The Futilitarian Heresy

We clearly live in tough times, much tougher than most people want to face. Our species and many other species are on the chopping block. The crimes of humanity against our planetary supports may be fatal, and humanity is nowhere near making an effective corporate choice to change direction. The task of awakening the masses to these crises and rooting out conservative leaders is so huge that our existing movements of sanity are overwhelmed, and too often give up on pressing for changes adequate to the challenges we face.

It is easy to lose hope in the face of impending environmental disaster. In this photo montage, burning oil storage tanks loom amid warming temperatures and rampant floods. Credit: Creative Commons/Jean Schweitzer.

In this situation, a heresy with regard to Christian hope has arisen. I will call it “futilitarianism,” having stolen that name from one of its adherents. Futilitarianism is a fairly sober and comforting faith. It allows its believers to be honest about the current crises without having to think through how a positive outcome might be strategized and accomplished. These believers make a strong case for their peace of mind. They are correct about the futility of our liberal halfway measures. They are correct about the fact that we can never know the results of what we do. They are correct that no outward success can replace the importance of dealing with their own inner stress. They are correct in holding that even if the world around us is completely hopeless, we can still hope to live a productive and meaningful life, as the human species slides into the abyss.

So why is this a heresy? How is it untrue to reality? First of all, there is a hypocrisy in the argument that we can never know the results of what we do. If this is true, then we can never know that the world’s situation is hopeless. Perhaps it has simply not yet occurred to us how a positive outcome for the survival and flourishing of seven billion humans is achievable. Also, when these persons are challenged about a possible failure in their imagination, they tend to claim that they are doing something, as much as anyone else. And this is true. But again, there is hypocrisy. They have already claimed that these liberal halfway measures are useless for resolving the overall crisis, yet they want their own halfway measures to count as doing something. I can even agree that they are doing something, if we can view these halfway actions as preparing the way for or buying time for a strategy that can fully succeed.

My deepest critique of futilitarianism is that it rejects an even deeper realism. Futilitarianism is correct about the tragic qualities life, but it fails to embrace a profound hope that can overcome the deepest of tragic conditions. In the stories of Jesus we find an emphasis on the possibility of the seemingly impossible. The blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to new life. These are metaphorical stories; but even so, they speak loudly for a commitment to unlikely possibility. In a discussion with his disciples about how rich people cling to their riches, Jesus says, “It is harder for a rich person to enter authenticity than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” When the disciples ask, “Who then can be healed,” Jesus says, “With humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And following is perhaps the most audacious of all the teachings of Jesus: “If you have even a tiny seed of trust in Reality, you can say to that mountain ‘Move,’ and it will get up and move into the sea.”

Like us, Jesus lived in difficult times. Most of the people in his tiny nation were destitute, sick or vulnerable to illness, illiterate, poorly educated, and despised for their imperfect conformity to the religious teachings of their day. Some of Jesus’ hillside talks may have begun with these words, “Blessed are the destitute, for they are ripe to receive authenticity.” Jesus took his ministry to those who were the rejects, the riffraff,  the refuse of his established society. He ate with them. He respected them. He enabled a new life for them. He offended the 1% who held most of the wealth, power, and presumed righteousness. When he met with leading dignitaries, he typically deconstructed their view of themselves. When the deeply offended came to discredit him in public, he typically embarrassed them before a laughing audience. In one text it says, “And they ask him no more questions.” Most of his parables were trick stories designed to undercut the beliefs of his enemies.

Such illustrations picture Jesus as a complete outsider going into an impossible situation with an unflappable commitment to possibilities for an entirely new day and a new way. He was the quintessential anti-futilitarian.

So how does Jesus’ mode of trust in Reality apply to our difficult times? It appears to me that we need to go beyond giving new respect and hope to the destitute. In addition to that awesome task, we also need to give new respect to all the species of life and dynamics of the natural planet that are being abused to the extent of threatening rich and poor alike. What seems almost impossible to people today is recreating a human species that can live in harmony with the process of planet Earth. We are right to ask, “Is it possible to counter the deeply set patterns of rich and poor alike in continuing our mad quest for boundless social and individual wealth at the expense of this fragile spaceship?” If  “No” is our answer, we have opted for the faith of futilitarianism. If we answer “Yes,” we are close to the mode of faith pioneered by Jesus. And what this means is that we must try to imagine strategies to reverse the direction of the entire human enterprise. Overwhelming as this challenge may seem, we humans are made for such tasks. This faith of Jesus is natural to us, in spite of our estrangement—our cowardice, victim images, futilitarianism, and lack of imagination.

