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The Table Video

Struggle and Hopelessness: Responding To Oppression and Embracing Hopelessness - Miguel De La Torre

March 25, 2019

For marginalized communities, the struggle for justice can be hopeless. To offer illusionary hope as the means of growing stronger through the struggle all too often maintains oppressive structures. The presentation struggles with a God who at times seems mute, demanding solidarity in the midst of adversity. The presentation also attempts to explore faith-based responses to unending injustices by embracing the reality of hopelessness; rejecting the pontifications of some salvation history which move the faithful toward an eschatological promise which, when looking back at history, makes sense of all Christian-led brutalities, mayhem, and carnage. The paper concludes with a term I have coined in other books: an ethics “para joder”—an ethics that “screws with.” When all is hopeless, when neoliberalism has won, when there exists no chance of establishing justice, the only choice left for the oppressed is to “screw” with the structure, turning over the bankers’ tables at the temple. We struggle regardless of hopelessness because the struggle defines our humanity.

Miguel De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at the Iliff School of Theology. He has served as president of the Society of Christian Ethics, has authored over a hundred articles and published thirty-one books (five of which won national awards)—his most recent are Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump and Embracing Hopelessness, which just came out this week—he also wrote the screenplay for the international award winning documentary on immigration, Trails of Hope and Terror.


[Speaks In Foreign Language] I took a group of students with me to Cuernavaca in Mexico, for the purpose of learning from the poor, and learning about who God is. That evening, when we began to unpack what we saw one of the students looked at me and said, I know they’re struggling, I know it’s horrible, a lot of suffering. But when I looked into the eyes of that little girl, I saw the hope in her eyes. Now, at that moment, I had an epistemological meltdown. And what I responded, maybe not very past or was, I’m not sure what you saw in her eyes. But in five years, she’s going to be turning tricks to put food on the table. She will be in poverty, her children will be in poverty. And her children’s children will be in poverty doesn’t generational suffering and you imposing hope upon her, saves you from your responsibility and your connection to why she live in poverty.

Because of our global economic structure, she lives in poverty, and you live in the First World benefits by her poverty, [Speaking In Foreign Language], I have come to learn. I have come to learn that hope is a way of maintaining oppression among those who suffer the most. Hope becomes a way of domesticating, those who are suffering. When I went to Auschwitz is the sign above the gate that says work will set you free. It provides hope for those walking through those gates. But if you walk through those gates you might believe that if I keep my my eyes down, if I don’t say anything, If I try not to stir the pot, maybe I’ll survive.

But the end result is the same, you’ll probably end up in the gas chambers, you see hope of maybe surviving, allows me or constricts me, not to make waves, not to do the radical practices that is needed in order to bring about liberation. Now what I know what I’m saying is counter intuitive. I mean, after all the gifts of the Spirit is love, joy, peace and hope. And here I am talking against hope. But if I’m going to be in radical solidarity with the very least of these, my brethens, they’re the ones that are sitting in the Saturday, not knowing it was Sunday resurrection would occur.

And for me to sit with them and start saying, All things work for good for those who are called according to God’s purposes, is now in disingenuous, but it really is lost in any type of translation. Not my problem is that I don’t hope in English I hope in Spanish, in Spanish hope is Esperanza, which is from the root word Esperal, which means to wait. You see, we Latinos realize that to Esperanza means that we’re waiting but we’re not sure what we’re waiting for. It could be good, or it could be bad. So we are just Esperando.

And this ambiguity of hope which I think the English language is loses is what I’m trying to grasp in the work that I am doing. Hope seems to only work if we narrow it down to the personal. I’m sure you’ve been to some church with some pastor says something about a little girl in the beach after a storm and there’s a bunch of stuff fishes and she’s throwing each one back one by one. And there’s a grumpy old man on the beach. And he says you can’t save them all. And she picked one up and says I’ll save this one and fills it back and we go off, okay? I’m the grumpy old man in the beach.

Okay, because what I see what I’m seeing is the carnage of all the dead starfish. That sounded like to put one on a pedestal and said, one made it out of the burial or one minute at the concentration camp, one made it out and one made it then I could ignore the thousands of dead bodies that are on that beach, and I apologize, but the stench of rotting flesh has been so much that it has choked any hope out of me. I have if I’m going to be in solidarity I have to be in solidarity with those thousands of starfish so little theological now.

I think the problem with hope is that we have bought into Holocaust dialectical history. That somehow history is moving in such a way that you can see God’s hand in it. And it’s moving in an upward way because of salvation history. We see this in both capitalism that you know, at the end of history, you know, rising tide lifts all ships, and we see the Marxism that we’re going to wither away the state, anybody can live in utopia. Salvation history a product , that the whole modernity project. I’ve been perverted by Foucault, in where he instead talks that there is no linear dialectical history.

