What Arc—Which Universe?
Unitarian Minister and Abolitionist Theodore Parker said it, Civil Rights leader and
American prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., affirmed it, but sometimes I’m just not so
The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice
Try proclaiming this bit of good news to, say, the Ukrainians, cruelty, brutality, barbaric
and senseless destruction reducing their country to rubble.
How are we to speak of such horrors in a so-called Moral Universe and what are we to do
in their wake? In the short term, of course, we stop the carnage and begin to heal the
wounds, tend to the scars, and rebuild the community.
The longer term challenge is no less daunting … coming to grips with what it all means
if, as some suggest, it means that the “relative stability” since Hiroshima and Nagasaki
are now coming to an end, at least for the Western democracies.
The operative word here is the “relative” stability some of us have enjoyed in recent
decades even if not so enthusiastically shared in other parts of the globe (Southeast Asia,
for example, and the broad expanse of the Middle East, with stops in African and
European locales most Americans could not find on a map, all come to mind), but as a
reference point for a conversation, we might ask if even the relative stability of the post-
war period, buttressed with discernible progress in other aspects of human and planetary
relationships, offer a snapshot of the Moral Universe bending at least some of its earth-
bound human inhabitants toward right relationships. That the period might end, ushering
in a new era of chaos (and worse, the unthinkable having raised its ghastly countenance
in human conversation once again, as if August 6 & 9, 1945, no longer apply), challenges the very notion of a Moral Universe whatever its Arc.
Perhaps this is the time to renew what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now, a Moral
Universe luring moral humankind to be and do better.
The problem, of course, is our own feelings of powerlessness, the breeding ground of
hopelessness. Our boats really are so small, the sea actually is so big, so understandably
would we feel swamped before we even begin. What can we do against historical and
economic forces that create today’s cacophony and sow confusion?
Maybe we could take a lesson from Norman Lear, a self-described bleeding-heart
conservative (the very concept … it’s enough to make one long for the good old days).
He tells the story of walking by a lake with his grandfather, and as children do, the young
boy picked up a rock and threw it in the water.
“You raise the water level of the lake when you do that,” the grandfather said.
Norman thought about that and picked up another rock and threw it in the water. He
repeated this several times and finally said that he could not see the level of the water rise
“But you see the ripple,” his grandfather said. “Right now, that’s all you get, the ripple.”
Albert Schweitzer said it this way:
Long indeed, the Arc that bends toward Justice. Making it bend a little sharper, bringing
the goal a bit closer, that’s up to us, doing something, causing ripples.
Really, what other choice do we have?
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