Civilization itself must be dismantled. We currently inhabit a top-down, wealth over poverty, human over planet, hierarchy of rulership that has reached its limits of beneficial growth. Civilization has become the enemy of every viable future for human beings. Our imagination of possibility must go farther than allowing or helping civilization to collapse. We must replace civilization with something better, and we must do so before it finishes collapsing. We must persuade millions of awakening humans to live creatively within the ambiguities of saving what is salvageable from the era of civilization while creating replacements for what is missing and destructive.

Those futilitarians who cheer civilization’s imminent collapse and hope that somehow collapse itself will inspire humans to do better are the most illusory optimists on the planet. Planet-wide chaos is not an inspiring situation. Collapse alone will not kill the illusions that might makes right, that the rich should rule, that hierarchy is the only workable social order, etc. Without deep changes in human soul, social chaos will enable bands of well-armed bandits to plunder the efforts of patient reconstruction, trample them to death, and capitalize on greed. Viciousness, insanity, and extreme ruthlessness will prevail over all the gifts of democracy, cooperativeness, and sane, patient, workable reconstruction of a society that works. Somalia illustrates that chaos reins wherever  basic social order is absent or weak.

Law and order are achievements of civilization that we must preserve. They’ve been given a bad name by kings, dictators, CEOs, billionaires, and their ruthless police forces. We need to replace that way of doing law and order. We have already begun to establish the practice of just and equitable law through democratic practices and maintaining social order through judicial carefulness, communal pressure, and police forces that are well-trained professionals with psychological wisdom. We need to finish that unfinished revolution. There will continue to be violent injustice meted out to the lower classes and minorities as long as wealth power overrides nonviolent consensus-building in which all persons are honored and flagrant destroyers of democratic pathways are humanely jailed. We will need to move with step-by-step realism, not sentimentality, dismantling the past six thousand years of the “civilized” patron system and building in the next thousand years a democratic, ecologically responsible, social order that works.

Gene Wesley Marshall together with Ben Ball, Marsha Buck, Ken Kreutziger, and Alan Richard have published a full examination of the above path in a book entitled The Road from Empire to Eco-Democracy ( All the coauthors are social activists of long standing and experience. They have published this book as a gift to the progressive constituency. They published it with iUniverse in cooperation with Berrett-Koehler’s Open Book Editions program.
tags: Christianity, Environment   
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4 Responses to The Futilitarian Heresy

  1. Josh Magda April 7, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Amen! Progressives too often forget the FIRST part of the Avot’s rejoinder: “the task is not yours to complete”- while most everyone else forgets the second! And to that we say

  2. Jim Stovall April 7, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    For decades, Gene Marshall has been a bastion of clear thinking and compassion from a Christian perspective. He has been a strong voice in the progressive Christian wilderness. I appreciate Tikkun for highlighting this voice for a realistic hope in the future.

  3. Trish Crew April 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    I found this to be an interesting article, but I hope that the complete dismantling of civilization is the cure for what ails us. The acknowledged chaos and barbarity that the lack of law an order bring would dehumanize our race even further, cheapen humanity further than it already is. Dramatic action is needed and I do not know what the answer is. I don’t think any one person knows the answer. I wish the somebodies who do know would share the answers with all of us.

    On a different note, I was unable to find any of the quotes that Gene Marshall attributes to Jesus and his disciples. I did general phrase searches on Google, I checked a Catholic Bible, and a Latin/English/Greek language source unsuccessfully. His quotes are close, but I can’t find where, “Jesus says, ‘“It is harder for a rich person to enter authenticity than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”‘ My sources say it should read, “for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” I’m sure that heaven is a very authentic place, but isn’t it stretching it a bit to put those words in Jesus’ mouth?

    In the next sentence, the disciples are made to say, “Then who can be healed?” The quote should be, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus said, “With God, nothing is impossible.”

    Is it possible for Gene Marshall to tell me where to find his quotes for a bit more research? Thanks.

  4. Sara Davies April 10, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    From my perspective, most of us are just trying to get through the day and make ends meet. I think people care about what’s going on in the world, but if they knew how to solve those problems – or any problems – they’d already be doing it. I’m not convinced that doing something for the sake of being able to say you did it is a productive strategy (better to have a goal in mind. Who can offer a vision of a desirable outcome, and how many will share that vision? To pay lip service to the urgency of the world’s problems changes nothing. No vision = no action. No strategic plan = no solution. No shared common goals = no momentum. No social bond = no reason to care. People have fewer reasons to connect in this society than they have to stay apart.

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