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The Cross and the Boundary of Human Finality: An Ethics of Hope for Our Times

Writing on God as the principle of hope, the recently deceased Jurgen Moltmann states: “The God of hope is the God of freedom. In him no boundaries are set, nor does he set any. He breaks through defenses of anxiety and the walls of care. He breaks through boundaries which we ourselves have set in order to distinguish ourselves from other men and to affirm ourselves. He breaks into the boundary of our solitude in which we have hidden so that no one will come near us. He steps over the boundary of race, in which man loathes man, and the boundaries of class and strata in society. He despises difference between black and white, poor and rich, educated and uneducated; for he seeks men-poor, suffering, hating and ugly, cramped and stunted men-and accepts them as they are. That knowledge makes us free and is a source of support. We can hope in him-the God of freedom.”[1]

I have been thinking of hope since Easter this year for many reasons: First, the lines quoted above from Moltmann have stayed with me since 20 years ago when I read them. I write this piece as a tribute to him for helping me to embrace hope as an invitation to freedom exercised by God and offered to human being. This boundary-shattering God wishes to free humans from enslavement to the idols of the self, nations, cultures, races, religions, ideologies, and greed and many other things that enchain humanity in a cycle of decay. When humans are freed from these deceptive and destructive attachments and barriers to the realization of the fruits of the eschatological reign of God in history, they experience the exhilarating irruption of a new creation and embrace the courage to live in hope with and in the presence of one another and the whole of creation on this earth our common home.

Second, is the publication of the Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee year, 2025, Spes non Confundit, in which Pope Francis prayed that the Jubilee may be “a moment of genuine, personal encounter with the Lord Jesus, the ‘door’ (cf. Jn 10: 7,9) of our salvation, whom the Church is charged to proclaim always, everywhere and to all as ‘our hope’ (1 Tim 1: 1).

The third inspiration is the reality of our world of pain today. We are witnessing greater human suffering and violence in the world since the pandemic. According to Judith Butler, because of the pandemic, most people in the world have “suffered acute losses-all of us have been living in relation to the ambient of illness and death.” Sadly, many are still learning how to “mark or mourn those who have died.” Most are still dealing with how to live with the pain that have registered in and are buried deep in their consciousness from the pandemic. Many others are reaching a pain saturation point either because they are living in terrible circumstances of war and destruction or because of poverty, sickness in a world that has unfortunately embraced a dysfunctional ethics. Many of us wonder if humanity is preparing the grounds for a dystopian ethics without a virtuous cycle capable of bringing about human and cosmic flourishing.

The world seems to have learned little lessons from the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic seems to have worsened prevailing social, political, and economic conditions. I wonder then why it is becoming nearly impossible to find a depolarizing space in our Churches and among ethicists on how people should behave and live together with and in the presence of others? The nature of world politics even within religious institutions like the Catholic Church, and the contestations for power and the ‘economies that kill’ (as Pope Francis describes the global economy) have created a fractured world. This disorienting politics of winner takes all continues to inflict painful existential wounds on so many people, especially minoritized people and those who inhabit the existential peripheries of life. The collective effort to build a global ethics by individuals and groups and to create conditions for human and cosmic flourishing and for promoting a more inclusive world while preserving and protecting the common good is frustratingly becoming elusive. Most people can no longer find solace by leaning on many of the institutions around which our common life is built like religious institutions, the state or international organizations. These institutions appear to be imposing greater moral injuries and suffering on people because of time-encrusted polarizations and false ideologies that drive the contestations in today’s world on what is good, true, beautiful, and loving, and how to attain them. Our pain-filled world is in dire need of an ethics of hope. I may not be able to fully develop the ethics of hope in this essay, but I wish to begin the conversation here and invite others to join this quest. I propose that Catholic theological ethicists must consider it a primary vocation in our times to engage in the concretization of a virtue ethics. It is possible to advance a virtue ethics that is grounded on the Gospel and the priorities and practices of the Lord Jesus. Daring to imagine a different way of thinking and acting in the world today, in my thinking, is a good way to re-found the theological virtue of hope on some solid principles and praxis from the daily experiences of God’s people, rather than mouthing moral platitudes, empty talks, echo chambers, and pleasant writings on hope that are not mediated through the narratives of God’s people who are hanging on the Cross.

What is Hope?

