August 5, 2022
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. ended his sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University’s graduating class, drawing on words first spoken a century earlier, that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Years later, just 4 days before he was murdered, Dr. King returned to those words in a sermon delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. reminding the audience that even after four years of bitter struggle he remained confident that “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
These words have become almost synonymous with Dr. King’s legacy because they are inspiring, and they are quoted often to reassure us in grim times like those we are now living in. We emblazon them on t-shirts, hats, buttons, and posters to convince us that because we are right, we will ultimately prevail. We use their glow to help us avoid confronting how much work remains to be done and how much sacrifice we are called upon to make.
We have conveniently forgotten that this was only part of Dr. King’s message. He was not recalling them to comfort his audience. Dr. King knew that words and patience were not enough. He warned of the problem of counting on time to solve difficult, human problems. “There are those who…sincerely say…’Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing so fast. Only time can solve the problem…the problem will work itself out.’’ He had painfully learned that just waiting meant even more pain for the oppressed and the powerless.
What came next was a challenge. Dr. King told those who were listening that if they just stood on the sidelines, awaiting that moral arc to get high enough that they were the problem, not the solution. “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers…without hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation…we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right….nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion…”
I was reminded of this lesson as I followed the coverage of President Biden’s recent trip to Israel/Palestine, the first of his Presidency. He came to a land that two peoples are struggling to share. A place that has had conflict, violent conflict because their two narratives draw different, often exclusive claims to national sovereignty. It is a place in which our nation has chosen to play an active but, until now unsuccessful, role as mediator, as peacemaker. It is a place that has become locked in a status quo that is bending increasingly toward the increased marginalization and brutalization of the Palestinian people. It is a land that has even seen dialogue about a just settlement becomes impossible.
President Biden spoke to Israelis and Palestinians at separate events, of course, and chose to bring a message of hope. He chose to listen only to the first half of Dr. King’s lesson. As reported by Robert Mackey writing for the Intercept, he relied on the words of Irish Poet Seamus Heaney, ”once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up. And hope and history rhyme.” He wanted his audiences to believe that this was such a historical moment that a solution was there to be seized. But he was just hoping because he challenged no one to pick up the baton and do the hard work of finding a way forward that ends the occupation and protects the lives and hopes of all.
Forgotten is the struggle that is still needed to resolve a conflict that impacts the lives of 14 million people, Israeli Citizens and Palestinians living as refugees without citizenship. Dr. King, sermonized about the upward slope of the moral arc did not miss that it did not bend that way without effort.
It is interesting to remember that President Biden chose the same words that President Bill Clinton had used to inspire a vibrant peace process and get over the last remaining hurdles to begin a new era for Northern Ireland. Because this process was moving, and because Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants were doing the arduous work of finding a way to live together and see hope was possible, and because they were doing that work and making those sacrifices Clinton was able to look around and see “a peaceful city, a safe city, a hopeful city, full of young people that should have a peaceful and prosperous future here where their roots and families are…” Clinton was able to feel the moral arc bending to the sky.
When President Biden delivered his comments all he could see was continuing violence and oppression. He could see Israeli Drones deployed over the ghetto that is Gaza, and the continuing dispossession of Palestinians from their lands, and the continuing brutality of Palestinian life under occupation, but only if he opened his eyes.
President Biden sees himself as a man of morals and ethics. When he meets the victims of a mass shooting or greets aging WW II veterans, it is easy to see his empathy for those in pain and facing struggle. But, it seems, that he is like too many political leaders. When it comes to seeing the pain of this kind of conflict, it is too much to ask for him to pay the political risk that comes with telling people unpopular truths. He forgets Dr. King’s full message which also included a reminder that “without hard work, time itself becomes the ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So, we must help time and realize that time is always ripe to do right.”
When we forget that we are the catalyst to social change, and when we forget that we have to risk our wealth and comfort to stand with the oppressed if we are to see that moral arc bend upward, then we are just whistling in the dark. We are ignoring the reality of those who continue to suffer from strife and the inequities while we wait patiently and comfortably for them to be resolved.