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Dangerous addition to ‘hopium’

10 May 2024

Brian McLaren is a fan of action — not passive acceptance

Hannah Davis

Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren

I HAVE always been a big fan of hope. That’s probably because I had my first brief but intense affair with depression when I was still a teenager. “I never want to go there again,” I told myself. But depression in its various forms has come back to sit on my chest several times over the years. So, throughout my adult life, I’ve felt that I need to lean hard into hope as a matter of emotional survival.

As a result, I was surprised to realise that hope can be a problem. In fact, in the presence of doom, hope (at least, a common and superficial kind of hope) can be downright deadly. I felt this as I was listening to a lecture by the theologian and activist Miguel De La Torre. He captured one of the downsides of hope like this: “Hope is what is fed to those who are being slaughtered so they won’t fight what is coming.”

This insight came to him as he toured Auschwitz. All who entered the gates of the death camp passed under a large inscription at the entrance: “Arbeit macht frei”, which means “Work sets you free.”

In other words, malevolent forces often use hope to manipulate us, rendering us compliant to their continued oppression. Hope can be a false promise — not just a lie, but a dangerous, delicious lie. And the lie becomes all the more appealing when the only alternative we see is despair.

Thich Nhat Hanh, writing from a Buddhist perspective, addressed another danger of hope. Hope has some value, he said, “because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear”. But when we “cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment”. We bypass the present to dwell in a better imagined future, and, in so doing, we bypass the joy, peace, and other gifts available to us here and now — including the sweetness of grief.

Another contemporary Buddhist teacher, Joan Halifax, offered an additional criticism of hope: nobody knows for certain what the future holds. In Buddhist thought, there is “no independent origination”. In other words, the future constantly arises from conditions that we, together with all sentient creatures, help create in the present. Because current conditions are impermanent and constantly changing, the future is unknowable, and our actions matter. This is why Joanna Macy, another Buddhist teacher, argues not simply for hope, but for active hope.

Karl Marx anticipated many of these insights when he wrote in 1844, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (italics mine). In context, he was not attacking religion, as many people interpret. Instead, he was expressing sympathy for the working classes who suffer oppression and exploitation by the economic system in which they labour. Their pain is so great, he said, that they naturally seek an anaesthetic to numb it.

The opiate offered by religion is the hope of a pain-free heaven. By dealing this drug of hope — many today call it “hope-ium” — religion offers palliative care to the oppressed between now and their death. But “hope-ium” also aids and abets the oppressors by pacifying the labour force, as De La Torre so powerfully saw at the gate to Auschwitz. If the oppressed can muster the courage to put away the opium, they will feel the pain of their current condition, and that pain may make them desperate enough to take collective action towards their own liberation.


IT IS counter-intuitive to many of us to see hope as dangerous and desperation as necessary. I felt the dangerous side of hope in my own religious upbringing. We were taught two attractive ideas: that God was in control, and that God guaranteed us a happy ending in heaven. We had an army of Bible verses to defend this pair of beliefs, and we quoted them a lot. (We ignored the many other Bible verses that contradicted our beliefs.) As a result, rather than feeling the pain of our current situation and translating that pain into action, we sang songs about the coming joys of heaven, and fell into a pleasant dream of blissful indifference.

Happy and complacent people don’t change. And people who don’t change are sitting ducks for doom. To put it in Darwinian terms, unchanging people are unfit for a changing environment. Of course, dangers, we learn as we age, often come in pairs. So, if hope can lead to complacency, and even paralysis, so can despair. Because of the way our internal “board of directors” works, both hope and hopelessness can have a surprisingly similar appeal.

First, both relieve us from the uncertainty of an unknown future. For one, a happy ending is assumed; for the other, a tragic ending is inescapable. Either way, at least we know what’s coming. Second, both promise us a future that asks nothing of us. Because things are going to turn out fine, you don’t have to do or change anything. Because there’s nothing you can do to avert doom, you don’t have to do or change anything. Just as hope can give you permission to return to your previously scheduled complacency, so can despair.

The professor and ethicist Sharon D. Welch proposed an apt name for despair-supported complacency: “cultured despair”. She noticed that many affluent, middle-class, and privileged activists are quick to give up on their cause when results don’t come quickly and easily enough to suit them. Their “inability to persist in resistance” and their susceptibility to “cynicism and despair when problems seem intransigent” arise from the fact that “it is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present.”

