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RECONFIGURING HOPE IN A CONTEXT OF HOPELESSNESS

Javier Giraldo, S.J.

Martes 17 de enero de 2006, por Javier Giraldo M. , S.J.

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk about my country’s situation to a mainly Christian group, in Zaragoza, Spain, and when I finished, a woman scolded me, quite angrily, because I had left in the group a sensation that there would be no improvements and that the situation would continue to worsen. According to her, I had failed in my duty to give a lecture about the situation from the perspective of Christian hope and therefore leave a sensation of hope with the audience.

I responded that I would have failed the truth if I had ended my talk affirming that things were going to change in the foreseeable future. I honestly couldn’t see any signs that would announce a positive change, rather the opposite: the powers of death in my country were dominating with such force, that they have every possibility of progressively consolidating their domination.

That night among the group of Zaragozan attendees surged a very emotive debate about hope that left me with profound questions.

It is true that hope, before the stark reality that is imposed upon us, has an audacious and rebellious aspect. It is true that hope can’t maintain itself from lectures, based on academic precision, that only permit us to access what already is, and not what should be. But it is also true that a hope that underestimates the elements that inform reality, or tries to ignore or evade them through discourses that refer to nonexistent worlds, is a hope that could be considered an opiate o somnifacient, that allows us more easily to tolerate the ignanamous real, covering it with a cloak of unreal dreams.

Many paradigms of hope, as much in the theological world, centered on salvation, as in the political world, centered on revolution, have enclosed hope in ideological borders with strong doses of resignation and passive hope.

I believe that, at least in progressive christians circles, hope is no longer characterized as a passive attitude, what once in the past was considered a "Christian" virtue of resignation.

Erich Fromm, in a work titled Revolution of Hope, has beautifully expressed his way of understanding hope in these terms:

"Having hope means being attentive in every moment to that which still isn’t born, but without losing hope if the birth doesn’t occur in the passing of our lives. It doesn’t make sense to hope in what already exists and not in what could be. Those whose hope is weak fight for comfortableness or through violence, while those whose hope is strong see and help along all the signals of a new life and are prepared in each moment to help the advent of that which is found in a state of birth."1

For Erich Fromm, hope is an aspect in the vital structure of being human, but it is linked to another fundamental of this vital structure, which is faith. And Fromm describes faith, in the same chapter, as "the knowledge of the real possibility, the awareness of a gestation. Faith is rational when it refers to the knowledge of the real that still hasn«t been born, and it bases itself on that ability to know and to capture what penetrates the surface and see the nucleus. Faith, the same as hope, isn«t to predict the future, but instead is the vision of the present in a state of gestation." (ibid.)

But the former, according to Fromm, is what most characterizes hope and faith, that is, that strength to see the real that hasn’t birthed but is incubating; that strength to comprehend the "lines of force" ("all that influences reality", sp: l’neas de fuerza) that is configuring reality that is in incubation, is at the same time that which explains the CRISIS OF OUR HOPE.

Many cast their gaze on the positive in this new world that has been gestating and being born in modernity: they admire scientific advances, its power to dominate material and the marvelous gains in the area of communications, but others of us cast our gaze on the human costs that this has had and we’re not able to look with any joy nor enthusiasm at these wonders. How not to recognize that this wonderful world of modernity has been giving birth to a "hell" for at least 60% of all human beings? And I speak of "hell" remembering Dante’s Divine Comedy, where the inscription on the door to hell was almost the same as the loss of hope: "those who enter here, abandon all hope".

I would like to have the ability of shorter sight to be able to store-up some doses of optimism, but each time I try to examine the "lines of force" that are incubating and see that at the moment of birth, our dreams progressively begin to collapse, I find myself unable to make out the image of a present in a state of positive and satisfying incubation.


Mi ideological identity was forged principally in the 60s, when I carried out university studies in philosophy and at the same time opted for the religious life. Together with many other colleagues and friends, Jesuits and non-Jesuits, religious and lay-persons, believers and nonbelievers, we lived a fascination of discovery that the world, and above all that our continent and our country could be different. In those years Latin America was a clamor of political and theological ideas that impatiently searched to incarnate themselves in reality through activist movements. Liberation was the magic word that awakened all interests, political as much as theological. Testimonies like that of Camilo Torres or the Bishop Gerardo Valencia shook and destabilized the status quo, but in almost all countries, from Mexico to Central America to the Southern Cone, arose prophets and movements that invited action. Theorists produced research and analysis that clearly revealed such unjust structures that obvious that those who had an upright conscience would commit themselves to a revolutionary process of change. The popular armies that sprung-up all over seemed to announce those nucleus’ of resistance that would make the burning desire of the poor masses invincible before the pathological repression of the powerful. Despite the fragility of everything that rises from the marginalized sectors, it seemed that hope began to invade many fields that before were cooped by the fatalism of injustice.

