Hope is for the weak: The challenge of a broken world
By Robert Jensen
Published in Dissident Voice · November, 2005
[Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX, November 13, 2005]
My title this morning — “Hope is for the Weak: The Challenge of a Broken World” — may seem unnecessarily harsh. After all, hope is an enduring feature of our species, something people search for (often quite desperately) and hang onto (usually quite tightly). For guidance, we tend to look to those people who have hope, not to those who have forsaken it. How can this hope be weakness?
It also may seem unnecessarily rude to come into a church with such a message, given that churches are major traffickers in hope. I suppose one could even take “hope is for the weak” to be a critique of preachers who deal hope, most effusively as they pass the collection plate.
Well, I intend to be harsh, but not rude. There is no reason to fear harshness; in fact, at this moment, we need to be harsher than ever because more than ever we need to love deeply. Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement was fond of quoting a line from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
So, out of love, in action, I will speak harshly. But I do not reject hope, nor do I want to undermine the hope dealers. Indeed, though I’m not a member of this or any church, I am here today out of respect for St. Andrew’s and its social-justice work, and because of a sense of a shared project rooted in hope. In fact, I’m here to argue that we have to take hope more seriously than ever. If we want to invoke hope, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to be tough-minded about that hope.
When I assert that hope is for the weak, there is implied no criticism of hope or the hopeful. All it means is that hope is for us all, because we are all weak. We are human, and to be human is to be weak at times, to struggle with uncertainty, sometimes to lose our grip on ourselves and on the world. Hope is the name we give to our ability to persevere when we are weak, as we all inevitably are sometimes.
So, to claim hope implicitly acknowledges one’s weakness, which is a good start. Then we can see that real hope requires real humility. To claim to not need hope is the ultimate arrogance, a vain attempt — and one that, in the end, will be in vain — to ignore a deep yearning in us all. The weakest people in the world are the cynical, those who claim to have advanced beyond a need for hope. Cynicism is simply another name for moral laziness and cowardice; it is a way of choosing to give up without taking responsibility for the choice.
So, if you are holding onto hope, I say: Hold on tight, because the ride we are on is going to get rougher — rougher, in fact, than you and I sitting here today probably can imagine — and we will need that hope. We live in a world in crisis on every front — political, economic, moral, cultural, and, most crucially, ecological. This is not the first time the world has faced crises, but it is the first time that we must confront such global crises on so many fronts with so little time for correcting the course. Our margin of error is shrinking by the day. I cannot offer definitive data and logic to prove this, but I firmly believe that these crises pose a threat of a new, and quite frightening, order. The widening of the inequality gap, the pace of technological change and the accompanying unintended consequences of that change, and the destructive capacity not only of our military machine but of the way we live our daily lives — all have upped the ante. The fallout of our failures can no longer be easily contained and will not remain localized.
We are stumbling into something that I believe we don’t really understand, but the markers of the intensity of the threats — the breakdown of the values needed to sustain real human community and the weakening of ecosystems needed to sustain life — are easy enough to see if one wants to see them.
And it’s going to get much worse before it gets better, at least in the United States. I think that at some level many people feel what I’m talking about, even if they keep themselves from thinking about it. They sense that we are on the edge of something that is, at best, going to be destabilizing and destructive, and, at worst, catastrophic. I think part of the cultural fascination with the rapture and the Book of Revelation is rooted in this; it is not crazy to talk about the end time.
But, I would argue, it is crazy not to name, understand, and fight against the forces that are propelling us toward the end time.
Personally, I do not call those forces Satan. I call them nationalism and patriotism, capitalism, affluence and greed, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the reflexive glorification of high-technology. The problem is not some abstract notion of evil that lives below, nor is the problem simply the devious actions of a few bad people on earth. Instead, the problem is in the nature of these big systems and powerful institutions, and the painful reality that decent people will abandon their stated values — and, therefore, some part of their own humanity — when operating in those systems. We know this, because most of us have at some point in our life done it; we have twisted ourselves to fit into those unjust systems and institutions.
