The following is a paper I wrote last semester, for my Latinx Theologies in North America course.
There is much to be pessimistic and hopeless about in United States culture today. The election of Donald Trump last year marked an undeniable turning point in recent American history, but one grounded in the political and cultural situation the country has endured for the last several decades. Neoliberalism has dominated the late- and post-Cold War world, decimating social safety nets, justifying U.S. hegemony, proclaiming the ultimate sovereignty of capitalistic free markets, and disregarding the cry and cause of the world’s poor and oppressed. While the eight years of the Obama presidency seemed, at least on the surface, a beacon of hope for the future, the first year of the Trump administration has dispelled those hopes for so many. Pessimism and hopelessness are not irrational or unreasonable responses to the current situation. The future does not look bright for any but those who are white, straight, male, and rich.
In the face of this, Christianity is inevitably a tradition predicated on eschatological hope, on the promise that God does have the final say, that, in the end, all will be set right. This hope is assured in Scripture, but seems so far away right now. How does one impart hope on undocumented young people facing down deportation to countries they’ve never known, but that American political leaders insist is their rightful place? How does one reassure a village of working people south of the U.S.-Mexican border who are beset by free trade, the War on Drugs, environmental degradation, and the specter of a dangerous and erratic President in Washington D.C.? What good is God’s message of hope when people’s lives are literally on the line, when suffering and fear and sadness and death are the dominant experience of peoples around the world?
In The Politics of Jesus, Miguel De La Torre dismisses the promise of hope, positing a “theology of hopelessness” (de la Torre, 137) that declares hopes to be “a class privilege experienced by those protected from the realities of [Good] Friday or the opium that is used to numb that same reality until Sunday rolls around.” (de la Torre, 138) This seems reasonable in light of everything said above, especially when one considers that De La Torre wrote those words more than two years ago, long before Donald Trump and the Alt-Right had barely entered the political consciousness of the United States and the world. However, in this paper, I posit that other Latinx scholars and theologians – specifically (but certainly not exclusively), Justo Gonzalez and Nancy Pineda-Madrid – provide the groundworks for a Latinx theology that also accounts for the suffering and death present in the world, while leaving open the possibility of eschatological hope.
In the end, I bring this together in what I call a theology of eschatologically-hopeful pessimism: a theology that holds deep pessimism about the future of world political and social structures as we know them at the same time as retaining hope about the ultimate aim of God in the world – that of a reconciled humanity, made whole. In doing this, I draw on the powerful work of the Latinx scholars listed above, centering their words about suffering and hope as an acknowledgement of the robust and vibrant Latinx culture in the United States and its ability to speak with more moral force than the deeply compromised white Protestant culture out of which I myself arrive. I also draw on process theology to provide some powerful concepts about God and Creation in constructing this tentative theology of hopeful pessimism.
- De La Torre’s Theology of Hopelessness
Miguel De La Torre spends most of The Politics of Jesus contrasting the Jesus of dominant, white North American culture with the Jesús of Latinx culture, who identifies with the struggles and experiences of Latinx people in North America. In doing so, he powerfully points out a number of injustices and oppressions facing Latinx people, writing with intensity and passion and a palpable anger.
However, in chapter 4, he turns to describing what he calls a Theology of Hopelessness, grounded in Latinx experience in North America. He begins by critiquing what he describes as a specifically European Christian predilection for centering hope. “One of the unexamined assumptions of the Christian faith is a theology that is based on esperanza, on hope.” (de la Torre, 133) For De La Torre, this hope takes the form of believing in a happy ending for society. “I have no problem with a hope in God; I do however find it problematic to hope that all things will work out for the best. History and personal experience show that it seldom does.” (de la Torre, 133)
Beyond just being a belief in the personal good fortune of each soul, De La Torre specifically defines this eschatological hope as having a social, political dimension at its core. He dismisses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the moral universe being bent towards justice inevitably. Instead, he writes, rather nihilistically, “There is nothing inevitable about the passage of time, no teleology to history, nothing but a game of random chance. What we call history is chaos, with no rhyme or reason, mainly because the events are as unpredictable and contradictive as humans. One is hard pressed to notice any type of progressive dialectical march toward a better human existence.” (de la Torre, 134)
De La Torre justifies this view as distinctly Latinx, noting that Latinx Catholics are more often “Ash Wednesday and Good Friday Catholics” (de la Torre, 137), rather than the oft-mentioned “Christmas and Easter Catholics” of white counterparts. He notes the oppressed, impoverished, and unjust situation of so many Latinx people in the Western hemisphere, pointing out that this experience of suffering and despair is closer to the norm than it’s opposite. It is an experience of the world predicated on powerlessness and otherness; the notion that the structures of power will orient themselves toward the betterment of Latinx people, especially if it comes at the expense of Euro-Americans, is laughable. Hope is not a luxury Latinx people can afford.
