Sustaining Hope in an Unjust World, the new book for the weary activist on how to keep going when you want to give up, is available now at ChalicePress.com. We caught up with Timothy Murphy to find out more about what led him to write the book, his advice for the discouraged among us, and how to hold onto hope in these times.
What inspired you to write Sustaining Hope in an Unjust World?
I’ve been thinking about this project off and on for several years. Its originating event, as told in the preface, began over a decade ago with surviving cancer. Since then, I’ve felt that there are no guaranteed victories or successes in life, even if we are faithful. I extended that insight to my experience with social justice activism. In such work, we often don’t fully achieve our objectives; things may at times even get worse. I wanted to provide a corrective to the rhetoric of inevitable progress, where our society slowly but surely becomes better and better. It’s admittedly an energizing chant during a march, but it doesn’t help you after suffering defeats. This book is for those persons who’ve been in the struggle for a while or are just starting to help us re-imagine our work for the long haul through victories and disappointments, so we can sustain hope.
You’ve also referred to this book as a “Theology for Losers.” What do you mean by that?
I really like the idea of theology for losers. Losers is admittedly a provocative word. What it implies is a variation on God’s preferential option for the oppressed, those who are seen as losers in our world. By using it in this way, I’m subverting the negative connotation of losers in our dominant society’s eyes. Being a loser is the worst thing in the world: no one wants to be seen as a loser. In my rendering, it becomes almost another Beatitude: “Blessed are the losers.” I also like it because it inverts the prosperity gospel’s notion of divine blessing and success and its monstrous implications. At the end of the day, however, I realized that this alternative title would be more confusing than helpful. I’m not asking people to see themselves as losers in order to find value in the book; it’s a fun turn of phrase.
We’re living in unjust times indeed. What’s your advice for people who are feeling beaten down by the world, or are trying to make a difference and feel like they’re failing?
We can’t reach the vision of the society we want by ourselves. We can’t personally carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. But if we are part of communities of resistance and resilience, that vision can endure for the long haul. We’re not the first people to feel that things are horrible, and others have endured worse situations. I’m suggesting that we learn from them, take inspiration from their witness, and find strength in one another going forward.
What’s one thing you hope people take away from your book?
Hope is not a happy feeling so much as something we create with others on the journey. The big idea of this book is that keeping alive the dream that things can be better is enough to sustain hope in an unjust world.
If you could write the description for your book, what would you say?
We often struggle to maintain our energy and focus on social justice work. For many of us, if there is no guarantee of a final victory, then we feel our work is in vain. But it is enough to know that God is with us in the struggle, even when we seem to fail. Ultimately, it’s enough if we can build and maintain communities that witness that another world is possible.
What makes this book relevant today and different from other books on the subject?
I think many people are struggling to sustain hope in our world right now. In spite of the best efforts of people, many challenges in our society and on our planet are getting worse. I don’t see many efforts to connect activists’ struggles with process-relational approaches to the Divine. Bringing a practical blending of process theology with liberative movements for a general audience is something I really think can be helpful for our communities today.
If you could give a struggling activist three pieces of advice or one thing they could do today, right now—what would it be?
The most important thing is to find a community of support if you don’t already have one. While this may be a religious congregation, it does not have to necessarily be one. It could be a group of activists that share a similar passion for an issue. What matters is that you don’t try and do this alone. Lone wolves are guaranteed to burn out. Second, you have to pace yourself. The problems we find in our world did not develop overnight. Sometimes they are the legacy of centuries worth of bad decisions. They will take decades, even generations, to undo. This is a challenge when a crisis is starring us in the face, or we try and hop from crisis to crisis. The forces of oppression want us to feel overwhelmed and give up. Instead, we need a non-anxious urgency, or an impatient patience. Lastly, I’d say focus where you are passionate and you see a real need. Without both of those together, you’re going to struggle.
Read an excerpt from Sustaining Hope in an Unjust World here.