Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Radical hope in difficult times

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Plenty Coups

ripped US flag

Difficult times

Whether we like it or not, we are the new minority, knocked off our blocks, trounced, but not — at least not yet — silenced. Nicolas Kristof ( New York Times , December 11 2016) described universities echoing with "primal howls of discontent." and classes cancelled so that students could weep about their fears of  what the future might hold.

But our students and faculty are hardly isolated. Our UC Berkeley students are as diverse as they are tough. My fall upper division undergraduate class included former U.S. and Israeli veterans, visiting international students, undocumented migrants, transfer students from community colleges in the valley, and across the Berkeley Hills and the Santa Clara mountains, from Bakersfield to Marin County. Our students are Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist  and atheist. We have town hall meetings where students cry, but not for themselves. They cry for others who are vulnerable, some of them hungry, some of them hiding out for fear of deportation. Some have shed tears of gratitude  and amazement at having been accepted and part of the student body and legacy of UC Berkeley.

Are their reasons to worry about our precious legacy of freedom of speech? Yes, our students worry about the consequences of getting involved in the "untouchable" Israel-Palestine debates or in the debates following the presidential election. Are their reasons to worry? I received an e-mail from a colleague at the Institute for Advanced Study: “Congratulations for being number one on Professorwatch( http://www.professorwatchlist.org/index.php ).”

The mission of Professor Watchlist is to name and  expose college professors who are perceived as discriminating against conservative students and who  advance leftist propaganda in the classroom. See < http://www.professorwatchlist.org/index.php/about-us >.  But the watchlist cited not my lectures but my heartbroken UC Berkeley blog honoring those killed in the Orlando massacre.

< http://www.professorwatchlist.org/index.php/watch-list-directory/search-by-name/240-nancy-scheper-hughes >.

They identified my references to the need for reasonable gun control as an attack on the Second Amendment. The website invites anyone to send in a tip about a questionable professor. The idea that anyone can be a secret agent on campus and post it on the internet is something to worry about.


Thomas Friedman has written about feeling suddenly homeless in America. “[T]here is nothing that can make people more angry or disoriented than feeling they have lost their home,” he wrote. Durkheim referred to this disorientation as anomie, a state of normlessness that questions the meaning of our identity and values as Americans. W.B. Yeats describes it in his poem "Second Coming":

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But we are not the only people to have lost a homeland. Native Americans faced centuries of terrifying displacement and dispossession of their homeland. How did the Cherokee, the Crow Indians, the Seneca and the Mohawk, and California mission Indians manage to survive and even to flourish after the Trail of Tears, the Gold Rush, the bounty hunting and stealing of children forced into U.S. Indian boarding schools to erase their language and culture?

Radical hope

They did so through their holy men and women; through their visionaries and prophets, they found a path that the writer Jonathan Lear called “radical hope.” In the late 19th century the Crow Indians were forced by U.S. evictions to make way for the railroads, to surrender their hunting and warrior way of life and to live on a reservation. Unlike some of our hunting and gathering bands in northern Native California like the Yahi (who faced a state-sponsored genocide), the Crow were facing ethnocide. The people survived, but their culture and with it their personhood, their values, their honor, their raison d’etre were destroyed. The Crow chief, Plenty Coups, described the transition from freedom to life on the reservation when he told UC Berkeley anthropologist Robert Lowie: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

Plenty Coups

Crow chief Plenty Coups

Imagine what those words could possibly mean. It is over, it is done, and we are done for. Plenty Coups saw the writing on the wall — proud and violent resistance would lead to certain death. Assimilation would lead to cultural annihilation, a loss of Crow language, religion and ethics. The only possibility was to reimagine Crow life after the buffalo were gone, a cognitive and cultural mazeway reformulation, a revitalization movement that might allow the Crow to flourish in a new way.

Through vision quests, parables, proverbs, ancient creation stories Plenty Coups articulated the way forward, without a map, guided by hope alone. The hope was “radical,” because it was impossible to know what the shape this new life would take. It was a leap of faith.

To go forward under extreme duress and uncertainty took a steadfast courage. The Crow survived and eventually they thrived.

We might also look to our visionaries, our prophets and not just medicate or incarcerate them…

Leonard Cohen, one of our nation’s prophets who died prophetically on Monday night just before the election catastrophe, wrote in his last album, You Want it Darker:

Leonard Cohen

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame

You want it darker

We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the help that never came

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord (here I am)

Are we ready?

If so, now is the time to put our bodies on the line, literally… at Standing Rock and, if the threat to build a wall is not delusional, we have to get there, to the borderlands in droves, by bus, by carloads, by trains, by pilgrimages on foot if necessary to disrupt the unimaginable bulldozers and trucks…

Those who possibly can — especially the elders among us — might consider putting aside everything else for the next four years. When our late UC Berkeley tribal elder, Elizabeth Colson, retired from the anthropology department and I asked her what she would do now, she replied without a second of thought: “I think I might get myself arrested.”

Operating rules during difficult times

Practical solidarity

Brazilian liberation theology speaks of accompaniment —of accompanhando, that is, being with people during times of struggle. To accompany someone means to go somewhere with someone, as a follower and a companheiro, companheira, a comrade, a companion in the political sense. Paul Farmer tells us that accompaniment has “an element of mystery, of openness, of readiness for whatever might happen: I’ll go with you and support you on your journey and share your fate with you for a while,” maybe quite a while, until the task is completed.

Keeping the faith

Jon Sobrino, a Basque Jesuit priest who has spent his life in Latin America teaching liberation theology, was silenced by the Vatican, and recently reconciled under Pope Francis, poses three challenges to the Americas — North and South:

  • To fix the unbearable and untenable situation of women, especially poor women;
  • To recognize, value and acknowledge the great cultural legacy of our Native Americans, our first peoples;
  • To love Mother Earth.
  • Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, is a theology of climate change as a sweeping indictment of the global capitalist system that is destroying our “common home,” wrecking our planet.

    The author with Pope Francis

    Wrestling with one’s conscience

    When the young Jorge Bergoglio was appointed Argentina’s leader of the Jesuits during the fascist Dirty War (1976–1983), he was passively complicit with the generals. He helped some priests and community leaders escape, and he let others go. After the war, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio began a gradual process of spiritual and political conversion. Some would call it a dark night of the soul, a wrestling with his conscience.

    When Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis, the once dour, pious and authoritarian Jesuit became a generous, open, humble and joyful man. When he first appeared on the balcony in Saint Peter’s Square, Francis was as frightened and bewildered as Donald Trump when he sat next to President Obama. Both resembled a deer in the headlights. But unlike the new president, the new pope asked the crowds cheering him to be still and to bless him… and to pray for him.

    It is far too early for accommodation and reconciliation, but it is never too early for intimate and personal engagements, face to face, in the Levinasian tradition… May the soul searching continue until “all these things be done” (Matthew 24:34).