The core narrative of the Christian tradition follows crucifixion with resurrection. Drawing on this storyline, Christian ethicists and theologians commonly counsel hope, even to those who suffer unrelenting persecution. Yet hopelessness may motivate ethical action more effectively than hope. In my classroom, I often juxtapose readings on the relationship between hope and ethical action from Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark, Nation Books, 2004) and Derrick Jensen (Endgame, Seven Stories Press, 2006). Solnit makes the case that hope grounds transformative action, while Jensen argues that hope keeps us chained to systems of oppression. Christian ethicist Miguel De La Torre would agree with Jensen’s assertion that “when hope dies, action begins.” In his new book Embracing Hopelessness, De La Torre wrestles with the ethical upshot of the Christian theology of hope and calls for readers to stand in solidarity with the hopeless.
Embracing Hopelessness is the third in a trilogy. The first book, Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking (Baylor University Press, 2010), was focused on ethical action, or praxis. The second, The Politics of Jesús (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), interpreted the Christian Bible in order to justify the praxis described in the first book. Embracing Hopelessness turns to the theoretical and theological underpinnings of both praxis and the biblical witness. De La Torre’s liberative ethics emphasizes orthopraxis (correct actions) over orthodoxy (correct doctrine). While Christian ethical reflection often starts from belief and moves toward action, De La Torre starts from a justice-based praxis and works toward understanding. By so doing, he gives expression to an ethical vision that may be compelling to Christians as well as to people who identify with other religious or humanist traditions.
Making a case for hopelessness requires unmasking the negative workings of hope. De La Torre approaches this task by drawing on theological and theoretical reflections to interpret the histories of oppression borne by diverse ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. His methodological approach counterbalances a postmodernist analysis of power with a modernist liberative ethics, drawing for example on a Foucauldian critique of power to advance Enlightenment values of a preferential option for the poor. Evident throughout the book is De La Torre’s frustration with salvation histories and theologies of hope—both of which hold out the promise of a future restoration of justice to those who continue to endure systems of oppression. For example, after describing the 1864 massacre of Plains Indians at Sand Creek and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that justified that military action, De La Torre writes: “Manifest Destiny was but one manifestation of Christian subjugation enfleshed as hope” (49); “initiatives to explain how such horrors will work for good make a mockery of the terrors that Christianity’s victims have always faced” (51).
In a flawed, sinful, and unjust world, hope may perpetuate systems of oppression more than it may motivate sustained resistance. We cannot merely hope for a better future. People of privilege are morally diminished by their participation in systems of oppression that make the situation of the marginalized hopeless. In Embracing Hopelessness, De La Torre articulates an ethics of solidarity with those who live in desperation; such solidarity and the justice-based praxis it calls for is humanizing. This praxis is the work that Christians and others of good will are called to perform, regardless of any hoped-for outcome.
This book will deepen reflection in social ethics classrooms and strengthen the witness of justice-oriented activists. In particular, this book will be an important resource for those who desire to deepen their understanding of the emerging Poor People’s Campaign, which has affirmed the moral leadership of those who are most affected by systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation. In our current social, economic, and environmental contexts, only those who in their desperation have nothing more to lose can be trusted to envision truly liberative ethical praxis. Embracing Hopelessness will help those of us with privilege (who continue to benefit from systems of oppression) make the ethical choice to stand in solidarity with the hopeless.
Nancy Menning is Faculty Affiliate is the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.
Date Of Review:
February 19, 2018
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is the author of several books, including The Quest for the Historical Satan (Fortress, 2011), Social Justice from a Latino/a Perspective (2013), Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (2007), and Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, (2004). He is president of the Society for Christian Ethics and a board member of the American Academy of Religion. He is also the editor of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion.
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