That is, things could be going great today, next generation it could be going back to Jim and Jane cloak Chrome. We can go back to slavery, or we could go to a more enlightened it depends on each generation and what they do with their time. So if there is no and I love Martin Luther King, and I apologize, but I think he’s wrong when he says that, the arc the universe, the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I argued there is no lack. And it could bend towards justice or injustice just as easily. But if I believe that there’s a dialectical history, then I could have hope that it’s all going to work out. You look what am saying, I think moments trying to make this point in where he’s looking at the end of history, and saying,

Okay, now that we’re in a history, we can look back, and we can see all those horrible things. They had a purpose, but I’m arguing there is no purpose to a holocaust, to slavery. There is no purpose is just horror. And that’s part of our humanity And I want to embrace that FEMA levy who did go through the vehicle through our shoe, it says, There is no God only Auschwitz. I want to understand what it means to get to that point of desperation. That you can’t even accept a God that allows Holocaust is to occur.

Okay? That is what it means to be in radical solidarity with the least of these. So here’s my thing, Christian Christianity could become problematic. Washington bush in his social in his social gospel, forgive me. Washington bush talks about that empires like the Assyrian Empire was horrible. It grinded. So many people undo it, but it allowed civilization to move forward. See, I have a problem with that. If you’re the one that’s been grinded by Empire, so history becomes I think, whatever. The historian who gets to write the history say history is to just be by the power of the dominant culture, who happens to be living by the foods that that history has produced for them? Okay, history. For this way everyone wants to know about Jesus shows up in a tortilla someplace.

Now, we’ve been studies done that our brains a design to see faces and static images that it was, if there’s no face in it, but we’re told there’s a face there, we will see it even though there is no face. I would argue that history, which is also static. Our minds are designed to see order into this disorder. We see the face of Jesus in the history where that face is not located. Ecclesiastic Vanity of vanities all is vanity. Everything is meaningless. Where’s God and all this? To quote the great modern theologian, Woody Allen, in his movie husbands and wives, he has a character he plays the character of Gabe Ross, who was watching TV. And he hears that famous quote from Einstein, that God doesn’t play dice with the universe.

The Woody Allen character turns off the TV walks away and says, No, God does not play dice. God plays hide and seek. How do I embrace a God who plays hide and seek with the universe? A God to whom Jesus cries out My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? A God who really appears somewhat sadistic. With job that on a bed with Satan’s decides. Let’s see how much destroyed We could bring into the life of this righteous person. And at the end when you’re trying to find a reason for this God replies and none of your business now we could say, Well yeah, but God bless job with new riches and, and more cattle and a new family. But anyone who ever lost a child, no matter of new, no matter how many new kids you may get will never be placed the last ones. How do I wrestle with this God?

See, the Hebrew God had a dark side that we in Christianity seem to ignore? It is God who bought evil spirits unto Saul. According to the Bible, you have to think about that. God brings evil spirits on to Saul. Isaiah says, If good or evil enters into a village isn’t that God who brings it,God brings good and evil. I don’t understand that Jama theologians, that’s okay. I’m an emphasis. But as an emphasis, I need to try to figure out what is the moral agency in a universe where God is not as predictable.

As I, as my theologian friends want God to be. In a world that’s that as predictable in where there’s going to be an end where everything is going to make sense. How does one operate in an unethical way? In such a world and with such a theology? See, the embrace moment of hopelessness rejects quick fixes. Now, I think one of the problems and we think of hopelessness we think of despair, and despair was horrible, even despair. I just want to roll it up into a fetal position and cry but hopelessness is not despair, its desperation.

And there’s a big difference. When a migrant decides to cross the desert, it’s not an act of despair. It’s an act of desperation, even though they know they probably will die. And as a side note, every four days five brown bodies die crossing the desert in this country. Probably the greatest human rights violation occurring since the days of Jane and Jim Crow.

And yet, it barely makes the news. So if I’m going to be in solidarity with the least of these, how do I understand what it means to to decide to cross the desert knowing that death is a good possibility? Now don’t get me wrong, every once in a while, I come across somebody who says, Oh, yes, I was crossing the dresser and the Virgin Mary appear to me and lead me along the way. And I say Hallelujah, Amen. I’m not going to start talking about hopelessness.