The 70s were years of martyrdom. Latin America began to fill with dictatorships characterized by "national security". Their power was exercised in almost all places by the military caste that embodied the brutality. The dimensions of the barbarity seemed to reveal that the unjust powers were unmasking their true face, irrational and inhumane, which would inevitably lead to their ilegitimization and their downfall, and that the revolutionary movement was being refined by the suffering and the martyrdom in order to fulfill once more the prophetic sign of the first Christians: "the blood of the martyrs are seeds of Christians". We also believed that the testimony of blood was the planting of a victory much more assertive, given its incontrovertible ethical proportions.

In Colombia there were no military dictatorships in the 70s nor in the 80s, but the repressive strategies of our government, reinforced by the cunning policy of preserving all the formalities of democracy, adjusted to the same principles of the dictatorships in order to "legitimize" repression. Under such policy, it made it seem like a "defense of democracy". Despite the barbarity, flooded by blood and the pain of the continent, I would say that this stage never saw a loss of hope. There was a certain understanding that a dark night was passing that would undoubtedly advance to a new dawn.

As the decade of the 80s advanced, the dictatorships one by one were ceding to a Governmental model that was called, without modesty, "restricted democracy", designed by the technocrats and ideologues of the "Trilateral" alliance which united the colosals of world capitalism: the USA, Western Europe and Japan. There was a realignment in what remained of the popular movements that emerged anemic from the night of the dictatorships, and they began to redesign their strategies in order to take advantage of the small "democratic" spaces that those regimes offered, whose discourse was never lacking in criticisms of the dictatorial repression. The language of human rights, as a legitimized language by the greater global forum of powers, such as the United Nations, began to frame itself as an alternative that would channel the dynamism of the popular movements that demanded justice, or as an alternative that, once submitting itself to the rules and procedures of Law, that would distance the fears of revolutionary violence as a strategy of structural change.

The last few years of the 80s and the first years of the 90s could be characterized as the expansion of the discourse of human rights. It was believed that the horrible memory of the brutality of the dictatorships was sufficiently strong to fuel the movement against impunity that would forever exorcize the barbarity and would consolidate respect for the Law, such that progressively it would be possible to restore rights consecrated by the international community as human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Nevertheless, two phenomena became firmly established at the beginning of the 90s that would frustrate these hopes: on the one hand, the definitive crisis of socialism, with its central effect being the consolidation of a unipolar imperialist world; on the other, the progressive globalization of the world’s economy, that began to make the States and governmental powers merely symbols, given that the real power began to shift towards multinational corporations and transnational capital.

A new cycle of violence is becoming comprehendible, but now it doesn’t emerge articulated in concrete projects. The massive negation of economic, social and cultural rights of whole peoples and great strata in almost all societies, provokes violent protests and in turn provokes even more violent forms of repression. The advance of terrorism is felt, and it reveals very worrisome levels of hopelessness.

We are no longer in other decades in which at least there were alternative paradigms of social organization, even if they were full of defects. The corruption of socialist models leave profound waves of disillusionment and hopelessness. But what most feeds the hopelessness is the fatality that is affirmed more each day, that this complex reality that we call "the world", as a product of an articulation of the "lines of force" that dominate its nucleus and, it seems, will dominate for very prolonged lengths of time to come, is fatally condemned to maintain only a small fringe of human beings that live in acceptable conditions, while finding ways to put aside the great majority who must remain excluded from economic and human development via "democratic" rules of the market.

In years past we read shudderingly those novels that Erich Fromm characterized as "negative utopias", such as George Orwell’s "1984", o Aldous Huxley’s "A Brave New World". These showed us, through fiction, how a system could program humans so that they would assimilate and adapt themselves to it, exterminating values that we believed were the most profoundly human. But today, many of the same mechanisms that the Colombian State, always with the advisement of the USA, remind me quite realistically of the horrors of these negative utopias.

