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They say growing up is hard to do. And I think they’re right. Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine. I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things. It happened at the beginning of fifth grade. I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.
When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold. I walked into his office with my mind made up. I had a plan. I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard. I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here. I’m obviously not ready for this. I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”
Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was. When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option. Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since. To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade. Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing. He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.” And then he explained what he meant by that: my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone. By awfulizing the situation, I was basically just giving in to despair and giving up on life. I was refusing to trust that life had given me enough resilience and adaptability to rise up and meet this new challenge.
Despair can be a powerful sedative. Awfulizing, while cathartic, is an addictive anesthetic that keeps us from feeling our growing pains. The upside is that it numbs our pain, but the downside is that it stunts our growth. Evolution only happens through struggle. Life has to be pushed past its previously known limits in order to adapt to new environments.
This is never easy. When it happens in the biosphere, there is always struggle and the imminent risk of failure and death. When it happens in the struggle for social justice, people stand up against powerful and entrenched institutions, like oppressive regimes, unjust laws, multinational corporations, and long-held beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions. Change only happens slowly and with great effort. Activist movements often struggle for generations before they reap a harvest from their labors. They endure persecution, ostracism, imprisonment, and death. Many lose hope and give up the fight along the way, but those who persevere become the catalysts for our social and spiritual evolution. For example, who could have guessed on the night of the Stonewall riots that, within a generation, several countries, the president of the United States, multiple states, and even a few religious institutions would recognize the right to marriage equality?
Change happens slowly, but it does indeed happen. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Not many know this, but Dr. King was actually adapting the words of the famous 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
These words have been a source of comfort and hope to many in the struggle for justice. But the question arises, How do we know? How can one be so sure that this universe is arranged in such a way that we can be sure that right will win out in the end? Well, the short answer is that we don’t. Philosophers are quick to point out the naturalistic fallacy, a rule (if you will) of critical thinking which states that one cannot derive an Ought from an Is. In other words, you cannot logically draw a definitive conclusion about the way things should be based on the way things are. Take, for example, the following popular label on food and drug products: Contains All Natural Ingredients. We consumers are supposed to look at that and think that, because the ingredients are all natural, they must therefore be good for you. But we know that’s not true. You want to know what else is natural? Arsenic, Plutonium, and Hydrochloric Acid. These things contain all natural ingredients as well, but I wouldn’t want to put any of them inside my body! Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily make it good.
So, how then can Rev. Parker and Dr. King say that the arc of the universe “bends toward justice”?
Well, I think we can start by looking at the facts. There are certain things we know about the universe that we would almost certainly label as good. How about the fact that we are here? We exist. Most would accept that fact as both true and good. How then did this favorable state of affairs come about?
Let me tell you a story: it takes place on a planet where a race of life forms has learned how to extract a vital resource from its environment. The downside is that the extraction process gives off a toxic gas that poisons the atmosphere. These life forms, with wanton disregard for anything other than their own immediate needs, willingly pollute the atmosphere of their planet for generation after generation until the air is saturated with poison. Yet, even then they continued their pollution. They kept going until the vast majority of life on their planet had been eradicated.
This sounds like a sad beginning to a dystopian science fiction story, doesn’t it? But it’s not. There’s a lot more science than fiction in this story because it happened right here on our planet about 2.4 billion years ago in what scientists call the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE). In the GOE, anaerobic cyanobacteria figured out how to extract hydrogen from water molecules. The poisonous air pollution that resulted from this process was a toxic gas known as oxygen. We don’t think of oxygen as pollution nowadays because we need it to live and breathe, but there was a time when it caused our planet’s first pollution crisis. The fact that we are here now, breathing oxygen, is a testament to life’s amazing capacity to endure and adapt.
They say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” You could say that’s certainly true in our case, where we now depend on oxygen for our very survival. We could say that one era’s pollution is another era’s air!
Life is amazing, isn’t it? The universe has taken almost 14 billion years to produce the people sitting in this room right now. You and I are sitting here as the end-result of billions of years of evolutionary success. Of course, we can’t say that it was all good, but I think most of us would agree that something must have gone right along the way! We’ve gone from single-celled organisms to fish, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to primates, to humans. We are the heirs of a vast evolutionary inheritance passed down from generations of ancestors leading all the way back to the stars themselves, in whose furnaces the atoms of our bodies were forged.
We’ve come so far, across eons and light years, to sit together in this room today. That’s quite a pilgrimage! We’ve overcome so much strain and adversity. The odds were (exponentially) against us ever getting here in the first place, but we beat the odds. We are here. We have overcome. In the words of Dr. King, we have hewn “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” a precious jewel set into the ring of our being. Our very existence on this planet is a testimony to hope.
Other ancestors have testified to this hope as well. I’m thinking primarily of our predecessors in the liberal religious tradition: the Universalists. They were the great prophets of hope. They were the first to jettison doctrines of hellfire and damnation from their religion. They refused to give up on anyone because they believed there is hope for all. They taught that there is a place for everyone in this world and that all things will eventually come together for good. Rev. John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in America, once said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.”
Liberal Universalist faith was founded on hope. We are gathered here this morning as heirs of both the evolutionary and the Universalist legacies of hope. We have more reason than most to draw strength and courage from this faith.
Sure, we can’t guarantee that any particular struggle for liberty or justice will immediately end in our favor. No one can promise that. But it seems, based on our scientific and religious history, that life itself can be trusted. Life endures. Life adapts. Life overcomes. This tendency seems to be woven into the fabric of the evolutionary process itself. To put it in human terms, using symbolic language:
When we stand on the side of love, the universe stands with us.
“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This assertion, far from being a justification for fatalism and inaction, has the capacity to fill us with hope, strength, and courage. When Desmond Tutu’s church in South Africa was once invaded and surrounded by a SWAT team during Sunday services, he stopped his sermon, calmly looked around, smiled, and said, “Since you have already lost, I would like to invite you to come and join the winning side.” At this, the congregation erupted with joy and began dancing… right out into the street where more soldiers were waiting, weapons at the ready. Not knowing what else to do, they stepped aside and let the dancers pass by unharmed.
Desmond Tutu’s faith that equality and justice would win out over evil in the end was the source of his amazing strength to keep going when the cause itself seemed hopeless. His faith proved stronger and more enduring than the powers of Apartheid. The strength of life itself flowed up and out through his heart, mind, and body as he committed his whole self to the evolution of the human spirit and society.
My hope this morning is that you and I might choose to trust life and embrace the faith of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, and Theodore Parker. May we come to know and feel the long, gentle arc of the universe, bending inexorably toward justice. May we draw strength from this hope and rise again to meet the challenges of injustice, trusting that, no matter what happens, life will overcome.
May it be so.
Be blessed and be a blessing.