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Embracing Hopelessness

Published onMar 30, 2022
Embracing Hopelessness

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.

Works Cited

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.

Wesley Rowell: It’s important (for me) to distinguish btw a theology of hopelessness & a theology of despair, bc as is stated later, hopelessness is NOT disabling, rather it can be invigorating. Hope and hopelessness exist in tension; the best example I can think of is the tension btw the spirituals and the blues. You can’t have one without the other.
Bethany Cok: I find this point both helpful and compelling—hope is a luxury and a privilege when “broken lives and bodies obscure our view of the eschaton.” This idea of hopelessness meaning we act because there is nothing left to lose is one I am sitting with and appreciating, but I am wondering if hopelessness necessarily leads to this kind of action? Or under what conditions it does? (Without saying that hopelessness is only valuable as it leads to praxis, because I don’t think that’s true.)
Josh Parks: I’m curious about the order here. It seems like the disposition of hopelessness would come first and then produce desperation. What do you mean by putting desperation first?
Josh Parks: It seems like there are two entangled issues here: 1) Is it ethical to have hope? 2) Is it ethical to blame others for not having hope? Your case is that you can’t ever do 1 without implicitly doing 2, correct?
Esther Chiang: What is the relationship between hopelessness/desperation and resilience and survival? I wonder if the difference is that desperation and hopelessness imply a upturning of the current systems while resilience and survival work within the system?
Esther Chiang: This makes me think a lot about how this idea connects to immigrant experiences, model minority myths, and/or resilience/inspiration porn of those who “made it.”
Esther Chiang: I wonder how your understanding of liminal space in this analogy would interact with bell hooks’ idea of marginality. You seem to argue that in the desperation of this space, people will revolutionize and act. Would you say that this action is creative in the way that bell hooks argues for marginality to be a creative space?
Jeremy Lambson: I think this recognition is really important and a useful subject for interrogation within this lens of hopelessness. I wonder how often we (privileged) are complacent in these structures. I used to think this Eurocentric modernity project simply included things like white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, individualism, etc., all things we can morally despise and seek to get beyond. However, lately I’ve been trying to go deeper and consider the things these ideals create, often things we value and consider it beneficial to keep around such as preferred doctrines or the state structure itself, and find a conviction to dismantle these things as well. Identifying and deconstructing our valued structures, those created by oppressive ideals, may become easier if we get to a point of acceptance within hopelessness. In other words, these valued structures of hope and comfort that serve to perpetuate and constantly rebrand these oppressive ideals are more readily revealed in the location of hopelessness.
Rosa Ross: What about a hope for justice? In a hope for justice there is hope not just for the oppressed but also in justice there is a reckoning for the oppressor. I feel like one does not need privelege or privelege promised to hope for retribution against the oppressor. But then again, maybe this isn’t “hope” but instead another kind of desire.
Wesley Rowell: I think that many black and brown people are already practicing a theology of desperation, even tho they might not call it that. And even with those black and brown people who reject this thesis, there is resonance and identification that can’t be denied. It’s a reframing of the phrase “hope against hope”and has me thing that really means, or could mean.
Wesley Rowell: This is very Hebrew Bible adjacent. It’s interesting (and not surprising) that western scripture lectionaries mostly leave out the lament psalms, the psalms that leave us without “hope,” because we can’t handle the truth. We literally get psalm 22 once a year
Wesley Rowell: This! And most pointedly “Hell is the space which the world’s marginalized already occupy”
Wesley Rowell: This is the “hope” we are fed as crumbs from the table. It’s like amazon raising wages $2 per hr but Bezos’s net work rising by 63 BILLION dollars during a global pandemic. And somehow this is embraced and celebrated by our white western civilization so-called judeo-christian values