When torture, practiced by agents of the State became a general practice in Colombia in 1979, an ever growing number of Colombians began to join the movement for the defense and promotion of human rights. We found in the encounter between domestic law and international law a possible via to defend fundamental human values that before we had wanted to defend more through social and political movements that were demonized by the Establishment. I had to begin to submerge myself in judicial studies, at that time foreign to me, and my hope was imbued, to a great degree, in legal struggles. I can’t deny that we had some success: we succeeded in getting the Colombian State to sign many international human rights treaties; we managed to modify many legal procedures; we succeeded in creating official posts related to the protection of human rights; we got international organizations to exercise pressure on the government whose aim was to protect numerous victims, and an important moment was the change in the National Constitution in 1991, whose text incorporated the majority of international human rights treaties.

But at the same time as this world of legal formality was transforming, the daily and brutal reality of human rights violations was increasing and the hope that had been placed in legality began to fall in on itself. For me, the decade of the 90s, in which I acted as Executive Secretary of the Commission for Justice and Peace, and as such had to file the denouncement of thousands of crimes against humanity before the judicial powers of the State, set up a face to face meeting with legal fiction. I began to discover how impunity fed on double discourses and intelligently designed strategies so that the formal wouldn’t effect the real. For that reason, in the last years of my service with the Commission for Justice and Peace, I preferred to denounce the same judicial system as an obstacle, instead of a helpful resource that would protect human dignity.

In Colombia since the middle of the 60s, there has existed the war alternative, the violent solution to social conflict, represented by guerrilla groups born of the poor and the opposed, that despite brutal repression haven’t been extinguished but rather have grown. The hope that can incarnate in armed conflict is a fragile hope. All wars bring enormous evils, and much more through a war between incredibly unequal forces. For that reason, since twenty years ago peace movements have also existed in Colombia, in which hope is found in a political and not a military solution to the armed conflict, but they are movements that in these 20 years have only produced frustration and a loss of hope. Despite that many discourses accept that an urgent change in economic, social and political structures is needed to remove the justification of war, real negotiations only look to preserve the status quo.

In the last couple of years the war has become acute and has produced profound societal trauma and destruction. Also, the kind of war we live deeply destroys hope. It isn’t easy to understand the logic of this war, given that the predominant perspective is that of the Establishment, owners of the mass media of "information". The international community has channeled its peace efforts towards Colombia in two central slogans: convince the two poles that a negotiated political solution is necessary instead of a military one, and urging the application of International Humanitarian Law. These two rallying cries, that seem so just in theory, when applied to solid terrain break apart because the mediators refuse to understand that a war between enormously unequal armies can’t submit to the humanitarian norms of war as might relatively equal armed forces. In other words, as in the majority of wars, on the one hand a deep conflict between logic and effectiveness is revealed, and on the other, the conflict between ethics and rules.

But what makes the problem of the war in Colombia more insolvable is that the State, under the instruction of the United States, created in the 60s an instrument in order to degrade the war without measure. Such is the paramilitary strategy, that involves corps of armed civilians that act as the hidden arm of the official army, designed in order to pass through the judicial and ethical barriers of war whose end is to guarantee its effectiveness. This instrument’s logic necessarily means that the civilian population is more and more involved in the war and that methods of terror increasingly dominate the development of the war. And what makes this kind of conflict still more insolvable, is that that same logic obliges the creation of fictitious languages in which the State has to play a role of "independent actor" towards paramilitarism in order to legitimize itself before the international community, and that the Colombian State, immersed in a deeply rooted schizophrenia, has played this role majestically.

When our hope has been based on truth; when we have concentrated our efforts in putting our difficult reality before our compatriots and the international community, with the expectation that a single, honest, striped-down look of what is happening will awaken genuine human sensitivity in order to oppose injustice, then we find ourselves face to face with another one of the "lines of force" that characterize this modern world we are immersed in: the manipulating power of the mass media, that in league with the great conglomerates of capital, hide and select, twist and manipulate, demonize and sanctify, according to occult interests. It has even come to the point of presenting the victims of their lies, those who have died by desperate violence, as "martyrs of truth".

When our hope has been based on autonomy and we have naively dreamed that the term "cold war" would have done away with the blueprint of hemispheric blocks of power and that the US would no longer have such fear of ideological infiltration of an enemy power in its "back yard", and therefore ending the blockade of our efforts for self-determination and the search of a greater social justice, this hope also came tumbling down. When the phantom of "Communism" disappeared, the US rapidly designed a new pretext: the War on Drugs, in order to closely control all movement of social transformation. And despite having put together a discourse about the War on Drugs full of incoherence and lies, the international community has believed and supported it. "Plan Colombia" is a political and military intervention project that is supported by this discourse full of falsehoods.


Before the defeat of all these manifestations of hope it is logical that one would find oneself with many manifestations of hopelessness.

