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Doomed by Hope?

by Berry Friesen (January 5, 2015)

Hope is commonly thought to be a biblical virtue.  And yes, one can use the Bible to build a strong case for hope.  Yet many biblical writers would readily agree that we are “doomed by hope,” Margaret Atwood’s memorable phrase from “Oryx and Crake.”

Why doomed?  Because a certain kind of hope blinds us to what must change if generations to come are to receive life as a gift, not as a curse.  In “The Folly of Empire,” Chris Hedges calls this blindness “self-delusion” and “magical thinking.” It’s crazy, he writes, to expect the politicians, propagandists, financial mandarins and military commanders who put the world on its current path to change direction.

Yes, it is plucky and brave to maintain a cheerful disposition in difficult circumstances. Yet biblical hope is different from pluck.  It insists that because of who YHWH is, because of how the world works, the reigning empire cannot maintain its grip.  Its illegitimacy has been revealed by Jesus of Nazareth and it will collapse.  Then there will be a new opportunity to put human life on a just and sustainable path.  

Obviously, to say that hope lies only on the other side of great disruption is a downer and–for many people–the very opposite of hope.  To erase that view of hope from public understanding, religious authorities have developed spiritualized theologies focused on our estrangement from god, our need for someone to rescue us from god’s wrath, and our reward in heaven if we assent to this metaphysical package.

Our book tries to recover the biblical understanding of hope and its linkage to the triumph of YHWH over the empire in saving Earth.  It will not convince people who have faith in the empire and its solutions.  But for those who are deeply uneasy about the direction the empire is taking us, our book will point the way to hope.

What about the progress made under the reign of the current empire?  Global living standards are up, disease and malnutrition are down, literacy is up, the scale of war has diminished.  Aren’t these achievements worthy of celebration?

Yes, they are and we celebrate them too.

Are they sustainable?  Not if they depend on the burning of fossil fuel.  Not if they separate people from the land, the diversity of nature and the know-how of self-sufficiency.  Not if they disappear when profitability declines.  Not if they eviscerate the traditions and social bonds that give life its resilience.  Not if they use deception and violence to extinguish alternatives.

In a way, we are like the inhabitants of the first century Mediterranean world, marveling at the broad Roman roads, the clean water from the never-before-seen aqueducts, the welcome suppression of bandits and warlords.  The messages of Jesus, Paul and John the Revelator do not deny any of those achievements, but instead direct our attention to the deception, the brutality and the unsustainability of those who produced them.

In the essay referenced above, Hedges says the empire’s “collapse will take the whole planet with it.”  I can see why he would say this.  The empire has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to deploy its astonishing capacity for homicidal violence in pursuit of advantage for the elite. In 2014 Ukraine became the latest victim; Venezuela lies just ahead, along with Russia.  China is on the far horizon.  Russia and China have ample resources and economic clout, but neither has the empire’s weaponry nor the empire’s willingness to use it.

Yes, the empire will bring about its own destruction, but because of what YHWH has done in Jesus of Nazareth, human life on Earth will not be destroyed.  In fact, we have already begun creating a new civilization within the shell of the old. This is the biblical message of hope for Hedges and all those who see reality as clearly as he does.