“Becoming so easily discouraged,” she writes, “is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs”. She concludes that, for those “cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege”, for whom “the good life is present or within reach”, it is tempting to “resort to merely enjoying [the good life] for oneself and one’s family”.

Good people promoting hope and good people criticising hope are both against the same thing: foolish complacency. And both are for the same thing: wise action. That’s why De La Torre says that the best alternative to hope is not despair, but desperation, “because desperation propels me toward action”. He explains, “When I have no hope, when I realise I have nothing to lose, that’s when I am the most dangerous” to the supporters of an unjust status quo. With nothing to lose, I can risk everything.


AS I wrestled with this tension around hope, I had to admit two things. First, no matter how many encouraging stories I am told — about this amazing technological breakthrough, about that social movement, about these brave young activists, about that amazing progress in decarbonisation or anti-racism — I am not optimistic about our situation. If hope means optimism — a sense that we can “win”, I often feel that I have lost hope. It’s not that I’m certain of Collapse/Extinction; I am not certain of any scenario. My problem is that even Collapse Avoidance doesn’t feel like a win. At this point, I feel that we have left the domain of conventional hope because we are no longer fighting to win, but rather to avoid the most tragic scenarios of loss.

For those with theological interests, this space beyond the domain of conventional hope may be what St Paul refers to as ‘hope against hope’ (Romans 4.18, NASB). We see something similar in the Hebrew prophets such as Habakkuk. The Judaean prophet warned of inevitable defeat and doom for his people in the late seventh century BCE (Habakkuk 2.2-3). But his prophecy ends with a bold declaration of his vibrant will to live, with a note of defiant joy (3.17-19).

Similarly, Jesus conducts much of his ministry with the assumption that he will be killed (Luke 13.33), yet he trusts that his work will carry on in others who will do “greater things” than he had done (John 14.12). This “hope against hope” seems to be empowered by a refusal to give up the will to live, even though the way to do so is not at all clear.

Perhaps the idea of “hope against hope” helps explain my second realisation: Even without optimism, I still have motivation. I still have no interest in giving up. For a while, of course, I was too devastated to know whether I had motivation or not. But, gradually, I began to feel arising in me an even more invincible motivation than before. When I was largely energised by hopeful optimism about outcomes, my motivation was dependent on receiving a continual flow of encouraging anecdotes and keeping discouraging evidence at bay. And now, here I am, feeling that the discouraging evidence far outweighs the encouraging evidence. But, rather than slumping into an easy chair of despair or paralysed resignation, I am still on my feet, brimming with defiance and creative energy.

For a while, I couldn’t figure out why I was still standing. Then I came upon a paragraph from the historian Howard Zinn that intrigued me and seemed to beckon me beyond my paradox of hope and despair: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

“What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory [italics mine].”

When I considered Zinn’s word “victory”, it was as if the categories of my struggle, the terms of my inner debate, began to shift. Zinn wasn’t presenting me with a choice between Team Hope that thinks we can win and therefore stays in the struggle, and Team Despair that walks off the field before the game is over because it has concluded that victory is impossible. Zinn presents me with a different notion of victory, and a different choice entirely. My real choice is between Team Cruelty (or Team Apathy or Team Selfishness or Team Indifference) and Team Wisdom, Courage, and Kindness.

Reflecting on Zinn’s words today, I feel a powerful inner invitation to live magnificently in this present moment, to live “as human beings should live”, whatever the outcomes might be, whatever scenario unfolds. This detachment from desired outcomes makes my response to doom feel less like a matter of intellectual risk assessment and more like a free moral choice. It feels so right that Zinn uses the word “defiance”, because that is what I feel: the energy of fierce defiance. All that is bad around us motivates me to resist, to defy, to refuse to comply, and that very defiance feels like a marvellous victory.


I WOULD like to invite you into a thought experiment to understand the power of defiance. Imagine that Collapse/Extinction becomes as inevitable as the incoming asteroid at the end of the movie Don’t Look Up. Imagine that in five, 25, 75, or 250 years, our centuries of ecological overshoot will catch up with us. Imagine that sea levels rise and forests burn and crops fail and vast parts of the earth become uninhabitable because of heat.