I can’t seem to forget a shared reflection with a group of mothers of the disappeared in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when from a balcony we observed an electoral campaign march in the context in which all the candidates were from the right-wing. In that moment we perceived concretely one of the most terrible effects of the Argentinean dictatorship: the ideology elimination of an entire generation and through terror, conditioning the political options for the following generation, perhaps on levels predominately subconscious. It was compelling to recognize there the success of barbarity and its power to design the future.

In Colombia I constantly find myself with old activists who, after greeting one another, can only sustain scarce minutes in conversation, for fear of talking about there actual involvement in the dominate system. There are occasions in which the topic painfully comes up, almost with cathartic necessity, and then the existential dilemma begins to appear that secretly tortures them: they are between ruining their lives, subjecting themselves to permanent risk of open or hidden persecution, in the midst of hopes that always get torn down. That or they try to live with a minimum of peace, and in this way silencing their values that earlier they had believed with the deepest of convictions. Many times has this been expressed as a tribute to "realism" and to "prudence", recognizing that the world is dominated by powers opposed to justice and reason.

I have also found many opposite cases: those that consciously ruin their lives; they subject themselves to the most extreme of risks; they renounce all social and family stability, and take on commitments that they are sure will carry them to death within a short time. In many cases they do it without hope; with the assurance that their struggle and the offering of their lives will not change the situation in any way, because the powers against them are monstrously superior, but they feel that the only way to be faithful to themselves is by destroy themselves, announcing a great "NO" before this unacceptable world, and trying to destroy what they can of that world before they die. Here is explained one of the current forms of terrorism, almost the only one our society perceives and points out with an accusing finger, given that State terrorism is nearly undetected in the world of public opinion.

These existential realities are having a lot influence today in the development of the war in Colombia. In some intellectual circles a debate is happening about whether it is ethical, or not, to commit oneself to a war that cannot be won, although being supported with just reasons. Some, invoke the "ethic of responsibility" as defined by Max Weber, affirming that it isn’t just to support a war that only brings with it destruction and suffering but doesn’t provide any possibility of success. Others, appealing to the "the ethic of conviction" also defined by Max Weber, affirm that hope in success can’t be a fundamental criteria for participation in war, rather, in the intrinsic justice of the cause. In all wars a profound conflict ensues between effectiveness and ethics, between the means and the ends. But here very radical challenges are contemplated in the way we take on hope. It seems that hope is linked in some way to the possibility of success or in a future reward.

Many ask if the absence of hope of success leaves no other exit than to accept the present situation as an ethical imperative, when an attempt to change it would only contribute failures accompanied by suffering. And unfortunately that absence of hope of success is less and less apparent, given the instruments that reenforce it are more and more powerful in reenforcing the status quo.

I have asked myself many times if the scarce incarnations of hope are linked too much and conditioned by the factor of success and reward.

Christian theology’s hope has been constructed during many centuries, the final end of the individual’s historical existence being rounded up by success and reward; filling Heaven with a great richness that will come after death, whose rewards are presented as inversely proportional to the suffering and want of earthly existence.

Just as the former, political ideology’s hope is affirmed in an identical blueprint. The same sequence of suffering / reward is affirmed, although in secularized language, and perhaps that ideological necessity of consolidating the secular heaven image of triumphant revolutions, that success and reward makes real for those that invested in suffering and risks, is what most corrupts the triumphant revolution and converts them in a mechanism for reproducing injustices against which before they rebelled against.

But I have asked myself how we can unlink hope from the factor of success and reward that act as its impelling dynamic. At times, each of these hope crisis oblige us to return to the Gospel from other perspectives and discover in it unexpected dimensions.

Many theologians, during many centuries, have drawn Jesus preaching a "Kingdom of the Heavens" full of paternal reward, to which access is gained after death. Other more modern theologians have drawn him as announcing a "Kingdom of God" as a social and historical utopia, to which access is gained when communally taking on the values that are generally discovered in the spontaneous and genuine values in the hearts of human beings and when historical conventions, produced through selfishness, are torn down. A contemporary current of theologians have opted for the starting point, hardly classical, which is the possible historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth as a first century Jewish peasant, submerged in the physicalness of his historical moment and humanly reacting to it, setting aside his divinity until being able to reconstruct it as a "reading of meaning" (sp: lectura de sentido) elaborated by those who took on his values, and in this way providing a shield before all dehumanizing rule.