Inevitably, the question arises: what, then, is the point of a Christian existence? Why do good, or trust in God, if all hope is banished and suffering is inevitably the lot of Latinx peoples? For De La Torre, the answer is found in solidarity with the poor of the world in their fight for liberation, even in the face of hopeless odds. Hope in this context, contends De La Torre, tends toward passivity and acceptance of the fate one has been given. (de la Torre, 138) In order to counter this passive acceptance, De La Torre posits that Latinx people come together and fight for one another. “[W]hat does Jesucristo offer?”, he asks. “Maybe not so much comfort, but a strategy of survival, a praxis that might easily fall short of the mark. I advocate that followers of Jesús wishing to do liberative ethics must approach the task from a theology of hopelessness, where meaning and purpose is given to life in the struggle of implementing justice-based praxis.” (de la Torre, 139)
This, then, is the answer De La Torre provides: life is about the struggle, not about what the struggle is for, ultimately. In fact, the struggle will almost certainly fail, for peoples outside the nexus of power. They must fight, and they must throw their lot in with Jesús, not because that Jesús offers hope, but because that Jesús offers tactics.
De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness, while intriguing, is ultimately unappealing, because it provides no purpose for Latinx Christians, beyond the daily fight for survival. When those fighting people come the Jesús predicated on hopelessness, and ask, “Why are we fighting?”, it is unlikely they will receive an answer. And then, what is to keep them fighting on, if the work they are putting in is all for naught?
De La Torre’s theology fails because, by his own admission, it neglects the word of hope that stands at the center of Christian thought. Jesus did not just die; he was also resurrected. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were dark and bleak, and the disciples may have struggled through both days in hopeless despair, but Easter Sunday did come. Hope is the Christian story. Mere survival is not what we are called to, but rather thriving and living abundantly.
De La Torre can be forgiven his hopelessness, however, in light of the weak and unappealing answers the dominant Christian culture has presented in the face of suffering, and because of the fact that that same church has so often been complicit in that suffering. Anger, despair, and yes, even loss of hope, are all reasonable and warranted reactions to this reality. My goal is not to dismiss the notions undergirding De La Torre’s argument, but rather, to affirm them. All one has to do is survey the state of the political and social culture of the United States in 2017 to see that his critique is spot on. Nevertheless, I believe his conclusions, and his prescriptions for action, are inadequate, and can be reformulated in a way that maintains his critique while still giving people a reason to rise and fight day after day.
- Redeeming Hope: A Latinx alternative to De La Torre
As De La Torre is a Latinx theologian, and speaks of suffering and hopelessness from a perspective no white theologian can, it is only appropriate that any alternate to his theology of hopelessness is built on the work of other Latinx theologians. In order to do just that, I will draw on the work of Nancy Pineda-Madrid and Justo L. Gonzalez.
- Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez
Nancy Pineda-Madrid grapples with the almost unimaginable suffering of women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, and how they are bearing the brunt of the U.S.’s aimless and destructive “war on drugs,” and the drug gangs south of the Rio Grande who benefit. Despite this bleak situation, Pineda-Madrid is still able to find cause for hope among these women. What becomes evident is that, as seen in the lives of the women of Juarez, hopelessness is very rarely the attitude of those who are on the frontlines of oppression. Instead, despite everything they must endure, they still find the ability to feel the hope of Christ in their lives.
Pineda-Madrid focuses on salvation as she tries to understand how the women of Juarez continue on with their lives in the face of the feminicide they live with every day. (Pineda-Madrid, 58-68) She speaks of the loss of an assurance of salvation, and relatedly, the loss of any fear of judgement, labeling the kind of nihilistic destruction seen in Juarez (and elsewhere) “sociocide, the killing of society.” (Pineda-Madrid, 61)
Pineda-Madrid moves into a broader look at salvation in the history of Christian thought. Near the end of her book, she ruminates on the “fulfillment of salvation”, noting that “salvation is realized through the forging of a particular kind of community, one that reveals clearly the interrelatedness of all humanity – part, present, and future – and the relatedness of humanity with the whole of creation.” (Pineda-Madrid, 141) For Pineda-Madrid, salvation comes through unity, and unity provides the answer to the question of the suffering of the women of Juarez. By standing together, by practicing the very same solidarity De La Torre calls for, the women of Juarez embrace not just a utilitarian fight for their lives, but a hope-filled vision of a better community, predicated upon love and care for one another. In this sense, solidarity can’t help be anything but hopeful As Pineda-Madrid writes, “They have made it known that the grotesque execution of Juarez’s daughters is not, cannot, and will not be the last word in their lives. The victims’ struggle for life does not end in their execution and death. The practitioners have titled the community of Juarez and all of us toward the possibility of hope and salvation.” (Pineda-Madrid, 152)
In this, we get our first glimpse of a theology to replace De La Torre’s. Salvation is promised to us by God, and that salvation consists in the reconciliation – the re-union- of all things with God. That means the making of a divine community, in which all are drawn together and suffering and oppression are undermined by solidarity that refuses to allow it to go unchecked. It does not deny the reality of suffering, nor does it promise to end it immediately. But it does envision a world where God’s salvific vision for the world creeps inexorably closer.
