By nature, I am an optimist. For example, I sometimes characterize the role of the clergy as that of a professional hoper.
However, being an optimist and a professional hoper does not mean never recognizing that the issue is settled and the cause is lost. Recent news reports highlight two lost causes with respect to which some people continue to have an ill-founded hope.
In the first instance, continuing to hope may feel easier and more moral than recognizing the cause is lost and being overwhelmed with grief. This first instance is the tragic case of a baby, Charles Gard, who for eleven months has subsisted on life support in a London hospital. He was born without the ability to breathe or eat. Without life support systems, he would quickly die.
Charlie’s parents, the Pope, and President Trump don’t want to end his life and suffering by terminating the life support because they want to try an untested new treatment that may help Charlie. Roman Catholic doctrine, the hospital, and the British courts all support withdrawing life support because there is no hope for a cure.
Grief is hard. Yet tragedy and death are unavoidable aspects of life. Frittering away scarce resources on cases in which there is no hope, thereby protracting suffering for all involved, is neither moral nor Christian. Surely there are babies who suffer from the same condition as Charlie Gard but in less severe ways and in closer proximity to the doctors who have devised the experimental treatment who would be better suited for testing the treatment.
In the second instance, North Korea has both nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the US (Alaska and perhaps Hawaii) on which to launch those weapons.
While the world would indisputably be safer if North Korea had neither nuclear weapons or ICBMs, there is no way to force North Korea to give up one or both. Military experts agree that North Korea has too many possible targets for a first strike by the US to succeed in destroying all North Korean nukes. A first strike that did not eliminate all nuclear weapons would almost certainly result in North Korea launching its own nuclear strike against the US, South Korea, or Japan. The death toll from these strikes and the inevitable war that would follow is too high to contemplate.
Similarly, scholars – experts in politics, foreign affairs, economics, and North Korea – agree that no set of sanctions will coerce North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons or ICBMs. North Korea rightly perceives its nuclear weapons and ICBMs as insurance against invasion and forced regime change.
As a child, I lived with the constant threat of a Soviet nuclear strike against the US. Those old enough to remember will recall Soviet threats and bluster as well as civil defense drills, e.g., school children seeking safety under their desks. Living now in Hawaii, perhaps within range of a North Korean nuclear attack, I feel no less safe than I did as a child.
The policy of mutual assured destruction has prevented a nuclear war not only between the US and the Soviet Union, its successor state of Russia, and China, but also between Pakistan and India. I do not believe that North Korea has a death wish. However great an injury they might be able to inflict on the US, the result would be the near, if not complete, annihilation of North Korea. A policy of mutual assured destruction will continue to prevent nuclear wars.
Instead of pursuing hopeless policies, the US and other nations would do well to engage North Korea in constructive ways, such as those advocated by South Korea’s current president. No matter how slim the odds of that engagement succeeding in improving global stability and moving North Korea toward better governance, those odds are infinitely greater than pursuing a policy that has no hope of success.
As with individuals, God never desires that we pursue the hopeless. Instead, genuine hope entails seeking the possible that advances us and our neighbors along the trajectory that leads to more abundant life, greater peace and justice for all creation.