the creation of this Hell. Ironic that the creators and sustainers of this Hell, who get to enjoy the privileges, power, and profits produced by this Hell, seek to provide hope to those living in this Hell. How disingenuous is it to tell those whom Eurocentric thought relegated to Hell that they should believe God’s promises for future eschatological rewards?
To sit in the hellish conditions of Holy Saturday with the hopeless who occupy noneuropean bodies is to lack the luxury or privilege of hopefully waiting with Moltmann for God’s future promise to materialize. Too many broken lives and bodies obscure our view of the eschaton. Instead, with nothing let to lose, the very gates of Hell are stormed not in some future time, but now. Hopelessness is discouraged because it threatens the privileges which allows the dominant culture to hope. Moltmann’s theology of hope based on a God of process rooted in linear progressive thinking which unquestioningly accepts the Eurocentric modernity project may provide comfort to privileged Eurochristians; but it falls short and sounds hollow to those on their margins. Hope is exhausting for those residing in the Hell created by those complicit with institutional violence.
Moltmann seeks order, and thus hope, in a history pregnant with the horrors of humanity. He believes in a God who keeps promises in hopes of giving meaning to the chaos of history. But what if history is random? Then the ambiguity of existence can become too much to bear to those claiming Eurocentric faith. Too scary, for it leaves those accustomed to their privilege to control helpless before the randomness of life—a space already occupied by the world’s marginalized. Walter Benjamin provides a nonlinear conception of the movement of time. Skeptical about historical progress, he retorts: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Benjamin 1968: 256). Barbarism does not threaten culture, rather culture is entangled in barbarism (Benjamin 1999: 167–68). The disenfranchised of the world, subjugated to the barbarism of Eurocentric civilization, know that no civilization ever existed absent of domination and exploitation. History, according to Benjamin, is misinterpreted under the banner of “Progress,” so the present can be despite the human wreckage produced. I would add that this progress is justified by hope. Those giving meaning to history, like Moltmann, commodify what is remembered to justify the values and social power of those whom civilization privileges, literally writing their privileged space into the national epic. Hope, for Benjamin, is not what can be expected from the future, from the unfolding of history.
I argue that hopelessness arises from the never-ending chaos of the human experience, from the now of Hell. Moltmann instead argues that Christians who are chosen experience God as a God who keeps promises, a God who promises to be present. Because God acted within history in the past, God can be relied upon to act again (Moltmann 1967: 20-21). The present is interpreted based on God’s promise which is bound to gospel, forging a future hope rooted in the risen Christ. The promise of Christ’s return allows those hopeless now to embrace the hope Christians have been waiting for two millenniums. But for those grinded under the wheel of Eurocentric Christian history, such promises sound hollow with the passage of time. If God indeed keeps God’s promises to eventually act, hope has a chance. But the failure of God to keep God’s everlasting promise to Israel, questions if God does indeed keep promises. Concentration camps bear witness to this failure. Too many bodies of the chosen pile up to the Heavens. Hope of future promises is choked off by the tang of rotting flesh making Eurocentric futuristic fantasies repulsive. We can’t breathe! Moltmann has lost the right to correct Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi who asserts that there is no God, only Auschwitz.
Rejecting salvation history questions a theology of hope interwoven into metanarratives. Moltmann’s theology of hope is predicated on the Eurocentric modernist quest for universal meaning to history—a European way of construing and relating to reality. Modernity as ethos (moral character), per Michel Foucault, is a choice made voluntarily by white Europeans to mark a relation of belonging while determining how this group will think, feel, act, and behave toward the Other (Foucault 1984: 39). The eschatological utopia conjured by white theologians is death-dealing to those relegated to the shadows of salvation history. For the disenfranchised to embrace a theology of hope, constructed apart from their real-life experiences, requires the denial of their existential reality in exchange for the illusion of some dialectical movement toward a predominately white utopia which excludes them in the here-and-now. Hopelessness is instead embraced when we embrace those sitting in the desperation of Holy Saturday. By embracing them, we discover our humanity and salvation, providing impetus to praxis making hopelessness a precursor to resistance and revolution.
Rather than the prevailing theology of hope, I call for a theology of desperation which leads to hopelessness. This hopelessness rejects easy solutions which temporarily soothes the conscience of the privileged, failing to seek and implement social structure designed to empower the world’s used and abused. This hopelessness is not disabling; but a methodology propelling the marginalized toward liberative praxis—even if said praxis might lead to crucifixion. Desperate people will do whatever it takes to change the situation because nothing is left to lose. Desperation propels the disenfranchised to work out their liberation, their salvation, in fear and trembling. The Latin root for “desperate” suggests a hopelessness that leads to action, at times reckless action, brought about by great urgency and anxiety. Hopelessness requires the courage to embrace reality and to act even when the odds favor defeat. The future is undiscernible and undetermined. We can only engage in liberative praxis within the now—hoping for the best.
Hopelessness embraces lament while hope short-circuits the struggle. As a statement of unfounded belief, hope is an illusion beyond critical examination, serving an important middle-class purpose, providing a quasi-religious contentment during oppression. The struggle for justice continues not because we hope the battle will be won; we struggle for justice for the sake of justice, regardless of the outcome. We do not struggle for justice in hopeful anticipation of some heavenly reward. We hopelessly struggle for justice because there is no other choice left for those with nothing to lose, for the struggle defines our faith (or lack thereof), but more importantly – our humanity.
Benjamin, Walter. 1968 (1940). “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In: Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zohn and ed. by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken.
Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
De La Torre, Miguel A. 2017. Embracing Hopelessness. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon.
Moltmann, Jürgen. 1967. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. by James W. Leitch. New York: Harper & Row.