Wednesday, August 3, 2022

MLK vs. the Prophets, or, a Word on Hope in History

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

There is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that is much beloved by US American progressives: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As employed by American progressives, this quote implies two elements of belief:

First, that the world as a whole system (and the United States as the part of the world with which the speakers are usually most familiar) is on a trend towards greater equality among and prosperity for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other salient element of identity. This is the “bends towards justice” part of the quote.

Second, that this trend occurs inevitably. It may work through human organizing and efforts, but it is not dependent on human actions. Instead, it results from an intrinsic divine or social or natural law. This is the “arc of the moral universe” part of the quote.

From MLK’s vantage point when making this remark in the mid-20th century, or from the vantage point of his quoters at the end of the 20th century, looking back over the past couple hundred years of human history, there was good evidence for the two beliefs implied by this quote and its use.

Over that time span, there had been amazing and significant steps towards this understanding of justice, especially in the Western world: chattel slavery was abolished; modern medicine substantially reduced suffering and disease and extended lifespans; child labor was abolished in the West and working conditions were substantially improved for adults; women gained the right to vote, various other rights, and access to increased choices in life; the Civil Rights movement (including MLK) gained various rights for African Americans; Majority World countries became independent of Western colonialism; and queer folks gained increased recognition and rights in society.

Moreover, all these steps towards greater justice came about not as the result of one centralized movement but rather a plethora of movements that sprang up, as if from some central animating spirit that was beyond the individuals involved.

Yet as obvious as such a belief in inevitable human progress was in the mid- to late 20th century, there are abundant reasons to question such a belief by this point in the 21st century. Indeed, we might conclude that this belief in inevitable human progress reflects a particularly modern outlook on the world – modern both in its setting, its belief in progress, and its projection of an evolutionary grand narrative onto human history.

Postmodernism has, of course, raised questions about all such metanarratives, but one need not buy fully into postmodernism to question the narrative of inevitable progress towards greater justice as understood by modern Americans. The rise of autocracy and decline of democracy around the world, the revival of racism and anti-Semitism and rollback of women’s rights in the United States, and the existential threat to all human flourishing represented by climate collapse should raise serious questions about any overly sunny accountings of certain human progress.

At very least, the past couple decades should show us the significance of effective, strategic, and long-term organizing and movement building in influencing the direction of history. While liberal forces had that momentum at their back from the 1930s through the 1970s, it is conservative forces that have most recently been reaping the fruits of such organizing. Whatever direction history takes, it is unlikely to get there outside of well-organized and coordinated effort on the part of very dedicated people willing to be patient and make sacrifices.

Climate change further shows us that the past two hundred years may not be the ramp up to a premillennial paradise of justice and equality but rather a very particular historical moment that is not sustainable as it has played out thus far and therefore may well not last.

A longer historical frame suggests additional possibilities: If we look at the first ten thousand years of human history, leading up to the modern era, we see less of a pattern towards justice, or at least we see a very long incubation period before that pattern towards justice sets in. Instead, we might see waves of progress and regression set against a backdrop of (slowly) increasing societal complexity.

Fortunately, belief in the arc of the moral universe is not the only way to hold out hope for the future. I’d like to suggest another: that of the biblical prophets.

MLK was influenced by and drew upon the biblical prophets, as his rhetoric frequently showed. King and the prophets shared a deep concern for justice.

Where MLK (or at least his oft-repeated quote) and the prophets disagreed is on their understanding of history. While King’s quote suggests a generally upward trajectory to history, the prophets were often quite blunt about their conviction that history was headed in a downward direction.

When Amos declared that “the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste and [God] will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” or Hosea proclaimed that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,” they were announcing anything but sunny optimism about the direction of the future.

The biblical prophets took seriously the possibility that the future would be worse, not just for the enemies of their people, but for their people themselves. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, they even lived through the fulfillment of their prophecies of destruction.

Yet even amid their clear-eyed facing of the possibility and even inevitability of disaster for their communities, the prophets maintained hope. This hope was built not on the assumption that things would keep getting better, but on the belief that they would not always get worse. It was a hope built on trust that God’s mercy would have the last word beyond whatever disaster was impending. “[God] will restore of the fortunes of [God’s] people Israel,” wrote Amos, “and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.”

For me, in this historical moment, this understanding of hope in history feels more true than the hope implied by the use of the MLK quote. Our cities (or our churches, our institutions, our rights, our ways of life) may indeed become heaps of ruins, either because we tear them down as we tear each other apart or because climate disasters will make them so. But that will not be the end. God’s mercy will still prevail, and we will eventually “rebuild the ruined cities.” That is a bleaker expectation for the future, but more honest and more accurate in my eyes. And, if the prophets are our guides, it is just as faithful.

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