When you turn 55, you start to think about bending more than you did at 35 or 45 – as in: “if I bend over to pick up those yard clippings, will I throw out my back?” But there are other “bends” in life; and after a dozen election cycles, many more marches and protests, petitions and other actions, I’ve also began to wonder: Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?
Leaders for justice and equality, most notably by Martin Luther King Jr., posit that it does. And millions more people who want to see justice achieved also believe. It is a hope, a faith, not provable, not able to be disproved. I want to believe this, but I don’t. Justice and injustice seem episodic to me.
We like to think of great progress in the 20th and 21st centuries, progress for well-being, democracy, and peace. Within our lifetimes, we have vanquished legal segregation. We have witnessed the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Women have gained power, respect, and esteem. But within the same envelope of time occurred the Holocaust, World War Two, the Vietnam War, the Armenian Holocaust, the increasing and exponential overcrowding of this planet, the impoverishment of billions of people, coup after coup to prevent democratization of economies and governance throughout the world, and the polarization of wealth and income in our own country.
There is no steady path forward. We make progress in some areas and fall back in others. There is no arc toward justice. This is why the second part of the Martin Luther King Jr.’s discussion of bending toward justice is of far greater importance. He states: “It does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice….”
This — doing our part to create and realize justice — is what sustains any movement toward justice. Without it, for believers, the arc of the moral universe would just be moving by itself, with people as passive viewers. Or, if not believing in the arc of the moral universe, people could simply lead lives absent of the quest for justice.
This renders moot whether or not we believe that over time and distance that we as a people are moving toward justice. It engages the participatory act of working for justice. It is in working for justice that we ratify and create both progress toward justice and justice itself, both in steps forward and in setbacks from it.