Review: Ethics of Hope (Fortress, 2012).

[1] From start to finish one can read Jurgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope as a call to action. His ethical expression feels very Lutheran. Like the explanation of the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism, Moltmann focuses on what we are to do instead of what we should not do. Ethics in this sense is “the principles of conduct governing a person or group.”[1] The focus is not on trying to live a guilt-free life of avoiding being wrong but to consciously choose a life that maximizes the world’s potential. “I am talking about an acting impelled by hope, one not in the mode of ‘ought’ but in the mode of ‘can’” (3). An action sustained by hope is a free action, not one done under compulsion. It is a principle of conduct governed by the Gospel, and not prescribed by Law.

Ethics of Hope[2] In the preface Moltmann claims that an ethics of hope has been on his agenda since the publication of Theology of Hope in 1964. The passion with which he writes Ethics of Hope is understood, then, as this pent-up desire of almost 60 years. Portions of the book spring off the page with an enthusiasm of conviction that urges – nearly begs – the reader not to simply consider these conclusions but to act upon them.

[3] The book is broken into five sections: “Eschatology and Ethics;” “An Ethics of Life;” Earth Ethics;” Ethics of a Just Peace;” and “Joy in God: Aesthetic Counterpoints.” Each chapter could be read as an independent essay on the ethics of a particular matter. Reminiscent of the catechism is his style of asking questions to begin each section and then proceeding to answer them.

[4] “Every Christian ethics is determined by a presupposed eschatology”(9). So opens chapter one and the discussion of apocalyptic eschatology, followed by Christological eschatology, separatist eschatology, and finally transformative, eschatology. While it is not surprising to see Luther’s theory of two kingdoms used, nor references to Calvin and Barth, it was astonishing to see referenced the Anabaptist movement of 1525. Moltmann is quite generous in his treatment of this movement in Germany, and he references it several times in later chapters.

[5] It should be noted that Moltmann’s presentations of Luther, Calvin, and Barth are insightful and concise. The use of the Anabaptist movement to illustrate the separatists’ eschatology shows the fair and even understanding that underscores an ecumenical appeal. Moltmann does not set up “straw men” that can easily be torn apart to prove a point. Instead he presents positive contributions with a common problem. Each of these theologies fails to offer real hope for change. Christians were to endure, to submit, to defer, or to escape. None of these embraced the notion that we participate in shaping the eschatological future.

[6] In describing his own transformative eschatology, Moltmann quotes Walter Rauschenbusch: “Ascetic Christianity called the world evil and left it. Humanity is waiting for a revolutionary Christianity which will call the world evil and change it.”[2] It is our awakening to the problems of the world. We cannot ignore them in order to pass them on to others, nor can we accept them as though problems are inevitable. We must make choices that affirm life.

[7] It is not hard to see death around us. Terrorists, the build up of nuclear weapons, over-population, an infectious materialism, and ecological disasters fill our news and our minds. Some people do not know or understand what they are doing, some know but choose to act in ways counter to what they want to do, and still others retreat into escapism. “Whether people throw themselves into the pleasures of the present or flee into the next world because they either cannot or will not withstand the threats, they destroy the love for life and put themselves at the service of terror and the annihilation of the world” (53).

[8] It is in “An Ethics of Life” that Moltmann first introduces the anthropocentric problem in our theology. Repeatedly Moltmann returns to the covenant God makes following the great flood. In Genesis 9:9-10 the promise is to human beings and “every living creature.” Part of our change in thinking is to stop thinking of life as just for humans.

[9] This becomes a guiding principle in medical ethics. There is no debate about an embryo being a human life. Whether in abortion or stem cell research, it is clearly life that is taken.

[10] And while the guiding words of “when in doubt, choose life” are repeated, Moltmann wants to also consider the words “No one is obliged to do more than he can.” It is a future-oriented ethic. Life is not limited to a biological function. We must consider the future effects of whether a life will be nurtured and loved. When we do take life it is not guilt we feel but the remembrance of a tragic history.

[11] Through this lens issues of abortion, sterilization, contraception, genetic engineering, self-mutilation, euthanasia, aging, and the end of life are examined. All matters are inspected not only as private affairs, nor as issues solely of humanity, but seen as matters of creation and ultimately of the divine plan of bringing forth righteousness at the end time.

[12] It is this future orientation that separates this ethic from most. Because of the future promise, we can embrace what is for the sake of what will be. We can embrace difficult choices and even death. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

[13] Moltmann begins the next section, “Earth Ethics,” with an explanation of the Gaia theory. It is viewing the totality of the planet as a single organism with the different parts interacting as vital organs. There is a sense of nature with a purpose, the creation being drawn or guided by the creator to a future destination. We are headed to a time or place when the transcendent God will reside upon this earth.

