by Robert Jensen
[This is an edited version of a sermon delivered July 8, 2012, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. http://www.staopen.com/. Audio is online at http://www.staopen.com/podcast/2012/jensen7_8_2012.mp3]
Hope-Monger or Hope-Peddler?
In 2005, I preached on the ecological crisis in a sermon I titled “Hope is for the Weak: The Challenge of a Broken World.” [http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=72&ItemID=9125] Looking back, I realize that I had been far too upbeat and optimistic, probably trying too hard to be liked. Today I want to correct that.
Hence, my updated title: “Hope is for the Lazy: The Challenge of Our Dead World.” Let’s start with two of the three important changes.
First, to be a hope-monger or a hope-peddler today is not just a sign of weakness but also of laziness, and sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. Don’t forget that, as good Christians, we try to avoid those.
Second, our world is not broken, it is dead. We are alive, if we choose to be, but the hierarchical systems of exploitation that structure the world in which we live — patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, white supremacy, and the industrial model — all are dead. It’s not just that they cannot be reformed, but that they cannot, and should not, be revived. The death-worship at the heart of those ideologies is exhausting us and the world, and the systems are running down. That means we have to create new systems, and in that monumental task, the odds are against us. What we need is not naïve hope but whatever it is that lies beyond naiveté, beyond hope. If this sounds depressing, blame Wendell Berry. He got me going on this. In every sermon I’ve preached at St. Andrew’s, I have quoted Berry, and I will do that extensively this morning. This is the first verse from one of his Sabbath poems:
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
[Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2007, VI, in Leavings: Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), p. 91-93.]
The Systems of Our World are Dead
This is what I say to myself: The systems of our world are dead. Our world is a dead world. If we are to live, we have to believe in something beyond hope.
By “beyond hope,” I’m not talking about heaven, about a magical realm beyond our material existence. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I will continue to assume that Earth is not a waiting room. We shouldn’t distract ourselves by looking to someplace up there, somewhere above or beyond, something that we pray is just around the corner.
I’m also not talking about living in domed cities or blasting off to another planet. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I will continue to assume that we aren’t going to invent our way out of our core problems. We are here for the duration, playing the hand we have always played, with no extra aces up our sleeve.
So, ignore the desperate claims of the religious fundamentalists and the technological fundamentalists. Their fantastic futures are based on fantasies of innocence. We have sinned. We have desecrated the places where we live. We have been guilty of weaknesses and laziness. We are not innocent. Let’s deal with it.
Ecological News: It’s Bad and Getting Worse
Let’s start by dealing with the news on Earth about the Earth, the ecological news: It’s bad and getting worse. Think of those dsytopic futures from science fiction, the scary futures that movie directors conjure up. It looks like that kind of future is coming faster than we expected, looking meaner and uglier than we anticipated. [For a review of how that future is unfolding in parts of the world today, see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011).]
Scientists these days are talking about tipping points [see the June 7, 2012, issue of Nature.] and planetary boundaries, [see the September 23, 2009, issue of Nature.] about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits and making it increasing unlikely that the ecosphere can continue to support human life as we know it.
Paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky of the University of California-Berkeley and 21 colleagues warn that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.” That means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” [Anthony Barnosky, et al, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, Nature, June 7, 2012.]
That means that we’re in trouble. The authors conclude with a simple set of recommendations:
[A]verting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation to stem current global-scale anthropogenic forcings. This will require reducing world population growth and per-capita resource use; rapidly increasing the proportion of the world’s energy budget that is supplied by sources other than fossil fuels while also becoming more efficient in using fossil fuels when they provide the only option; increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution instead of converting new areas or relying on wild species to feed people; and enhancing efforts to manage as reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services, both in the terrestrial and marine realms, the parts of Earth’s surface that are not already dominated by humans.
To take seriously even that short list of fairly limited tasks, a significant portion of the population would have to agree with the scientific assessment of our situation, and then we all would have to summon the moral and political will to radically change the way we live. If we could do all that, we might have a chance to minimize the damage. If.
Simon Fraser University biologist Arne Mooers, a co-author on that study who specializes in biodiversity, says the odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations: “In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there. My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the Earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.” [Jeremy Hance,“Scientists: If We Don’t Act Now We’re Screwed,” Mongabay News, June 19, 2012.]
It would be easy to look at all this and conclude there is no hope. That would be easy because it’s the most rational assessment. If that seems harsh, well, life can be, and often is, harsh. As ecologists like to remind us, nature does not negotiate. Nature sets limits. For those who prefer sports metaphors, nature bats last.
Avoiding Reality Is Not Winning
Avoiding reality because it is harsh is not a winning strategy. We are not going to win by praying for deliverance by the hand of God or waiting for deliverance through the wizardry of gadgets. Religion and technology, understood historically and used wisely, are both important tools to help us cope. But religious and technological fundamentalists are weak and lazy, because they spin fanciful stories about how we can magically avoid a reckoning with the human capacity for desecration.
