I came across these paragraphs today, from one of the last columns The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on New Years Eve 2013.
I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. —Ta-Nehisi Coates
Read the rest of the article too. It’s worth at least 7 minutes.
As part of my prep for a panel this February about the future of Seventh-day Adventism, I’ve been reflecting on the oft-quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. statement that the “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s from a 1965 speech he gave in Montgomery, Alabama, just one month after the assassination of Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz). King affirmed the crowd on the desegregation and Civil Rights Act victories, but also looked forward to other issues: voting rights, anti-poverty work, employment access, and continued non-violence.
In the past I’ve argued for all three of MLK’s premises: (a) that there is an arc to the outworking of human activity; (b) that this arc is long, spans generations, and favors the patient; and (c) that this arc bends toward justice, toward improvement, toward wholeness. The beauty to this perspective is an assurance that, contrary to appearances, things will work out in the end: there is an ideal future ahead—a heaven—if we will only persist and insist through the inertia of the present.
Since 1965, though, the “bends towards justice” phrase has dropped into cliche. To those like Coates who’ve graduated from King’s Christian idealism, premise (b) appears obvious: humans have been figuring out what a healthy society takes for a mighty long time, and progress on most fronts takes lifetimes even as it includes setbacks. But premises (a) and (c) don’t fare so well when analyzed afresh. There’s no objective proof for a pre-determined blueprint, and while humans seem to be becoming less violent overall, justice and wholeness haven’t proven to be inevitable alternatives to the abuse and division that seem so common. The belief that they are inevitable and/or can be coaxed out of the ether with our cultivated determination is somewhat like functional self-deception, a mantra that keeps activists working for the changes we advertise and argue for.
There’s a line from the Bhagavad-Gita that I’ve been resisting for about a year now and that came home to me when I read Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art a few months ago:
A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field. (emphasis added)
This insight isn’t about salary or compensation: it’s not about labor rights or fair pay or anything so straightforward. It’s much scarier than that. It’s a head-on challenge to the prophet’s closeted wish that he’ll see the outcomes for which he strives in his lifetime, that he’ll be vindicated, that the scoffers will finally get it, and that a well-earned flush of smugness can finally flow through him.
But it’s rare that we get that pay-off. We work and live in hope that our work will be proven valuable, that the challenges are worth our effort. Because we hope, we can be disappointed; we work in love with and for communities we love, and so we can be heartbroken. Even if there is no arc, no bend toward justice, and no guarantee of success, we work anyway. Even if there is no arc, we live as though there were.
The dreamers, the strivers, the change-seekers—we’re the stout-hearted children of Atlas. Our load isn’t the celestial sphere, though: it’s a cluster of night visions and daydreams, dreams of an inhabitable future.
We know that that future is not inevitable.
And we work anyway.
The dreamers are the saviors of the world… Humanity cannot forget its dreamers; it cannot let their ideals fade and die; it lives in them; it knows them in the realities which it shall one day see and know.
Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, sage, these are the makers of the after-world, the architects of heaven. —James Allen, As a Man Thinketh