In chapel today, we sang a refrain taken from Psalm 27: “I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” It was an understated Taizé tune, just voices and two violins over an electronic keyboard set on harp mode. It was the kind of worship I’ve grown to love: a quiet, communal insistence that our present reality is not all there is, that something more just, more good, is coming.
Today, though, that song of hope is haunting me. In my political theologies class, we’ve been reading scholars who reject hope as a tool of oppression, a false promise that justifies present suffering for the sake of some redemptive future. For these scholars, working in fields like queer negativity and Afro-pessimism, there is no reason to think that a less racist, less homophobic, or less exploitative world is around the corner. Violence always reproduces itself, and to point to future salvation is to explain away that violence.
While many of these scholars have a nonreligious point of view, others, like the Latino theologian Miguel De La Torre, are writing against hope from within the Christian tradition. In De La Torre’s view, the persistent presence of Christians on the wrong side of history is further evidence of hope’s violence. Historically, whenever Christians declare or expect victory, bodies pile up.
To truly be in Christlike solidarity with the oppressed, De La Torre writes, requires “the crucifixion of hope.” It means putting to death that ubiquitous Christian reflex to talk about heaven or resurrection or new life. It means paying attention—painful, gut-wrenching attention—to the damage that theologies of hope have done. It means descending with Christ into the hell of this world without expecting vindication, because for so many of the world’s poor, vindication is nowhere to be found.
I don’t know if De La Torre is right, but I can’t get his critique out of my head. What would it look like for me and other white, middle-class Christians to set our hope aside, if only for a moment? I’m not calling for a rejection of Christian theologies of redemption, but for an experimental broadening of our imaginations, an exercise in holy empathy. What would it mean to crucify our hope and still sing “I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?”
What if the goodness of the Lord isn’t about cosmic redemption but about the everyday acts of love that shore us up against tragedy? What if the kingdom of God will not come as some final overturning of the status quo but comes instead in every gift, every story, every joke, every hug that says no to the death-dealing powers that rule this world?
What if we’re not sure about the future, but about the present? What if we’re sure that the Spirit is here now, caring for us and for our fellow human and non-human creatures even as they’re being destroyed? What if that care often looks more like mourning than healing?
And what if our insistence on a better world comes not from certainty but from defiance? What if our faithful denunciation of the order of the world matters even if that order never crumbles? What if we’re called to be faithful even if our faith has no reward?
I don’t think this is all as unorthodox as it sounds. The opening question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism does not say that our “only comfort in life and death” is a just, joyous eternity on a healed planet. It says that our only comfort is that “we are not our own.” We don’t need a hopeful eschatological vision in order to let others—and God—have a claim on our lives. We don’t need hope to love. Hope, in fact, tends to get in love’s way. And if we have to choose between the two, the Apostle Paul has some famous guidance.
Maybe this is all going too far. To be sure, hopeful theologies have done great things, from the early Christians in Acts to the Black church in the US and the liberationist base communities in Latin America. And for many of us, hope is what makes daily life possible. Hope can spark change, inspire art, confound the powerful, and give us space to survive. Hopelessness may be a burden not worth carrying.
Or maybe hopelessness too is an idol, a perverse painkiller that can excuse us from action. For De La Torre, this is a mistake: true hopelessness results in a kind of holy desperation that cannot help but act because it has nothing to lose. For those of us with money and privilege, though, hopelessness might be a convenient disguise for apathy.
Both of these concerns should caution us against abandoning hope too frivolously. But if we are truly to follow in the steps of Christ, I think we need to at least wrestle with the possibility that we’ve made an idol out of hope. We don’t need to settle on hopelessness, but we do need to stop proposing explanations for the world’s pain, stop demanding hope from those who can’t breathe. We need to lay down our theological defenses and let the world wound us.
“Wait without hope,” writes T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets, “for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” Christian history is full of hope for the wrong thing: expected revolutions, returns, empires, and apocalypses that never happened, or happened with destructive consequences. We can try again with better exegesis and finer-tuned theologies, or we can loosen our grip on the future and follow Christ through the hopeless gates of hell. Because even in the most full-throated theologies of redemption, hell is where resurrection starts.
One final note: In 2005, Miguel De La Torre resigned from a faculty position at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, after then-president James E. Bultman said De La Torre’s writing made college fundraising more difficult. De La Torre wasn’t writing specifically about hopelessness then, but about how “the Bible is being used to oppress, dishonor and persecute our queer brothers and sisters.” If we cannot even put money aside long enough to repent for theological violence, how can we turn around and sing of cosmic hope?
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with majors in English and music, and he has since earned master’s degrees from Western Michigan University and Princeton Theological Seminary. This fall, he’s starting a PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia (so his plans to be in school forever are working well). When not writing, he can be found learning the alto recorder, watching obscure Disney movies, and making excruciating puns.