There may, in fact, not be a winning strategy available to us at this point in history. But we have an obligation to assess the strategies available, and work at the ones that make the most sense. That is how we make a credible claim to being human. We don’t become fully human through winning. We embrace our humanity by acting out of our deepest moral principles to care for each other and care for the larger living world, even if failure is likely, even if failure is inevitable.
As Much Truth as One Can Bear
To borrow from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That line is from an essay titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology. [James Baldwin, As Much Truth As One Can Bear, in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.] Baldwin, writing with a focus on relationships between humans, suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” In our relationship to the larger living world, our task is slightly different: To tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.
To repeat one of those hard-to-bear truths: Nature doesn’t negotiate. Nature sets limits. Nature bats last. If we don’t want to be accused of weakness or laziness, we have to face not only the truth we can bear, but all of the truth, which is too much to ask us to bear. Here’s how Berry describes the unbearable truth in that same Sabbath poem:
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned.
Our lives do not fit our places. We are out of place. Modern high-energy/high-technology industrial life not only has desecrated the world, it has left us out of place, out of touch with ourselves and each other. Berry reminds us that place and identity are connected: “You can’t know who you are if you don’t know where you are.” Modern high-energy/high-technology industrial life disconnects us from where we are.
As much as I would like to ignore all this, I can’t go very long without being reminded of these realities. One day last month, as I was reading the day’s news and feeling one step closer to despair, I summed up that feeling in a note written quickly to some of my closest friends (on Facebook):
We treat women’s bodies like objects to be fucked and men’s bodies like machines to be worked. We treat the whole world like a mine or a garbage dump. The economic system assumes you care only about yourself. The political system gives the most to the people who have the most. We clamor for any amusement or chemical that takes our minds off the horror. And then we wonder why things aren’t going well.
Things aren’t going well because we are living in systems that put us at odds with each other and with the larger living world. What are we to do about that? The first step is to tell the truth. Not just the truth we can bear, but all of the truth.
Part of that truth is our own complicity. Note the third change from my previous title: From “a Broken World” to “Our Dead World.” This world that we have made is ours, it belongs in some way to all of us as a species, and we have to be responsible for our part in it. When I posted that note, some people objected to the use of “we” in that quick description of the state of the world. Lots of nice progressive folk want to disavow responsibility for the dead world, laying off the blame. Certainly some people are more blameworthy than others for the specific sins committed in this world. But for the central sin that defines the modern world — the human capacity for desecration — we all have to answer. As the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” [Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 2001/1962), p. 19.]
The truth is too much to bear, but we have no choice but to bear it: The world in which we live is dead. The world in which we live has been destroyed by social, political, and economic systems that are based on, and celebrate, exploitation and hierarchy. The world defined by those systems cannot be saved. When people push aside this truth and insist that we stay positive and focus on solutions, they typically mean “solutions” that don’t hint at any challenge to these fundamental systems. That means, of course, the solutions are likely to generate more problems. Those kinds of solutions are, in the long run, problems themselves. In the service of being “pragmatic” and “results-oriented” and “mature,” we contribute to the culture’s denial of reality. I repeat: Denying reality is not the basis for a winning strategy.
Tell as much truth as you can bear, and then face all the rest of the truth. If we place our hope in the systems that created this world, our hope will betray us, and then we will betray each other and those who come after us. We will betray the children, and their children, as long as there are children.
There is always hope, but it is hope that lies beyond these systems, beyond the world as it is structured today. To be truly hopeful is to speak about a different world structured by different systems. To be truly hopeful is to risk irrelevance when engaged in polite conversation in mainstream America. Irrelevance, in these situations, is a virtue. Our chance of saving ourselves depends on enough people willing to be irrelevant soon enough.
Not Playing the Preacher
Now, this would be a perfect place to pause and play the preacher. After such stern warnings, preachers reach into their magic bag of Scripture and pull out the Good News. They find an upbeat ending. They send people out into the world with hope.
Remember, I’m the substitute today. I am not a preacher. I don’t have to play that game.Rather than reaching for Scripture, I want to return to Baldwin and then to Berry.In his meditation on the role of writers, Baldwin offered a challenge that can be applied to us all:
We are the generation that must throw everything into the endeavor to remake America [and, I would say, the world] into what we say we want it to be. Without this endeavor, we will perish. However immoral or subversive this may sound to some, it is the writer who must always remember that morality, if it is to remain or become morality, must be perpetually examined, cracked, changed, made new. He must remember, however powerful the many who would rather forget, that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.
[Baldwin, As Much Truth As One Can Bear, p. 34.]
Grief and Joy Rely on Each Other
There is a lot riding on whether we have the courage and the strength to accept that danger, joyfully. Don’t take my harsh assessment, and the grief that must accompany it, to be a rejection of joy. The two, grief and joy, are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, rely on each other, and define the human condition. As Berry puts it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.” [Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106.]
The balancing of the two is the beginning of a hope beyond hope, the willingness not only to embrace that danger but to find joy in it. Our world is dead, but we are alive. No matter how dark the world grows, there is a light within. That is the message of Christianity, the message of all faith. That is the message with which Berry ends that Sabbath poem, and it is with those words that I conclude this morning:
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens. Φ
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.