 Hope is a firm conviction that God is in control of all things; an assurance of God’s will and power to realize in history God’s creative and saving will in the Son of God and the divine promise of blessing and goodness for creation. Hope is born from faith in God (Heb 11: 1) who makes all things possible. Hope is also the gift received in faith that moves the human heart to hold on to God’s promises of better outcomes in history through human agents who courageously align themselves to God’s will. Hope emerges from concrete virtuous choices by human beings out of love for God, one another, and the world that has been given to us as our home by God. Hope, Love, and faith are intimately connected; they are not successive moments, for example, you have faith first, then love, then hope—they are rather perichoretic, like the relationship in the Trinity: faith, hope, and love abide, and they are immersed in each other.

Hope moves the human person to embrace human finality not as a threat to diminishment, extinction, or annihilation, but rather as liberty. The one who has hope is freed from being perpetually entangled in the contingent movement of history or things beyond us. This is because if I have hope, I am no longer caught up in this successive trap of anxiety, or a cycle of despair, and of desolation when for, instance, I think of my own end, or the end of all things or even the threats from the evil that surround me, or even my lack of control over the vicissitudes of history. Why is this freedom possible? Because in the logic of the grace, the person who has hope falls not into an abyss but falls into the hand of God and is upheld by the experience of God’s love flooding the heart (Rom 5:5).

Through hope, I am anchored in the life of God through God’s Son, not in a magical way, but through the union of my will and that of God’s Son. Through this union there emerges in me spontaneously positive values and life-affirming virtues like courage, character, and endurance especially at the deepest level of my human vulnerability. Hope is thus my ceaseless movement, born of faith, to grab the hand of God, and be open to grace by allowing my human vulnerability and the precarity of human contingency to meet the infinity of divine transcendence. This is the dynamics that is at work in the text of St Paul: “Hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). There is thus a horizontal and vertical dynamics at work in the human through the love and grace of God that the Christian believes in and receives in faith. It is at this horizontal and vertical juncture where the Cross of the Son of God stands that I realise my own limits, my own finitude, and precarity which are often all-encompassing and overpowering as freedom. This is because at this juncture I find myself always taking hold of God whose grace radically turns me towards this God of love and freedom with trust rather than be afraid of my human finality and temporalty and what is to come.

Everyday I see my own weaknesses, my lack of ability to meet the ends I purpose. I believe that it is at that moment when you realize this existential boundary of what sets the limit for you that you either fly from your human limitations or even fight it in a Sisyphean battle that will never end. However, rather than a perpetual fight to finish that certainly does not offer any relief other than more misery and pain, the person of faith moves from fighting the inevitability of our human finality by coming to the foot of the Cross. At the foot of the Cross, one is moved to see that whatever I consider a threat; whatever I fear that could harm me; whatever worries me about the future is shattered by the boundlessness of the Cross that places a limit beyond which my human finality and the evils and pains associated with them cannot go. But it is only the human finality that is defeated here, for the limit of the Cross is not a destruction of life or the beauty of the earth, it is an opening to life by the radical transformation of our human finality and the defeat of human pride and selfishness which limit creation from realizing the fullness of the gift God has given to us.

The Cross actually opens a new horizon beyond my limit because the Lord God, as that popular song goes will “shepherd me beyond my fears and from death will set me free.” The Cross is thus what hope looks like—a triumph over human finality that is not simply projected as an Elysium or an illusory eruption that will emerge, but a gift that I receive everyday as I embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as the Truth, the Life, and the Way. The Cross re-enacts the human cycle of pain and solace; despair and hope; fear and freedom. By embracing the Cross, I re-enact with all my human weaknesses the priorities and practices of the Lord through a self-giving and non-transactional love for God and my neighbors especially those who cannot pay me back or praise me or honor me. Indeed, Calvary is re-enacted everyday when I say to the darkness “I beg to differ.” This is not simply a speech, but a way of being that is saturated with divine grace capable of opening the human eyes to see glimmers of hope, and to co-create with God new sites of hope every day when I live beyond myself and thus see more of God and less of me in my daily effort to do good—the more I open myself to this boundless and unconditional and unconditioned love and live beyond my limit in this love, the freer I become and the more I co-operate with God and others in bringing hope about in history.