- Justo L. Gonzalez’s Mañana
The preeminent Hispanic theologian Justo L. Gonzalez provides us a second piece to draw upon in providing an alternative to De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness: his concept of mañana. For Gonzalez, mañana “is much more than ‘tomorrow.'” (Gonzalez, 164) For him, mañana is the promise of a better future, especially for poor and oppressed Latinx peoples. Mañana “is a word of judgment on today” (Gonzalez, 164), because it envisions a better tomorrow, and thus, criticizes via comparison. It is the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus.
It is also revolutionary. By being focused on the mañana of God, the people of God begin to live in a mañana way. (Gonzalez, 166) Thus, they will no longer be living in the way of the world. This, in and of itself, a hopeful act; one only begins living in a new way if they believe that new way is good, and thus, can be better for themselves and the world. By living in God’s vision of the kingdom, we are affirming the reality of God’s future for us.
One last point from Gonzalez is important. He writes, “The world will not always be as it is. It will not even be an outgrowth of what is. God who created the world in the first place is about to do a new thing – a thing as great and as surprising as that first act of creation.” (Gonzalez, 164) This last point is especially important, because it allows the future to be envisioned without requiring the hearer to build on the world as it is, and thus, to in some way, affirm that present world’s legitimacy. Mañana is not built upon or predicated by the way things are now. Instead, it is an all new world order, meaning the old will be swept away whole, and replaced. The unjust structures of the world are certainly dominant now, but they will not always be. The world of mañana will be completely new and unrecognizable.
- A Theology of Hopeful Pessimism
The alternative to De La Torre’s theology of hopelessness I wish to sketch here is built upon the work of Pineda-Madrid and Gonzalez, while also retaining De La Torre’s social critique, and also bringing in one more conversation partner: that of process theology.
Built upon the metaphysical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, process thought is relational; that is, it understands God as relating and close to humanity, rather than distant. God is loving and good, wanting what is best for creation. What sets process apart is its insistence that God is dynamic, that God changes and grows as a result of God’s interactions, and people’s choices and free will. In this theology, God is necessarily limited and not omniscient. Human beings have total free will and agency to act; thus, they co-create with God the future. That future has an initial aim given to it by God, but this aim is not determinative. Rather, our actions and thoughts, and the actions and thoughts of others, human or otherwise, throughout all of history, influence the outcome. (Cobb and Griffin, 67) God is understood as non-coercive, but rather persuasive, gently steering creation towards an eschatological finality that is envisioned by God by not certain. (Cobb and Griffin, 52) God cannot see the future, because the future is determined by our own actions; God merely knows what God’s initial aim was, and continually works towards that, presenting new possibilities each and every moment from what is. (Cobb and Griffin, 123)
Rather than a theology of hopelessness, I propose in its place a theology of eschatologically hopeful pessimism. This theology draws on Pineda-Madrid’s notion of salvation via community, Gonzalez’s mañana, De La Torre’s social critique, and process theology’s insistence on an undetermined, but lovingly guided and created, future, to insist that hope is warranted, but not at the cost of denying the monumental moments of suffering that will happen between now and the eschaton.
There is no doubt that the world is a deeply flawed place, characterized chiefly by suffering, death, and oppression. There can be no disputing that, nor minimizing it. Throughout the several thousand years of human civilization, the vast majority of human beings have led short, brutal lives, defined by disappointment, pain and ultimately death, inflicted by ourselves on one another. De La Torre is certainly correct in his critique of the human predilection for oppressing the other, manifested in the world today as oppression of people who are not Euro-Americans.
A familiarity with the history of human civilization does not allow for the illusion that, with time, all with independently right itself, and a virtuous human kingdom on earth will emerge. Pessimism about humanity alone is absolutely warranted. This pessimism certainly applies to the United States in 2017. It is not unreasonable to believe that we are in the waning days of American hegemony as we know it. This idea is terrifying to so many who live in the dominant culture of the United States; to contemplate a post-American world is, for many, to contemplate an “end of history” of sorts, although not in the positive modernist sense of Francis Fukuyama when he coined that phrase. Instead, it is borderline apocalyptic. The brand of North American Protestantism that has wound itself up in the American flag certainly affirms that feeling. And it is analogous to the attitude De La Torre has, of a global order in crisis and failing the vast majority people, teetering on the edge of existence and thus seemingly lost to any hope.
