Today in church, the pastor was talking about hope, and I got to thinking about the current knock on Barack Obama’s message of hope. Hillary Clinton and John McCain attack Obama as simply having nice-sounding words with no substance. McCain and Clinton have a legitimate right to challenge Obama to speak specifically and concretely about his potential plans and policies. However, underneath their political jabs is the troubling and cynical assumption that there is no such think as hope, because one must be “realistic!” To the “realist,” hope seems like a pipdream. Given this cynical attitude, it is no wonder Obama entitled his latest book The Audacity of Hope; to purveyors of American real politick Obama’s message is an affront.

Over the last couple of years I have been studying the life and work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who developed a method of literacy training that enabled thousands of illiterate campesinos to read in a matter of months. His methods were so successful that the Brazilian government imprisoned him for sedition, and eventually exiled him. The ruling elite didn’t trust someone who would teach folks how to read, because then those same folks were able figure out that their so-called leaders were working in ways that limited their opportunities and caused their suffering. Freire spent his 20 year exile traveling the globe sharing his message and educational philosophy. Late in life when the Brazilian government changed hands, he was allowed back into the country where he held a government post as Education Minister until his death in 1997.

Throughout much of his life Freire sought to raise the prospects of the poorest of the world’s poor by giving them one of the most valuable tools for advancing one’s station in life: the ability to read. His work came to light in the English speaking world with the English translation of his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970.Freire understood that what he was doing had political implications, and thus he taught his students to not only read the word, but also “read the world” and the forces that oppressed them. Through this process of consciouness raising, Freire’s method empowered poor folks to challenge their oppressors and change their conditions.

Despite his personal struggles and the powerful opposition he faced, Paulo Freire was always known as a joyful man full of hope. Thus, it is fitting that one of his last writings was entitled Pedagogy of Hope, which was a retrospective on the working out of ideas expressed decades before in Pedagogy of Oppressed.

Denis Collins, one of Freire’s biographers, said of him,

“How is one to account for the optimism of Paulo Freire?… Freire’s life and work as an educator is optimistic in spite of poverty, imprisonment and exile…. On a planet where more than half the people go hungry every day because nations are incapable of feeding all their citizens, where we cannot agree that every being has a right to eat, Paulo Freire toils to help men and women overcome their sense of powerlessness to act on their own behalf” (Denis Collins, Paulo Freire: His Life, Works, and Thought).

Freire himself put it this way late in his life when he wrote: “Above all my difference lies in my critical, in no-way-naïve optimism and the hope that encourages me and that does not exist for the fatalistic” (Pedagogy of the Heart, p. 40). Fatalism and cynicism had no place in Freire’s life because he was too busy trying to be part of the solution to injustice rather than a cynical bystander.

Freire believed that the messenger of hope had a two fold purpose: denunciation and annunciation. The prophet denounces the systems, policies and persons that oppress and marginalize the poor and outcast, while announcing the possibility of a world where justice, freedom and opportunity are equally available to all. Like other messengers of hope such as ML King, Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, Freire’s message was a threat to the folks in power because he not only challenged their place of privilege, but also the policies and actions that gave them that privilege. You see, cynicism always serves the purposes of those in power because it discourages people from seeking meaningful change.

Time will tell if Barack Obama is simply mouthing high sounding words or is a true messenger of hope. In no way do I place him in the same company as people like Freire, King, Gandhi or Chavez. At the same time I can not side with those who would regard hope as unrealistic. Perhaps I am a dreamer, but dreamers are ones who change the world from what it is to the world as it could and should be. Hope is not the opposite of “realism,” but rather the antidote to a fatalism that saps people of their drive and capacity to work for meaningful change.