Understanding the nature of the struggle in this fashion does give us an advantage. When we can name the systems and institutions that we must resist — and change, and eventually destroy — then we can begin the hard work of creating the path toward that change. But that places upon us a burden.
While hope is for the weak, it is not for the passive. Real hope requires humility, a sense of our own limits. But humility need not lead to paralysis because of those limits. At this moment in history, especially for those of us living in the U.S. empire, hope without deeper analysis and action is another form of laziness and cowardice. If we want to claim hope, we must also take on the burden of hope, which is responsibility for our part in changing the direction in which this world-in-crisis is heading. To say that one is holding onto hope but then to turn from one’s obligations in the world is perhaps less admirable than the cynicism I just condemned. At least the cynics are up front about their abandonment of the collective effort; they make no pretense of their disregard for others.
I want to highlight that I am claiming that our hope should lead not only to action but to a keener analysis, which brings me to the second half of the title, “the challenge of a broken world.”
In the face of the vast suffering in this broken world, some people turn away. But others want to rush to action, any action. When there is so much pain around us and in us, how can we not feel that compulsion to act, to do something to relieve what suffering we can, and by that action relieve some of our own pain? Indeed, we should nurture that instinct in ourselves and each other; it is at the core of what makes us human.
But I think it is crucial at this moment in history to not simply rush to action but also to take time to deepen our analysis. That assertion implies that I believe the analysis that underlies many existing liberal/progressive/left movements in the United States is shallow. That is what I believe, and I think that the shallow analysis poses a serious threat to our ability to translate our hope into real change someday.
That might sound arrogant, but it is born more of desperation than arrogance. I don’t contend to have THE analysis. But I believe we are in a period in which traditional ways that liberal/progressive/left forces have understood the world are inadequate. If we continue to pursue strategies based in those understandings, we will lose. Standing here today, I can’t tell you that I know how we can win, or even that we can win. But I can be part of a conversation to try to shift the course onto a winning strategy, and in the course of that conversation we can demonstrate that we should win.
The first, and perhaps most important, move is to recognize that we humans long ago outstripped our ability to fully understand and control the consequences of our actions. The crises we find ourselves in today are largely the product of social systems and technological advances that have moved far past the point we can control them. In the words of Wes Jackson, a sustainable-agriculture researcher and philosopher of science, we have fallen prey to our belief that human knowledge is adequate to run the world. That is a dangerous thing, especially in this complex world of nation-states and stateless armed forces, this world in which the forces of nature have been distorted by our meddling in creation in ways we have never fully understood.
So, step one: Let’s recognize our ignorance. Recognize that as a species we are clever but generally not wise, that our intelligence is not deep enough to pull off this attempt to control the world.
Step two: Recognize the paradox this lands us in, which Jackson also speaks of. We have to give up the illusion that our knowledge can run, in sustainable fashion, either the human or non-human systems of this complex world. Yet at the same time, because we have to face the consequences of how we’ve mucked things up, we can’t give up on knowledge completely. The consequences of our hubris require that we continue to seek knowledge in order to reverse the course of destruction. That is a tricky proposition. If we are to pull it off, our pursuit of knowledge must be reined in by humility. We have to both believe in our ability to use knowledge differently, while being wary of that knowledge and the hubris which it has so often sparked.
That is a tall order for us. It requires a hope that balances humility and harshness. We have to be kind to ourselves and to one another, and yet brutally honest at the same time. Perhaps we will have to go beyond harsh to become ruthless in our hope. I want to quote from one of the Western world’s most well-known philosophers and social critics, who saw this at an early age. In a letter to a friend, a 25-year-old Karl Marx wrote:
“[T]here can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”
It is not unusual for radicals to exhort us to confront power. More interesting is the other part of Marx’s statement: We must not shrink from our own discoveries. This is the need for deeper analysis of which I have been speaking. The need to shake off dogma, to refuse to hide in the assumptions that provide some comfort in this broken world. The need to be ruthlessly honest about the systems and institutions in which we live. If we are to have hope, honestly, there is no other choice.
