The Privilege of Hopelessness

"Despair is a luxury of the bourgeoisie." – overheard in a Palestinian refugee camp

This fall, as I’ve battled to maintain hope in the midst of continuing police brutality toward black bodies, increased hatred for our Muslim brothers and sisters, the public support for wildly oppressive comments from wildly oppressive Presidential candidates, the continuing crisis in Palestine-Israel and more, I’ve begun to think more deeply about why it is so hard for me, a person of privilege, to contend for hope in the fight for justice. It seems that privileged folks should be perched atop the hope ladder, generously doling out hope to the people below who don’t have access to resources that can improve their lives. But I’ve found that in my own life (and in the lives of many of my students), it’s far too easy to slink into hopelessness, and ultimately disengagement, as I turn to face the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to justice.

Surprisingly-but-not-so-surprisingly to me, the more I think about hopelessness and privilege, the more I'm convinced that hopelessness can be a marker of privilege. Privilege is an enemy of hope.

Privilege distances us from the God of Hope

My Rwandan friends who live and worship and make peace in Kigali regularly tell me that we Westerners are the impoverished ones. “We pray for you all," they say. "When you have so many material things, you can’t really know what it means to truly turn to God for all that you need: the power to forgive, food to feed your children, healing from the trauma of genocide, stability in the midst of an unstable society, or hope to keep fighting HIV."

My friends are right. My privilege – my access to power, influence and agency due to my social location -- clogs the pipeline between me and God, reducing my ability to receive the always present, always powerful flow of hope, comfort, and empowerment. When faced with a tragic injustice, I have the option of turning toward other things that will bring me temporary solace: Netflix and Jelly Belly binges effectively numb my pain; and a victory (of the bargain variety) at Nordstrom Rack goes a surprisingly long towards boosting my (false) sense of power.

But even when privileged folks resist the urge to disengage, and instead join the fight for justice, we often engage in strategies that deplete us of hope. The Psalmist described what it looks like when privileged folks fight the good fight: “Some trust in political power [some translations say horses], some in military might [chariots]” This is in contrast to the oppressed people with whom he identifies: “but we trust in the Name of YHWH, our God!” (Psalm 20:7, emphasis mine)

We privileged folks often put our faith in our weapons of privilege: the strong critical thinking skills we acquired at our fancy liberal arts college, the professional networks of attorneys, business leaders, pastors and community leaders that we have on our speed dial, and the relative ease with which we can raise money for a good cause. These efforts might be fueled by good intentions, but they often lead us to focus on the finite weapons of privilege, rather than the infinite well of hope that is only found in God. They lure our eyes and hearts and busy bodies toward the finite resources of our world rather than the infinite power, wisdom, hope and freedom that we can encounter if we simply stop and turn our eyes, hearts and bodies toward our infinite Creator.

Privilege distances us from systemic pain and tragedy

Ironically, it is often the people who are the most distant from systemic injustice who are the most paralyzed by hopelessness. Often times, the privileged person’s distance from systemic injustice leads to what social psychologists call a collapse of compassion. When we encounter a tragedy that involves lots of people (as is often the case in justice issues), we are motivated to regulate our emotions, distancing ourselves from the immense pain that we would experience if we paid close attention to each individual story within the tragedy.[1]

As Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” When we witness injustice in an up-close-and-personal way – like if we’re personally oppressed or we're in close relationship with a person who is oppressed – we tend to open the floodgates of compassion toward the one or few individuals with whom we have a personal connection. But when we witness an injustice from a distance, and this injustice affects masses of people (e.g., police brutality towards black people, the oppression of the Palestinians, etc.) we are easily overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. Rather than fortifying our compassion in response to such need, our compassion collapses and we disengage into hopelessness.

After conducting research on this collapse of compassion, social psychologists Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne concluded that “large-scale tragedies in which the most victims are in need of help will ironically be the least likely to motivate helping.”

But when we are intimately connected to systemic pain and tragedy, either personally or through close relationships, we are often able to respond with compassion and hope. When visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Boston, I read the following inscription by a survivor named Geerda Weissman Klein:

“Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present it to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”

Imagine a world in which the bearer of hope is a little girl who is so systematically oppressed that she has no logical reason to believe that she will even live to the end of the day. Nevertheless, she defiantly cares for her one treasure because she is hopeful that she will be able to give it to her friend at the end of the day.

Hope by George Frederic Watts
Hope by George Frederic Watts

This painting, Hope by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) was heavily criticized by GK Chesterton who said that it should have been titled Despair. Perhaps Chesterton’s privileged mindset prevented him from seeing that an oppressed woman holding a broken harp was actually the ideal bearer of hope. In contrast to Chesterton, black liberation preacher and scholar Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright described Watt’s painting in a 1990 sermon on the subject of Hope – "with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God ... To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope ... that's the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt's painting."

Perhaps it is those who are intimately connected to systemic injustice, rather than the privileged, who should sit atop the hope ladder. And perhaps it is time for us privileged folks to stand in solidarity below them, follow their lead, and join them in the pursuit of hope. Advent is the perfect time to do so.

[1] Cameron & Paine, JPSP, 2011