Imagine that refugees flee, markets fail, and nations go to war over the last fossil fuels. Imagine that two small men in expensive suits simultaneously press red buttons on opposite sides of the world, and, within minutes, nuclear bombs fall on a hundred cities in both hemispheres. Imagine that the wind carries a mushroom cloud that rains deadly radiation across the land. Imagine that the cloud drifts towards a city where people you dearly love are living.

And now, imagine that they have 24 hours before the cloud reaches them. Obviously, it is too late for them to organise an anti-nuclear weapons rally, or do anything else to avert the inevitable. So, how would you want them to spend those last 24 hours? Late that night, would you want this family to hold one another tight and tell each other how much they love each other, and maybe even pray together in gratitude for every moment of life they have shared together? Would you want them to make their last day a day they really lived? Would you see the way they spent their last day in that horrible situation as an expression of wisdom and courage? Would you consider their last day lived in that way a marvellous victory? Or would you say it didn’t matter, that it was meaningless, because they were going to die anyway? Isn’t everyone going to die anyway, sooner or later?

This thought experiment helps me understand that there is a motivation that goes deeper than hope as commonly understood. This “hope against hope” inspires “the energy to act” when all hope for a good outcome is gone. Derrick Jensen gives us a name for this motivation. In response to the question “Why am I an activist?” Jensen answers, “Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy stream bottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course, results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.”

The Choctaw elder and retired episcopal bishop Steven Charleston similarly invites us to orient our lives around the axis of love in this beautiful passage: “The signs are all around us. We can see them springing up like wildflowers after the prairie rain. People who had fallen asleep are waking up. People who had been content to watch are wanting to join. People who never said a word are speaking out. The tipping point of faith is the threshold of spiritual energy, where what we believe becomes what we do. When that power is released, there is no stopping it, for love is a force that cannot be contained. Look and see the thousands of new faces gathering from every direction . . .

“Sometimes, in this troubled world of ours, we forget that love is all around us. We imagine the worst of other people and withdraw into our own shells. But try this simple test: Stand still in any crowded place and watch the people around you. Within a very short time, you will begin to see love, and you will see it over and over and over. A young mother talking to her child, a couple laughing together as they walk by, an older man holding the door for a stranger — small signs of love are everywhere. The more you look, the more you will see. Love is literally everywhere. We are surrounded by love.”

In the words of the spiritual educator Cynthia Bourgeault, “Our great mistake is that we tie hope to outcome.” If we can see a likely path to our desired outcome, we have hope; if we can see no possible path to our desired outcome, we have despair. If we are unsure whether there is a possible path or not, we keep hope alive, but it remains vulnerable to defeat if that path is closed.

When our prime motive is love, a different logic comes into play. We find courage and confidence — not in the likelihood of a good outcome, but in our commitment to love. Love may or may not provide a way through to a solution to our predicament, but it will provide a way forward in our predicament, one step into the unknown at a time. Sustained by this fierce love (as my friend Jacqui Lewis calls it), we may persevere long enough that, to our surprise, a new way may appear where there had been no way. At that point, we will have reasons for hope again. But, even if hope never returns, we will live by love through our final breath.

To put it differently, even if we lose hope for a good outcome, we need not lose hope of being good people, as we are able: courageous, wise, kind, loving, “in defiance of all that is bad around us”. When we subtract from conventional understandings of hope, all comforting optimism about future outcomes, the “hope against hope” that remains looks even larger, even more beautiful and more powerful. Standing “on the brink of oblivion” (to use Ernst Becker’s phrase) we feel arising within us this sustained declaration: we will live as beautifully, bravely, and kindly as we can as long as we can, no matter how ugly, scary, and mean the world becomes, even if failure and death seem inevitable.

In fact, it is only in the context of failure and death that this virtue develops. That’s why Richard Rohr describes this kind of hope as “the fruit of a learned capacity to suffer wisely and generously. You come out much larger and that largeness becomes your hope”. My friends have been asking me lately “Do you have hope?” What can I say? Here’s what I’ll say going forward: It depends on how you define hope. Hope is complicated. But writing this book is helping me to see that even if hope fails, something bigger can replace it, and that is love.

This is an edited extract from Life After Doom: Wisdom and courage for a world falling apart by Brian McLaren, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (Church Times £13.59); 978-1-3998-1417-1.

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