But I have to ask, You made it. What about the other four? I mean five people every four days who don’t make it. That’s where I’m at, that’s what I’m trying to wrestle with and understand. I find solace in [Speaks In foreign Language} Spanish philosopher who talks about being a unbelieving believer. In other words, he chooses God because He really has no other choice, and that’s probably the best choice but at the same time, he wrestles with this God who he chose, which happens to be a god, he just doesn’t understand.

And sometimes I find myself holding on to any type of faith simply by my fingernails, And that’s okay. And that’s fine and God’s not scared about that. She puts up with a lot of me, now I seek not answers. That would lead me to the correct doctrines, l think doctrines is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to Christianity. I seek correct actions, correct practices that could be employed, that fully makes society aware of the injustices that are occurring, says a good liberation is I really don’t care what the doctrine is, because we’re all wrong anyway.

And we get to heaven, We’re going to find out how wrong we all were. What’s important is the correct practice. What is it that we are doing that manifest the gospel and everything you do. Francis of Assisi, one said, Oh, he supposed to have said, preach the gospel, every opportunity you have. And when all else fails, open your mouth. So I’m half blind, How much time do I have? Five minutes, Okay I’m doing good. Except for this? So embracing hopelessness, neoliberalism has one racism is on the rise. The poor going to get poor, the rich are going to get richer. I mean, just reading the newspaper shows you how screwed up we are.

Now I could go ahead and come up with all kinds of religious platitudes to make us feel good. Or I could simply realize that in the face of of this global oppression I embrace it, knowing that the goal is not to win. Okay. I usually tell my students, do you do justice because you think you’re going to win? Or do you do justice for the sake of justice? You see, if you’re going to win everybody jumps on the bandwagon. I mean literally if you know you’re going to win, everyone all of a sudden has been part of the struggle.

But when there is no hope of winning, do you still struggle for justice. Do you struggle for justice because you expect a reward at the end of the battle. Or do you struggle for justice For the sake of justice. Let me put it away, What’s the life expectancy of a social worker nowadays? Six months to three years, then they go into real estate.

Okay. Why? Why? Because they enter with this belief that they’re going to change the world. And then they realize how screwed up the world really is. And they’re not making any change whatsoever. But if instead, they were to embrace the hopelessness of the city situation and realize they’re not the Savior and realize it doesn’t depend on them, Maybe they would last longer. I’ve been working in immigration justice now for over a decade. And we’re getting it’s getting worse, This darker students may be you know, young kids may be sent back to Mexico they may not I don’t know what the future is. So as it’s getting worse, I’m not burnt out, because I don’t do the Justice thinking somehow I’m going to win and make a difference. I do it because I do it because it defines my humanity, My practice, my actions is what defines who I am as a human being. And it defines who I am as a Christian or Jew or Muslim, or Hindu or whatever faith tradition you’re part of. It defines our very humanity.

So what is the response? I have been developing what I call an Ethics baraburel. Now for those of you who know Spanish, I want to apologize in advance. Because this is a certain word that you never use and polite conversation, is equivalent to a certain English word that has followed as long begins with F ends with K, I only curse in Spanish, not in English. When you’re not going to win, when all when all the social structures are against you, all that is left is to screw with the systems. Not to screw the systems but to screw with the systems.

See, I’m borrowing this idea, which I think Christianity has lost but it’s very much in the Hebrew Bible, this idea of the trickster. The idea of the trickster who who constantly is creating chaos in the hopes that new opportunities may arise that may lead to greater understanding or even justice. In my own Latino background, from the Caribbean, we have this this worshipping of the Alicia’s, and why do he shares his Eloqua, which is the trickster. And I’m embracing Eloqua in doing my ethics, because I really believe that playing the trickster can bring about change. When it’s hopeless. It may not but again like I said, it really doesn’t matter.

We’re the only society that drives to a march. Think about that? We’re the only society to have to go to The police department to get a permit from the police department to protest ,the police department for police brutality. You say we can protest as long as we do it within the space that has been chosen for us by those in power. So we could go, we could carry our signs, and then we could do all that fun stuff.

And at the end of the day, nothing changes. What I’m advocating by the end is what Jesus did we just go into the temple and overturned the tables of the bankers and mess with the entire system. Yes that may lead to crucifixion, not that one should have a secret but it could lead to it. So to end I am advocating an ethics that shows us how to lie to get the truth, that shows us how to cheat, to be able to save lives. That teach us how to steal in order to feed the hungry, how to constantly be joking to say the hard truth that we just can’t hear.

How to be deceptive in order to reveal what is true. Hard stuff and it can only be done in community, never by an individual and and that’s important, which I don’t have time to get into. So thank you very much, I’m glad I taught you a new curse word in Spanish audience and we’ll see you later.