Hope is also to be understood through the memory of the Church. The Church is born out of this memory: the contemplation in the Eucharist of how the self-giving love of one man’s life becomes the treasure of all humans and the entire creation. The Church celebrates in faith the memory of what God has done to teach, save, heal, and liberate us from falling into the abyss of hopelessness and death. The Church is also the capacious space where the stories of the great deeds of God are celebrated in the stories, narratives, if you like, of the art of the saints. This is what I think of when I read that passage of Hebrew that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (12:1). When one truly enters the mystery of ‘being surrounded’ by God, the saints, the angels, family, friends, and the earth our home which is perpetually like God’s burning bush which emits every moment the effulgence of God’s love, grace, and power, then we cannot be afraid of what is to come. This memory of ‘being surrounded’ should elicit an inner strength and character in the storms of life because one sees oneself as belonging to a network of relationships and equipped with a relational resilience that is both horizontal (with all things in the created order), and vertically (with all the spiritual gifts and beings in the heavenly places) to fight evil in the world. This history of being surrounded take us back to our roots—we are heirs of this beautiful heritage that goes back to the Trinity.

We are, therefore, not abandoned to battle the challenges of life alone. I am a part of this stream of God’s love, and of grace, overflowing with power that is beyond me. Our daily effort to bring this present world with all its ambiguities to conform to God’s will is thus potentiated by this realisation, that the work that we do and the life that we lead are really filled with the mystery of divine presence and love. So, I can say that my life is not my own. This gives one the freedom to live fully without fear and it also offers the willing soul the rationale to embrace the path of humility and opening one up to being used by God to realize in history God’s will for creation. This is the openness we see in Mary, who was not afraid in believing that what was promised her by God will be fulfilled (Luke 1: 45). She was filled with grace, because she was empty of herself, of pride, self-assurance, attachments to idols, and any narcissistic tendencies. She made herself totally available to love and to be. She hoped against hope. She carried hope in her because she had freely conceived God in her womb and freely contemplated hope in her heart or as the scripture says, “carried all these things” (the promises of God) in her heart (Luke 2: 19). Mary also exercised a similar dynamic faith and active and courageous disposition of trust and hope when she pondered the contradictions of life and suffering at the foot of the Cross. She stood strong and tall in hope at the foot of the Cross and was not bowed down in grief and despair, because she believed that the boundary of her human pain and loss at the death of her Son will be shattered by the boundless power of God on the Day of Resurrection when God manifested to the whole world the triumph of love and the way of the Lord.

Where can we find Hope? Behaving

The question then is how can the Church today develop and embrace the ethics of hope that meets the needs of this present moment? Theological ethicists are expected to provide the Church today with the tools to do this. However, they cannot themselves contribute to this important task if they are caught in the intellectual logjam that often imprisons some of us to a rigid attachment to our perspectives in the schismatic binary thinking that limits people’s ability to listen to new insights and points of view that challenge their own time-worn certainties. This enslavement to one viewpoint is not simply the intellectual staple on the dinner table of conservatives, it is also found aplenty on the intellectual menu of the progressives—all of us have sinned and fallen short of the truth of God (Rom 3: 23). As theologians and pastors, we all need ongoing conversion as an intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage that can flood our souls and our minds with new truths, new springs of love, and new moments of hope. It is only hopeful and humble theological ethicists who can offer the Church and the world the ethics of hope. Angry, divisive, self-assured, and dour theological ethicists prolong the sadness and anger in the Church and in the world and provide sometimes without intending it the chains to hold all of us in this fearful and painful cycle of intellectual, doctrinal, and ethical warfare that has seized the Church even at this kairotic synodal moment.

The Church exists as a space of belonging where all God’s people can find a home. The church serves as the site of learning where people unlearn false realities and embrace the truth of God which can help them for example to discover the beauty of diversity through the trinitarian model. In this kind of space, people are inspired to embrace those ethical choices which are inspired by the Gospel, and which help to bring about in history the fruits of the reign of God. The hope which the Church gives to the world, is a reversal of history through practices and daily choices that provide an alternative version of history from the current cycle of decay through a re-enacting of what happened at Calvary—the selfless and non-transactional love of God. The Cross is a sign of the refusal to act in a selfish or prideful way; it is a sign of refusing to objectify or abuse others; it is the boundary beyond which human evil and injustice cannot go. The Cross thus offers a logic for an ethics of hope that is grounded on the use of power to do good in an unrestricted, unconditional, and inclusive manner—when I am lifted upon the Cross, I will draw ALL people to myself (John 12: 32).

The Church is a space for reimagining a better possible world through a cruciform faith, love, and hope. The Church is an inclusive space where people are moved to embrace life-giving ethics of hope which make concrete in people’s lives and cultures, the saving and transforming grace of the Risen Lord. This saving hope is particularly needed in those places where people feel deep wounds and suffer injustice and the painful consequences of oppression and suffering. Hope is a movement which shows people in their lived realities that their history is not contaminated, but that there is a reversal which is real in an experience of redemptive history today. Christian hope is not an idea or an ideal, it is a real practice of reversal of history, a concrete emergence of a new agency and a new experience of triumph and release from the chokehold of history for those who have been battered for instance, by poverty, oppression, war, discrimination, racism, injustice, manipulation, and other social evils driven by the greed, selfishness, and cultural and nationalistic hubris, built on the smelly foundation of neo-liberal capitalism.