[14] Often the question is in defining how humanity is made in the image of God, the question from Genesis 2. If we see the world as being opposed to God, earth as opposed to heaven, then humanity is to dominate the world to limit its adversarial power. However, if we understand that it is not just humans that are made in the image of God, then we find all of creation to have a touch of the divine presence. While this is not salvation, it does make us wise.

[15] That wisdom should lead us to a new lifestyle. This means being more in tune with the physical reality of creation where we are more aware of our bodies, our environment and the totality of the world. If we are do make a difference we cannot have individual statements of nations concerning human rights or ecology but it must be a cooperative of the world. The entire earth must work together to transcend the current threats.

[16] The next section, “Ethics of a Just Peace” was originally to be called ‘Political Ethics.’ It is directed at concrete measures addressing the current threats to our world. It is about biblical peace and righteousness.

[17] In this section comes perhaps the most intriguing proposition. Moltmann suggests a new way of seeking justice and peace through forgiveness. He is grounded enough to see the difficulty of victims forgiving perpetrators of injustice. The guilty profit and the righteous suffer. In this section, the author addresses issues of human rights, and political structures that build on fear and mistrust. He further highlights the need for greater cooperation amongst people and nations.

[18] Even the church offers sacramental ministry of penance and forgiveness for the guilty but offers nothing for those who carry the burden of the injustice. A sacrament of justification for those who have been robbed of power and dignity is needed. Conversion is necessary for both the persecutor and the oppressed. Restoration of balance and harmony needs to be effected and the church while good at gathering up those hurt and listening to the confessions of the guilty must speak out prophetically to effect change in political systems on behalf of the poor, oppressed and victimized.

[19] Serving as an epilogue, the final section is only nine pages long. It addresses the blessing of time in the Sabbath. While not much ink is devoted to this, it is a crucial section nonetheless. The Christian Sabbath, the day of resurrection is the “eighth day” of the week. It is “remembering and thanking on the one hand, and hoping and beginning on the other” (236).

[20] Finally Moltmann concludes with an encouragement for inner peace, the real peace of God. It is the Christian who hopes in the future that has the senses awaken to find God’s world.

[21] In reading the book there is another undercurrent that is present and is never directly discussed. The eighteen pages of endnotes at the end of the volume testify to the scholarly work. Throughout the book are references to Conferences, Lectures, Political drafts and UN resolutions, many of which directly or indirectly involved Jürgen Moltmann.

[22] Is there a seminary graduate who can claim to be uninfluenced by the eschatological theologians of the WW II era? For a man who began his journey of theological discovery in a POW camp and rose to be a citizen of the world, how can he not wonder about a real lasting contribution to the world? The man who has written, lectured, debated, discussed and educated is looking for evidence not of ideas but of real change in the world.

[23] Could this be why an ethics has so long been on his agenda? Has all the thought, writing, lecturing, conferencing, etc. made a difference?

[24] This is the true call of the book. For those who are on the front lines of faith to be given a code of conduct that can steer Planet Earth in a direction toward the final victory of God. It is a wake up call to those who ride in the backseat of the planet, only wanting to wake up when we have arrived at the destination of God’s fulfilled promise. It is our opportunity to put into action the work of those who endured life in ways that few of us ever will.

[25] This is the hope that the work and learning of a generation is not in vain. This is the hope that resolutions and political progress isn’t lost or forgotten. This is the hope that words and ideas can be moved from few people to many people, that our words in conferences, books, lectures and sermons will be translated into actions and events. This is the hope that the spirit which is the pledge of God’s coming finds some fulfillment in seeing God present in the world we choose.

[26] This book should be taught and discussed; it should be translated into the actions of church bodies from the administrative hierarchy down to the pews of the local parish. Moltmann’s call to action is an embodiment of the lessons learned by those who endured the extremes of humanity, from concentration camps, nuclear threats and terrorist extremes to peace movements, human rights activists and a growing trust in the value of all creation.

[27] Trust and action means hope for all who preach, teach, lecture and learn that our words can make a difference. Ideas can be embodied and we can partner with Christ to move forward. It gives purpose and direction to individuals, the church, and ultimately this world.


[1] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981, G.&C. Merriam Co. pg. 389

[2] Moltmann, 39; Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, ed. R.D. Ross (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 91.

Eric Markovich

The Rev. Eric Markovich is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Delta, Ohio.