The recent massacre in the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida is unfortunately an example of why the oft-repeated phrase “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” is bad theology and dangerous magical thinking. While the phrase offers hope, it offers false hope, and President Obama, who loves the phrase coined by Theodore Parker and made famous by Martin Luther King, follows up saying by adding, “but we have to bend it.” Even this addition of human volition gets the human situation wrong, however.
Sure I believe in working for progress, but anyone who has reflected deeply on human history sees not a linear curve but a Sine wave. There are peaks of human freedom in our history, but they turn into troughs again. The mere existence of the American amusement park Six Flags reminds us that flags and empires come and go. Sometimes a measure of freedom and opportunity exists, then it disappears again. The sixth flag won’t be the last, unless humanity ceases to exist soon.
The march of progress is a lie. A self-serving lie that perpetuates oppression by telling the oppressed “it’s getting better.” Take for example the fact that today 4.3 percent of American households with children have an income of less than $2 a day per person per day. Where is the progress for those children?
Calling a lie a lie isn’t to fall victim to cynicism. It is, rather, the first step to seeing the problem clearly. We must work to liberate those oppressed by the society we find ourselves living in at the present. We must look at what needs changing and work to change it, for there is no invisible hand bending that arc toward justice. If there is a god, that god cannot be as process theologians argue—ever evolving. Rather, that god must be as many religious naturalists posit, nature adapting and surviving. I prefer to drop the pretense of god and look at human beings creating and sometimes fixing human problems.
What story needs telling now? The author Saul Bellow said, “The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story—in different ways.” What story can we tell that more closely reflects reality? Let’s begin telling that different story, a story of struggle and liberation.
As the US political prisoner Leonard Peltier has said,
We need each other. Each of us is responsible for what happens on this earth. We are each absolutely essential, each totally irreplaceable. Each of us is the swing vote in the bitter election battle now being waged between our best and our worst possibilities.