In this last current there are readings that challenge and destabilize our classical comprehension of hope. The accounts of the death of Jesus, reinserted in the physicalness of his historic moment, present his death as a categorical failure, about whose darkness is constructed, perhaps in a couple of decades, the profound theology of resurrection. And the narrative climax of this failure is reconsidered in the first verse of Psalm 22 that for many has a scandalous effect to the point of blasphemy: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?". In this theology, there is no response from God that penetrates the historical physicalness of the failure in order to transform or soften the cruel realism of failure. The divine replies will be elaborated on another level, that of faith, and the dynamism that feeds on those replies will never be lost, that which strives to penetrate the dark face of failure. Some of these readings dare to point out that Jesus preferred to die leaving on record a painful existential absence of God, instead of betraying the values for which he lived his life, those values that carried him, without doubt, to the disturbing failure of the cross.

This theology retreats from an image of hope fatally linked to success and reward, and makes it necessary to elaborate an understanding of hope related more with failure. And there is no doubt that such an understanding of hope will also demand the death of many images of God; images tied to the existential logic of success and reward.

I would dare to characterize this reconfiguration of hope as an existential adherence to self-valid values, that is, to utopias or projects that don’t extract their value from guaranties, or their future projections, or from the promise of intrinsic success or reward that they carry with them. Rather, they are valid through themselves and have an intrinsically gratifying power that can live together perfectly well with failure without destroying themselves.

I don’t ignore that this understanding doesn’t fit in our western culture. In our culture the human being, as Erich Fromm points out in The Art of Love, "experiences its vital energy as an investment from which must be obtained the maximum payoff, taking into account its position and the situation of the market (...) Its principle end is the advantageous trading of its skillfulness, of its knowledge, and of itself as "equipment" of personality".2 All of our education, recreation, economic, social and academic structures and institutions are based on the centrality of success, as an efficient means and end of vital energy, from which religion isn’t exempt: Fromm adds: "the belief in God has converted into a psychological resource whose end is to make the individual more apt for the competitive fight" (ibid.) There is no doubt that Christianity has deeply converted, during centuries, to this cultural model and for this we would have to do ourselves too much violence in order to separate hope from this success that has been our nourishment.

Hope that can live together with failure, not just a few might say, would convert into a melancholic hope, stripping it of joy and enthusiasm that have been considered its accompanying melody. There is no other solution than to accept this verdict that nevertheless remains trapped in our cultural model of a joy and enthusiasm also profoundly amalgamated with success.

A countercultural Christianity, as I believe would be more genuine, would have to drink more from the subterranean cultural patterns of the excluded, almost always encrypted below mistaken cultural coverings, that permit them to survive underneath the dominant culture, but that aim to counter-values that barely begin to appear below the strong layers of censorship. I have asked myself, for example, why does violent death result in such ritual and ceremonial heaviness, despite having to coat it with so many negative cultural symbols that make it acceptable among dominant cultural patterns. We have never succeeded in making the celebration of Easter compete with the ceremonial density of Holy Friday, despite that Easter exuberantly ritualizes a sublime success that tries to stump the nightmarish failure of Holy Friday. What ceremony could beat the tragic enthusiasm of the funerals of Palestinian suicide bombers?

There are joys that are dressed as sadness. There is inspiration that is dressed as tragedy. It isn’t easy to subvert mental structures configured by the centrality of success.

In this festive denseness of tragedy something seems to be hiding that can’t in any way express itself in dominant culture, and it is the profound conviction that it is preferable to suffer injustice that to participate in injustice, although in dominant culture the former may have all the negative connotations of failure and the later may be associated with all its successes and joys.

This conviction is expressed by the Chech marxist writer, Milan Machovec, in his beautiful book "Jesus for Atheists". There he affirms that "an atheist that seriously takes on, even until death, life and the effort through the movement that loves, without cynicism and without opportunistic reserve, may well admit that the moment in which Peter discovered that Jesus was still victorious, although only having preceded an inconsolable and stark death on the cross, has been one of the greatest moments of humanity and history".3

But to discover this, it is necessary to be aware that the majority of joys, successes and triumphs in our dominant culture are associated with injustice, and that the construction of justice is ordinarily associated with failure and suffering, despite possessing the maximum of gratifying power of a countercultural Gospel.

I only want to point out with this last reference that the pools where counterculture drinks are deep pools, and it isn’t easy to submerge oneself in those caverns.

Javier Giraldo M., S.J.
Pozzuolo dei Friuli, Zugliano
Udine, Italy
September, 2002
Speech given at the Hope Forum, organized by the Centro de Acogida "Ernesto Balducci", for the 10 year anniversary of the death of Father Ernesto Balducci.

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