For this hope to come upon the earth, there is the need for the Church and God’s people to move away from what I call pleasant poetics of hope to a prophetic ethics of hope. The pleasant poetics of hope is the all too familiar reaction to social problems where church leaders and ministers use moral suasion and spiritual platitudes to drown the historical injustice and deep human pain borne by those who suffer. It is also found in the pleasant and feel-good prayers and wishes to the poor and the victims of history that God will take care of them, and things will be well someday without telling them the ‘how.’ These preachments are appealing to the ears but end up being only empty rhetoric which might temporarily raise people’s hope for change, but which ultimately fail to show how change could come about. It is like the preaching which many of our African ancestors heard in the slave plantations which spoke to them of a God who is pacified by their suffering and who accepts their death as an offering like that of God’s crucified Son while keeping them enslaved!!!

The pleasant poetics of hope also blames the victims of history as violent, terrorists, lazy, and criminals—inviting them to change their lives so that their condition would change. However, those who mouth these bromides fail to speak of conversion of hearts for those who benefit from white privilege and long exploitation of people in the Global South by Western nations, churches, and peoples. It does not show how the church could begin a process of reform of our institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege which are often coupled to political ideologies and systems of racism and oppression and neo-liberal capitalism. Pleasant poetics of hope is a false hope because it fails to address how to change those factors which have conspired to bring the sad circumstances under which many people in the world have suffered for centuries. The pleasant poetics of hope is an empty religious noise which often ends up emptying the Gospel of its force, saving truth, and power.

The prophetic ethics of hope, on the other hand, is the commitment by the Church and all her members (theologians, pastors, leaders, and all) to become the architects of a new future by embracing the practices and priorities of the Lord Jesus especially at the foot of the Cross. It is born from an ecclesial practice which by its very character and manifestations is a reimagination of a new future, and a new possible world and a new possible Church. It challenges all in the Church to a change in attitude and behaviors through the conversion of hearts. This change could begin simply by asking whether what we see in our world today represents to any discerning mind God’s will for creation. One can also focus more attention on how one is benefiting from the existing social and ecclesial hierarchies, and the need for all of us to exit the path of privilege and power built on and sustained by injustice, falsehood, oppression, and manipulation of the truth and the poor even in our religious institutions. The prophetic praxis of hope leads to a change in mindsets, change in our ecclesial priorities and practices, and the change in Church’s teaching, institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege so that the Church can become truly a poor and merciful church. It leads to a firm resolve and commitment to turn our anger and outrage at the senseless and sinful suffering in the world today into daily acts of reversal of history by working for the realization of a just and peaceful world for all of God’s people, and especially the marginalized.

An essential part of this kind of hope is that it is prophetic and praxis-oriented. It is prophetic because it requires listening to the cries of the victims of history, correctly reading the signs of our present times. By embodying the pathos of the poor and the broken throughout its systems and structures, the Church becomes a credible site for reimagining a different world, while amplifying the voices of the poor in a noisy world. As prophets of hope, theological ethicists of the Church and all Christians must become architects of a different future. This means that our Church’s central mission should be informed by the cries and anguish of the long-suffering victims of history and that our liturgies celebrate the diversity in our traditions and provide a space to lament for those who have been held down by the injustice partly started and legitimatized through some of the teachings and practice of churches, and the dysfunctional ethics of theologians.

Hope is a praxis because it is concerned with constructing a new pathway of reversal through a conscious counter-witnessing which can change the status quo.  It is liberating and humbling to know that we can develop the ethics of hope for our times. This ethics can strengthen the agency of the oppressed to become architects in their own history. Theological ethicist must commit themselves to a new way of life, a new ethics and a new moral and spiritual journey which will transform the inner life of the church, the hearts of all men and women and bend the arc of history in the direction of love, justice, and peace for all. This is the pilgrimage that could lead us into celebrating the Jubilee in 2025 by pointing to signs of hope in the Church and in the world by paying attention to the narratives of God’s people and how we can hew the ethics of hope from the rough grounds and the stoney pathways where God’s seeds of promise are dying in the poor, betrayed, and forsaken.

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, (trans) H. Wayne Pipkin, (Waco, Texas: Word books Publisher, 1973), 27.