What are those discoveries? I think the most important ones concern the nature of the systems and institutions in which we live. It is tempting to want to blame our problems on individuals. That would be a fatal error at this point. In other words:
* The problem is not simply George W. Bush and the gang of thugs who gave us the Afghanistan and Iraq debacles. The problem is the brutality of empire.
* The problem is not simply Ken Lay and the bad boys of Enron, but the inhuman nature of corporate capitalism.
* The problem is not simply sex and violence on television, but the fact that television is on, always on, in so many homes.
* The problem is not simply the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan but the polite ways in which we nice liberal white folks can so easily avoid the realties of how white supremacy is deeply woven into the fabric of this society.
* The problem is not simply the men who rape but the men who let them rape without consequence.
* The problem is not simply the greed and stupidity of Donald Trump but the greed and stupidity of us all.
Being lovingly ruthless is not easy. For the past decade, I have been slowly trying to come to terms with my own discoveries, and this is hard. They are discoveries of the extent to which this world is broken, why it is broken, and how it has broken me.
I have discovered, as have many others, that this is a world in which from the global to the personal, virtually no one is really safe. It is a world in which powerful nations unleash a grotesque yet sanitized violence that supposedly is for the benefit of those whose homes will be destroyed. It is a world in which men invade the most intimate spaces of women, and then demand that women remain silence about that violence. It is a world in which the affluent step over the homeless on their way to the mall. It is a world in which white people continue to demand that non-white people bear the burden of our inability to confront our own white pathology. And, most frightening of all, it is a world in which we are drawing down the ecological capital of the planet in a fashion that is unsustainable, not just over the long term but now even in a much shorter calculus.
This is the simple discovery we must confront: We were given a place in creation, with a beauty beyond the telling, and we have failed to care for it. And as our collective contempt for the non-human world has intensified, so has our contempt for each other. We have failed to care for each other.
Those are our failures, and we must step up to our responsibility for them. But we must also be clear that these failures are not just ours as individuals, but are the failures of the systems in which we live. The answer is not simply to make ourselves better individuals. We could transform ourselves individually into saints, but as long as those systems and institutions endure, we will be coping with the inevitable failures that are part of their nature. Capitalism produces inequality. Nation-states make war. A high-energy/high-technology society destroys the basis for sustained life.
As hard as it is for any one of us to become a better person, it would be comforting to think that such a personal transformation would be enough. But it isn’t, and it never will be. It is hard for us to confront ourselves and change. But it is immeasurably more difficult to become part of a long struggle to change that which is outside of us. But that is exactly what hope demands of us in this broken world.
But that is not the most difficult thing that hope demands. Perhaps the hardest discovery from which we must not shrink is related to that first point, about the limits of our knowledge. As we intensify our commitment to analyze and act, we have to abandon any certainty about that analysis and action. We must cope with a fundamental uncertainty that will dog us as we must take up our place in the struggle, and that is hardest of all. I believe that to claim to know “for sure” is to mark oneself a coward. It is to say, “I have looked into the face of the crisis, but I cannot bear it, and I have retreated to certainty.”
I see conservative Christians do this. I see agnostic sectarian leftists do it. I see my academic colleagues do it, endlessly. I see my political allies do it. And every day I battle it in myself.
These are radically uncertain times. No one has the answer. There is no “the answer.” There is a rapidly deepening crisis that we first must struggle to understand before we can begin to imagine answers. As Wes Jackson puts it, we have to pose questions that go beyond the available answers.
Can we hold onto our uncertainty and our convictions at the same time? Can we identify values which we will not surrender and also understand that the path to living those values may be unclear at any given moment? I don’t think we have a choice. If we cannot do this, we cannot honestly claim hope, and if that is our fate then I believe creation will be forever lost to us.
To borrow from a poem by Wendell Berry, it is time to face “the real work.”
