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Hope is for the Weak: The Challenge of a Broken World

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[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.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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