Forward on the Long Arc of the Moral Universe

The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
– Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our God Is Marching On

arc-of-moral-universeLast week was, to be blunt, a mixed bag full of both gooey goodies and rusty nails. There was the great news of the forward movement towards marriage equality signified by the defeat of DOMA and the effective end of California’s Proposition 8. And this was praised all over by the Left – liberals, progressives, socialists, etc were joined by a number of neo-liberals, libertarians, and even neo-cons and fiscal and moderate conservatives. There was also the brilliant and hopeful women’s and reproductive rights grandstanding in Texas headed by State Senator Wendy Davis and backed by a cheering and heckling crowd of people. But then we find out about Ohio and the anti-abortion (read: again, not “pro-life”) strangulation of women’s rights there, and Rick Perry’s second attempt to overturn RvW in Texas. And then there was SCOTUS’s horribly racist rulings. And then there’s the mostly-bad immigration reform bill that largely hurts migrants and border communities.

And we just seem exhausted. Put out. Unable to focus with the onslaught of viciousness.

I noticed that an activist group with the term Human Rights kept sending me emails about one specific topic: The right for same-sex marriage. That is an important right, for its a part of the normalizing of lesbian, gay, and bisexual and heterosexual relations – it reminds us that all humans are human and should be welcomed to all our rights and protections. But it’s largely a right for middle-class lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans. This human rights organization, as far as I’m aware, has never sent a mailing out about the mistreatment, marginalization, and violence towards trans* people, or runaway LGBTQi youth. Or racism against poor LGBTQi youth of color from White, affluent gay men, let alone the degrees of antagonism and oppression from White straights.

Because if we look at the intersections of oppression, we see where humanity is at its heart. We find ourselves. It is not enough to fight for economic justice without asking how it affects the single mother of color. It is not enough to fight for ecological justice without asking how it affects indigenous and poor communities. It is not enough to simply tell women they must work harder to get higher positions of power in corporate offices without seeking that corporate America addresses its fundamental sexism that makes it so hard for women in the workplace in the first place.

I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong. I’m not here to say that you’re horrible people. In fact, I don’t think people should be the focus of our anger (even if that person is Rick Perry). No, I believe our focus should be on righteousness, on justice, on equality and liberty. Our anger directed at patriarchy and unjust hierarchies.

I look at the how the fight against Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is being fought, and I cannot rest my hopes on it. It is, at best, a stop-gap. The real problem is the injustice of families not being paid well enough through their work to be able to afford living without such stop-gaps.

We get exhausted and face fatigue, I think, because there is so much to fight against. And we make the mistake of focusing almost exclusively on some issues, on some policies. I know I do. But in doing this, I need to step back and look at the long, long arc of the moral universe.

It can be exhausting to focus on the trees. To note the specific failures of a Rick Perry or Supreme Court or Rahm Emanuel. To note the inability to reach reasonable compromise on most issues between Republicans and Democrats. My suggestion is that we have as our ultimate aim, equality and liberation of all people and groups. The ability for all to gain rights as fully human and equally able to eat, to find stability, to possess housing and health care, to not be assaulted or threatened for their sex, color, or sexuality. This is the forest.

Which is not to say that we don’t get our trees. Most activists (and perhaps that’s how we should view ourselves) focus on one or two issues in which they learn as much as they can about the issues, about the history, about the context and the political actions. So for you, that may be affordable housing, reproductive rights, fair elections, war, and/or  indigenous rights. For me, it’s poverty and race. Within those fields, we focus on a couple specific, measurable, attainable goals. Protecting abortion rights in Louisiana, or voters’ rights in Michigan, or workers’ rights at Walmart, or raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers, or overturning state constitutional amendments on same sex marriage. As electoral, executive, and judicial protections are secured, we bask in the victory for a moment while never forgetting that the march is a long one – as is the arc.

Sitting on the arc, we cannot see its dimensions, we cannot envision its turn or slope. We look upon it as medieval sailors looked upon the sea, perhaps knowing but not seeing a whole round world.

And if we lose one week, well, the battle is long. We press on, right? And if the yard markers are moved – and they are constantly – we do not lose sight of the end zone. Because the moral victories and failures afforded to some of us are attached to all of us. After all, racism is a trick of the elite used to divide poor people. When we lose sight of that, we fight amongst ourselves and lose to the real enemies: patriarchy and injustice.

But we shall prevail. The people united shall never be divided.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

jasdye

When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!

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  • Lyola M Roeske Shafer

    Thank you for your important insights.

  • Ken

    You write beautifully.