I don’t know if there are words to describe the despair of the world we live in. Any attempt to describe it should be contrasted with the light of beauty and hope, but too often I’m content to dwell in the darkness. Sometimes, the despair is enough to make me feel as if we don’t deserve beauty and hope.
This morning, Matt Taibi’s description of Wall Street’s “ladrones de saco y corbata” (thieves in suits and ties) alongside the images of protestors at Occupy Oakland being gassed for standing against this economic violence certainly evokes feelings of despair within me. Is it even possible to fight back against some of the most powerful interests known to humankind?
The religious practice of welcoming migrants into the U.S. is a constant exercise in fighting despair. Thousands die in the desert, and many more before even arriving at that point, while nativists shoot through the few watering stations that exist. Tens of thousands are imprisoned on any given day, subject to abuse, food infested with maggots, beatings, sexual assault, and death from lack of healthcare. Hundreds of thousands are deported every year from family members, friends, and the only home they’ve ever known. The millions who evade deportation face a possible future in which their contribution to the only home they’ve ever known is never recognized. And that is without even mentioning the millions more that were forced out of their homes by the same economic violence that protesters are now being gassed for standing up against. The only words I know that describe a dark world like this are religious. This is the Rastafarian Babylon, the Mayan Xibalba, the Jewish Sheol.
I write all of this out because taking actions like stopping a single deportation when over a thousand are deported every day can seem futile. Even worse, focusing on the small changes we can make in the world can feel like we’re excusing the systemic violence we can’t change immediately. I have struggled with this ever since I made the choice to dedicate my life to the change I want to see in the world. I fall often into anxiety and depression as a consequence of this struggle.
In the face of this darkness, the single, most powerful idea that I’ve found to grasp onto is one I first encountered through Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It was only later that I learned he was borrowing from abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
Theodore Parker – 1853
Today, I came across the scripture that is perhaps the foundation of this idea that the universe is on the side of justice. St. Paul writes in Romans 8:28 that “we know that all things work for good.” I might have skipped over this verse if it weren’t for the annotation in my New Oxford Annotated Bible which states: “Paul means, not that all circumstances of this life are good for us…but that amid all these things God’s purpose prevails.”
It’s hard for me to describe the power that there is in this idea. It provides me with the knowledge that while I do my flawed best and feel like I continue to come up short, that the universe will eventually work things out.
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
If these separate threads from St. Paul, Rev. Parker, Dr. King., and Archbishop Romero don’t weave themselves together for you as I’ve laid them out, let me humbly try to do so on my own. When you’ve chosen to take responsibility for the change you want to see in the world, it’s easy to get lost and fall in to darkness. Developing practices of taking care of yourself, surrounding yourself with loved ones, and being in community with others is the best way to ensure you’re not engulfed in despair, but if there’s a single idea that helps me through the darkest times, it’s that the universe is on the side of justice.
As Archbishop Romero’s prayer vividly describes, there’s a sense of liberation that comes from knowing that the universe will move in the right direction. It’s an idea that doesn’t excuse us from taking action, but it does allow us to do so knowing that it will not be in vain.
Moving away from that Truth, and the focus on the things we can take responsibility for changing can be extremely dangerous. I think the results of doing so are plain to see in many postmodern leftist movements. Your own pleasure is the best you can achieve without this Truth and focus. More likely is that you will cause harm to yourself and those around you.
Saying that, I’ll end with the serenity prayer and a prayer that serves as a necessary disclaimer for my flawed words.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, by acceptable in Thy sight. Amen.