Connor McManus: In engaging with your challenging account of hopelessness, I have continually been think of M. Shawn Copeland’s Knowing Christ Crucified, which I read for our midterm paper. It seems to me that you and Copeland are working towards a similar goal; she wants all people to take up their cross and follow Jesus as disciples, which looks like solidarity with the oppressed. In her account, which draws heavily on the religious experience of enslaved Black people in America, enslaved people encountered Jesus and maintained a robust hope that they were in relationship with him, a relationship which would continue in the next life (eschatological hope?). According to Copeland, this hope is what fueled their survival, creativity (she draws heavily on spirituals), and justice-seeking praxis. Interestingly, she also explicitly identifies lament as an act of hope, which courageously owns up to our failures, creates cathartic space for the oppressed to be authentic, and forms those with power and privilege to work for justice. Ultimately, it seems to me that you and Copeland might be using different terms for a similar kind of thing (Reese used the word “purpose” above; we need something to point us towards our purpose/vocation of working for justice). We all want people, oppressed and oppressors, to work towards justice. It seems to me that there is a kind of hope which can facilitate that work, but also an insidious kind of hope (the illusion, expectancy that things will just get better without my sacrifice) which leads to numbness, complacency, and complicity in injustice. Whether we talk about hope or hopelessness, we must avoid that immature, naive, and ultimately complacency.
Connor McManus: Definition! (Which I definitely already read, and formulated in my comment above as if it were my own thinking as I was going through this again…)
Connor McManus: What, exactly, is the definition of hope that we’re working with? Above, hope is something that the privileged have when their future privilege is assured. But, it is also something that the oppressed can have. It seems like hope is an unfounded belief that the future will be better (an illusion)?
Reese Grosfeld: This makes me wonder if your argument can be best summarized as hopeful hopelessness. Because hopelessness as such can be debilitating so much so that some people won’t see the point of living. When the writer of Ecclesiastes (the biblical text you refer to in the beginning of your book) says “All things are wearisome, more than one can express,” many will wonder what the point of life is. And thus, I’m not sure if hopelessness as such will propel people to a more “liberative praxis.” There must be some semblance of purpose in which the oppressed can move forward and have the courage to fight back against white supremacy and the powers that be. 
Rosa Ross: It is significant that many of us are trying to read hope into the text.
Rosa Ross: I am curious as to how reintroducing Benjamin — particularly his conception of messianic time in the "Theses on the Philosophy of History" — may function to serve you here at this point? For Benjamin, as I try to understand him, messianic time demonstrates how the potential for revolution now is not disconnected in the articulation of political hope in past revolutions. That is to say, the potential "messiah" of the present is informed and even created by the hope for political salvation in the past. Messianic temporality functions as a rupture, an interruption of capitalist time where future, present, and past are all melded together. Political revolution could then be seen as a relief, an exit from Hell distinct from the "opium of hope" you mentioned before on the basis that the messianic temporality in revolution seeks to affirm humanity -- and nothing else. To me the recognition of one's being against all else, this seems "hopeful" in so far that it is a kind of "hope" of a different order, distinct from the soft "hope" that relies on the modernist notion of linear progress which is a hope for political victory in a particular historical moment. This reconstruction of hope would be reducible only to the denial of Hell and embrace of humanity, a hope for mortal beings distinct from any conception of linear temporality including the eternity of hell.
Hanna Reichel: I find this a) very realistic, b) highly idealistic! and c) very… Christian (which I don’t mean as an offense at all)
Hanna Reichel: It is clear that “Arbeit macht frei” is a highly violent slogan. I am not sure it ever even pretended to offer a *hope* though. it seems to me that even historically it served much more as an intentional and strategic (and also quite violent) disillusionment much more than a hope: don’t think you’ll get free eventually, there is no freedom to be sought except the work that you’ll be doing within these gates.
Hanna Reichel: I resonate deeply with the Christological analogy here and wonder how it squares with the renunciation of any hope. Yes, Holy Saturday is the deepest moment of mourning, and of care to the body of the crucified despite any lack of hope for an extension of the future - that seems clear. Yet you also offer this “not yet” of an Easter day resurrection. In your account, do we remain (indefinitely?) in the Hell of Holy Saturday, and if so, is that an ontological state or an ethical decision? Or is the possibility of a breaking-in of Easter within the realm, maybe not of *possibility*, but of Christian, well, *hope*, after all?