* * * * *
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
* * * * *
I do not pretend to know where we’re heading if we follow the singing stream. I do not know where this journey will lead us. To quote a 90-year-old radical activist friend, Abe Osheroff, “There’s no destination for the train I’m on. No destination, just a direction.” (http://thirdcoastactivist.org/osheroff.html)
Okay, Abe, easy for you to say. Abe is 90, and he knows his time is limited. I find the lack of a destination more troubling. At this point, since we’re in a church, I am going to do what preachers do when they aren’t sure about the answer: Quote the Bible, mumble a bit, and hope nobody notices I haven’t a clue.
Brothers and sisters, let us turn to Psalm 42:5, which says, “Hope in God.”
Okay, so I went for something simple, but cut me some slack here. It’s not like I went to seminary. I barely made it through confirmation class at the First Presbyterian Church of Fargo, ND.
Hope in God. For the sake of discussion here, I’ll buy that. But whatever one thinks about theology and scripture and competing interpretations, in the end we all have to acknowledge that God is, and always will be, mystery. If that’s true, then the command really is “Hope in mystery.”
If that’s the case — if our lot in life is to place our hope in mystery — then our ignorance need not frighten us quite so much. Our hope can root itself less in what we claim to know and more in that which is beyond knowing. We can get on that train without knowing the destination.
And, as long as I’m quoting the Bible, let me reach in there for one more to help me try to get myself out of this.
It’s important to realize things are going to get worse before they get better. The path I’m talking about is not a popular path. Confronting systems and institutions will not win us promotions at work or the easy company of friends. Instead, as the culture’s fear deepens, such ruthless talk will mark one as a threat, as someone to be marginalized, ignored, laughed at.
In the language of the Gospel, I’m talking about choosing the narrow gate. In Matthew 7:12-14, Christ says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
I don’t want to be melodramatic, but in my gut I think this task — this burden I am speaking about — engages us in the struggle that leads to life. And it is hard, and it will get harder.
But we will never be alone walking that path, riding that train, taking that journey. Let me turn to a secular version of this same call. In “Bread and Circuses,” a painfully beautiful song about the hypocrisy of much contemporary religion, Billy Bragg and Natalie Merchant tell us, “The gates of hell stand open wide, but the path of glory you walk single file.”
If we walk through those wide-open gates of hell, we won’t want for company as we pass through. When we choose the narrow gate, we understand that there will be a moment when we will walk through it alone. But the song reminds us that we are not truly alone; we walk single file. That means someone is ahead of me, someone who can reach back to me if I stumble. And it means there will be someone behind me who will need my hand.
To be weak and yet hold onto hope — to be human in the deepest sense, turning neither from the pain of this broken world nor from the joy that creation offers us — is to remember the meaning of those two simple acts: A hand reaching, out of our need for the help and love of others, and a hand offered to another out of that same love. We will never fully understand that love; like God, it is mystery. All we can do is trust in it. But understand: In action, it is a harsh and dreadful love.
Part of our work today is to pursue politics today; in the present we must agitate for the policies we believe to be just, try to affect small changes, attempt to bring about the little reforms that can make big differences in the lives of individuals. That work goes on, and it is important work. It is our work.
But we also must understand that in a broken world, such reforms must come from a radical analysis, an analysis that goes to the root of the problem. And while we work to make this world kinder in the moment, we have to keep our minds on the ruthless task of preparing for the future, for the moment when the terrain on which we work will shift quickly. We will face choices we can’t predict. We will need a strength we don’t yet have. We will be forced to know and trust each other in ways deeper than we now know and trust ourselves. That trust comes in community, the kind I believe is being built at St. Andrew’s, a community-in-construction that has always lovingly welcomed me, a love for which I am always grateful.
Never has this radical work been more important, for I believe the time of change is coming and that moment when the path of glory will open is not so far away. That is the hopeful news. But in that hope, we must also face a ruthless truth: We are not yet ready for that moment. As a community, we are not yet strong enough.
Will we be ready in time? It is a question that haunts me. It is, I believe, a question that should haunt us all. It is the question that hope demands we face.