Monday, April 19, 2010

The arc of the moral universe is long...

Friday in Black Kos, dopper0189 wrote about Congo and the 5.4 million people who have been killed since 1998 in the civil war going on there over coltan (used to make our cell phones and computers). In the comments section, a few of us were talking about what we do with this kind of information. For some of us, a worldwide view of things can result in compassion fatigue when we attempt to engage in the battle for social justice.

This is certainly something I struggle with and so it was interesting that after this conversation, I had a moment of "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." That's because Friday night I decided to dig a little deeper into the words and work of Tim Wise. One of the first things I read was an article written by him several years ago titled The Threat of a Good Example: Reflections on Hope and Tenacity.

Wise starts out the article by talking about the power of a particular question he gets often when speaking to college students..."What's the point? Can you really make a difference? Why keep fighting against such incredible odds?" His response is to reflect on a letter he received from Archbishop Tutu for work he was doing at Tulane on divestiture in South Africa during apartheid. In that letter, Tutu said:

You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right.


Wise goes on to expound on these words.

Sometimes I think we both oversell and undersell the notion of fighting for social justice. Oversell in that we focus so much on "winning" the battle in which we're engaged, that we often create false hope, and when as often happens, victory is limited or not at all, those in whom we nurtured the hope feel spent, unable to rise again to the challenge.

Yet we undersell the work too, in that we often neglect to remind folks that there is redemption in struggle itself, and that "victory," though sought, is not the only point, and is never finally won anyway. Even when you succeed in obtaining a measure of justice, you're always forced to mobilize to defend that which you've won. There is no looming vacation. But there is redemption in struggle.


So I begin to wonder if its any surprise that in this world view we're so accustomed to where "winner takes all" and any important story of struggle can be summed up in 120 minutes on the screen and instant gratification is the order of the day - so many of us get discouraged when we alone can't seem to change the trajectory of social justice around the globe with a few words spoken/written or a few dollars contributed.

Wise goes on to talk about how its actually more difficult for those of us who are white to understand this struggle than it is for so many people of color.

Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it's worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.<...>

This isn't to say it's impossible to inspire young whites to fight for justice, nor to stick it out. It's just a bit more of a challenge sometimes, for it requires that the person be open to an entirely different way of thinking about the world and their place in it: a challenge, but not undoable, as any glimpse at the long list -- however much longer it should be -- of whites who have committed their lives to equity and peace will attest. And so, I explain, there is something to be said for confronting the inevitable choice one must make in this life, between collaborating with or resisting injustice, and choosing the latter. There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community for the good of all. There is something to be said for a good night's sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and never doubt that if you died before lunch, you would have lived a life of integrity.


I think that many of us struggle with this obsession with efficacy...in other words, when we don't see that our particular efforts produce the results we want, we get discouraged. One of the effects of this can be that we then look for someone to blame and get lost in our anger and cynicism. Others give up and quit trying. But as Wise says, a few hang in there and recognize what MLK said about the arch of the universe being long, but bending towards justice.

A few months ago, dirkster42 wrote about this same phenomenon based on a book by Sharon Welch titled A Feminist Ethic of Risk.

Her argument proceeds by looking at the "ethic of control" that guides the assumptions of white middle-class people, whether on the left or the right side of the political spectrum. In the second section of the book, she examines various works of African-American fiction as a source for a contrasting "ethic of risk" that upholds the worth of struggle in the face of probable defeat.


It can be humbling to recognize that, as individuals we are not in control and that no one has appointed us "master of the universe" to fix all that's wrong in the world...that our path is to instead join with others in the generational struggle to bend the arch of the universe towards justice.

Many of the wise among us have left us this message over the years. One of my favorites comes from the Brazilian poet Rubem Alves.

What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and to resurrection.

But, hope must live with suffering. Suffering, without hope, produces resentment and despair. And hope, without suffering, creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness. So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.

This is the secret of discipline. Such disciplined love is what has given saints, revolutionaries, and martyrs the courage to die for the future they envision; they make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.


And then, of course, there is the powerful, strong, and unrelenting voice of Maya Angelou when she says And Still I Rise.



And finally, is it any wonder that the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is the Black National Anthem? I love this video of that song with the words imprinted on the history of the struggle. You can watch as the arch of the universe bends...slowly towards justice. And think of all the humble individuals who played their role in making it happen - even though so many didn't live to see their dreams come true. And the struggle continues...

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful reminder NLinStPaul -- thank you!

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  2. Thanks tampopo. This one was for me...I needed the reminder!!!!!

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