Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reflections on MLK Weekend: "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice..."

Early on in my ministry, the Campus Ministry I served had an opportunity to invite the late William Sloane Coffin, Jr. to come and speak to students, faculty, and staff. It was my great privilege to gather with Rev. Coffin and a more intimate group before the public lecture. I remember talking at dinner about something he also spoke about publicly later that night, and I'm sure in many other contexts. (So I am not revealing any confidences here!)

He said that one of the frustrating parts of being so involved in the peace movement was that while it was filled with people who were dedicated, noble, and faithful, there was also a temptation for some to become what he called "good haters." That revealed to me at the time (and even more after years of reflection) an awareness on his part of the insidious nature of human sin: people involved in a good and right cause can still become arrogant, self-righteous, and so certain of their own moral clarity as to polarize and demonize the other.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately in relation to the conversations about finding a more civil discourse. I think that is about more than being "polite" or "politically correct." Nor should it be reduced to a kind of moral relativism; while we are all entitled to our own opinions we are not entitled to our own facts and there are beliefs/positions that are more objectively informed than others. (Just because we believe something, even passionately, doesn't make it so!) And we can't just make stuff up!

I say "can't" but I really mean, we should not; because clearly so much of what passes for news these days (on both the right and the left) is not about searching for the truth, but about propaganda and spin, and ultimately that requires demonizing the other side. We become "good haters" even when we may be right.

I think there are two ways to counter this in our own lives, or I should be more specific: I have found that there are two helpful reminders in my own life to keep me from going too far down that road of being a "good hater" even when I have rather strong political or theological positions.

First, a good dose of authentic humility is essential. To remind ourselves on a daily basis if necessary that we see, at best, through a glass darkly; that what we "know" is shaped by what we assume, and that sometimes we don't know enough to challenge our own most deeply-held assumptions. In the echo chambers in which so many of us find ourselves, those assumptions are less and less likely to ever be challenged and so we tend toward more and more hubris.

The second thing, though, is to trust that God really is in charge and that, as King once put it, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Archbishop Romero once said something along these same lines, when he prayed that we might remember that "sometimes it helps to take the long view." In my experience, that long view leads to hope.

We shall overcome, someday. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome. Someday. And so yes, there is an urgency to Now; and we must act to the best of our ability to fight injustice and prejudice and hatred. But if we think it all must happen now, on my timetable, on my terms, then we are on the path toward becoming "good haters."

I think what made people like King (and Romero and Coffin, too) so great, is that they inspired hope. They knew it would be hard and therefore that we must take the long-view. I am sure each one felt weary and discouraged time and again, especially when resistance to justice was so strong, so angry, so resolute. But deep in their bones, I do believe, that they believed, that we shall overcome someday. They had faith in a future they could not yet see. They dreamed of a better tomorrow. And that inspired each of them, and by God's grace us, to act today.

We honor Dr. King whenever we work for justice and peace. But I wonder if we honor him even more when we work for justice and peace as people of hope. Not as "good haters," but as people who do believe, deep in our bones, that we shall overcome someday.

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