A theology of hopeful pessimism, on the other hand, retains the pessimism of the state about the state of the world, agreeing that we are on a cultural cusp, close to tipping into an abyss potentially analogous to the Medieval “Dark Ages.” Society, we know it, as defined not just by the post-war order, but by the Enlightenment and Protestant Spirit of the last 500 years, may be passing. In fact, it almost certainly is.
However, at the same time, a theology of hopeful pessimism retains hope because it acknowledges that the order of society today is not all there is. Beyond this, there is the universal aim of God, pointed towards love and justice and authentic, redemptive community. It is hopeful that a better world is in our future because this is God’s creation, and God has ordered it towards such an outcome.
Embracing the process thought introduced earlier, this is not a passive hope, waiting around for God to unilaterally set things right, so self-assured of salvation that it becomes numb to the suffering in the meantime. Instead, it is a hope grounded in the co-creative process of creation humanity is engaged in with God, experienced in our lives as the Spirit. That guiding Spirit provides the initial aim for creation, but we, as autonomous, free beings, are able to make our own choices and to influence the trajectory of history. Our hope does not reside in the power of God to override our freedom and set things right; instead, our hope rests in the ability of God to persuade creation towards a better mañana, and to work with the results of our choices to create better moments each and every time.
Within this theology is the notion of a God who is in solidarity with the suffering peoples of the world, especially the Latinx people spoken of so passionately by De La Torre, Gonzalez, and Pineda-Madrid. God, through Jesus, experienced the very depths of human limitations and suffering. Due to that experience, God can authentically know what the oppressed peoples of the world feel, and can be understood not as distant and unfeeling and unmoving, but as close and suffering together and thus letting that experience influence the aim for creation God imparts at every moment. God practices radical solidarity, of the sort spoken of by De La Torre, and by doing so, initiates at each moment the elements of a better future for humanity.
The theology of hopeful pessimism affirms the goodness and love of God, along with the initial aim set by God, but realizes that we cannot even begin to fathom how to get there, due to our role as limited beings. In fact, even God cannot predict how we will get there. We and God can only continue the work of creation in the certainty of success, fighting not for fighting’s sake, but for the sake of mañana. And it will only be achieved together, by each and every person realizing the aim in their own lives and working towards that aim together. That is the salvation promised to us in Christ. That is the hope of mañana.
A theology of eschatologically hopeful pessimism is just what the name suggests: a pessimistic view of the world as it is, balanced by the hope of the world as God intends it to be. It is not blind or oblivious or dismissive of the shortcomings of the world. Rather, it acknowledges the depth of those shortcomings, and the ultimate, determinative effects that have on people’s lives. It sees oppression and injustice as inevitable in human dealings, and sees human society alone as insufficient. At the same time, it has hope that God can carry forward salvation with our and for us, in every moment that is in process.
Miguel De La Torre begins the good work of constructing a theology that is not divorced from the crucial critique of modern culture many theologians are engaging in. Too often, there is a disconnect between that critique, and the cheerful, sunny talk of God and Christianity that occur on the same page. De La Torre does not fall for this trap. At the same time, his theology of hopelessness comes up well short of convincing, due to its rejection of the deeply Christian hope embodied by the resurrection of Christ.
Pulling together De La Torre, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Justo Gonzalez, and the rising field of process theology, a better answer can be provided to the suffering peoples of the world. While the theology expressed in these pages is far from finished or fully constructed, it hopes to be an initial step in the working of a new idea in the interplay between Christian hope and worldly realities. Most importantly, it hopes to have drawn on the works and ideas of those who truly know what it means to suffer, and it maintains this focus as completely necessary for any further work. Only by knowing and taking seriously the lived experiences of the least, the lost and the last, can we truly begin to construct a way forward in a world that is slowly but inevitably collapsing around us.
In the end, not even De La Torre can maintain total hopelessness. In a note of hope amidst his own hopelessness, he concedes: “hope might be found after it is crucified and then may be resurrected in the shards of live.” (de la Torre, 139) Through Christ, we know that Resurrection is a reality in our world. It is a dark, depressing Friday now. But Sunday is in our future.
Cobb Jr, John B and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.
De La Torre, Miguel. The Politics of Jesus: A Hispanic Political Theology. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
Pineda-Madrid, Nancy. Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.