Published in the Catalyst, Vol. 33, No. 1 – Summer 2010
Hope in an Age of Despair
By Albert Nolan
Orbis Books, 2009
Reviewed by Joe Gunn
Every now and again a book comes along that you want to keep close by forever. This collection of talks and writings by Albert Nolan is such a book.
Nolan, a member of the Dominican order, is about 75 years of age. The context for his early writing was the struggle against apartheid. I remember first reading his 1985 essay, “Taking Sides,” in which he wrote that “the commandment to love one’s enemies only makes sense once we recognize we do have enemies…” He argued that the people and institutions that maintain the unjust distribution of wealth and power “and those who prop up their thrones” are everybody’s enemies. Nolan cautioned against the Christian temptation to think the most loving thing we can do is attempt individual conversions, when in fact, “the only effective way of loving our enemies is to engage in action that will destroy the system that makes them our enemies.”
Do Nolan’s current writings still hold the fine edge of his earlier work? With South Africa ending apartheid in the mid- 1990s, the older friar now identifies despair as the defining characteristic of modern times. He now argues for the “personal liberation” necessary to defeat the corruption and hopelessness evident in post-apartheid regimes, where change has been slow. Our hope, he says, cannot lie in any human institution or political ideology. Rather, “the object of human hope is the common good” which becomes “our participation in God’s Work.” Ultimately, what matters is not that we are hopeful but that we act hopefully – helping to make God’s work our own.