Bending the Arc of History | Elmhurst College


Bending the Arc of History


Commencement Address
President S. Alan Ray
Elmhurst College
February 8, 2009

Welcome and Introduction

It is my great pleasure to speak to you, the College’s trustees, faculty, administrators and staff, this afternoon. But it is an even greater pleasure—no, an honor—to address you, our most recent graduates. Congratulations on achieving this milestone. If your parents are with you today, remember to thank them. They deserve it and will appreciate your thanks, I know.

Hard Times
This is not an easy time to be entering the working world or undertaking graduate studies. Here are just a few facts, culled from recent news stories. Consumer spending fell for a record sixth straight month in December. Savings are up because more people fear for their jobs. Incomes fell for a third straight month, and the Commerce Department reported that personal consumption spending dropped by 1 percent in December. January’s jobless rate hit 7.6% and last month alone the nation lost 598,000 jobs, the most since 1974. A federal stimulus package of some $820 billion to restart the economy remains under negotiation in Congress. The international economy is no better, and in some cases, such as China, is worse. Thomas Friedman said the world today is flat, to which one could add, flat broke.

Thankfully, you are leaving Elmhurst College with a fine tool kit of knowledge, skills, and, for many of you, professional contacts to help you compete in this world. You also have a strong and growing network of alumni and alumnae to tap. Some of you leave with a good job or graduate school acceptance. You may even leave with wisdom. And, like it or not, all of you leave with an obligation to transform yourselves and the world for the better.

In the present hard times, it may be tempting to mentally set aside that obligation and pursue mere survival. How do you position yourself for the future in a competitive world without trampling on others? Without adding to the suffering around us? How do you succeed while actually doing justice?

A guide, or better two, would be helpful in answering these questions. For this purpose, I offer our new President, Barack Obama, and the civil rights pioneer, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a compass, I offer a potent image that inspired them both.

Two Images, One Story
In a speech delivered on August 16, 1967, Dr. King declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Think of what an arc is. A geometric concept, an arc represents a curved line in space. It may intersect another line, or it may simply approach but never reach another line—it may be a parabola that comes infinitely close to intersecting but never does. To say that the moral universe is an arc, and that it is long, suggests to me an image of a curved line in the sky, a bright and constant line, tending toward the horizon, toward which we walk, not unlike the star guiding the magi in the Christian Nativity narrative. Or imagine the peaceful demonstrators led by Dr. King, marching arm in arm from Selma to Montgomery under that arc of the moral universe toward a just future. And yes, the arc of Dr. King does bend, and it bends toward justice. And yes, it is very long, as long as life itself and then more. But even if it never reaches us entire, if it remains an asymptote, it bends toward justice, toward a humane future for us all. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.”

Now President Obama developed a variation on Dr. King’s words. Speaking to thousands in Millennium Park on the night of November 4, and to millions around the world, the President said of his own election, "It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

Let me say again the President’s words. He called on the cynical, fearful and doubtful among us, to look to his own election, and “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

Both King and Obama invoke the image of the arc, but their precise formulations differ in subtle but significant ways. Let’s look at them more closely.

King calls the arc one of a moral universe. Obama refers to an arc of history. The moral universe is a given thing; we didn’t make it. As philosophers and theologians might say, the moral universe is noumenal. We don’t experience it directly; it soars overhead, to guide our steps and our actions. In my metaphor, we walk under it, toward a horizon called justice.

Obama, on the other hand, calls the arc the arc of history. History is definitely made. It consists of our actions. We quite literally handle historical events every day, because we live them. They are phenomenal in the grandest sense.

While King tells us the arc bends toward justice, Obama calls on us to “bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” Obama’s image is entirely human, future oriented, yet hope is not certain. We must do the work to make history give us hope. We must lay hands on history—our history—and bend it in the direction of the aspiration of a flourishing, full humanity. In contrast, King imagines the arc of a moral universe tending toward a kind of platonic ideal, “justice,” a state of ideal human affairs characterized by the end of oppression and the empowerment of the weak, and the inner transformation of all persons toward love for one another.

Are these two different images, the arc of a moral universe and the arc of history, irreconcilable? Not necessarily. The ground of Obama’s hope for history is King’s moral universe. The latter requires human agency to realize its internal logic.  The object of hope—“a better day’—is the destiny of the arc of the moral universe, namely, a world—a real world—where justice is fully realized. For some theologians, this represents an eschatological vision: the convergence of human work born of hope, and a just world where the arc of a moral universe comes to its end, its telos. For some philosophers, this represents the power of a regulative idea, the moral universe as a guide to our moral, that is to say historical, action. In short, we have a road map to follow—the arc of the moral universe—but we must use our own car—the arc of history and human choice—to get there if we can. A map without a car is useless. It is an armchair tourist’s daydreaming. But a car without a map, with nothing to guide its driver, is a dangerous thing on the road. And—this is the point—we are always on the road.

If it is true that we need both the idea of a moral universe and both hands firmly pushing on the arc of history, I believe we can identify three illusions that can tempt us today. As you go out into the world, in this harsh economic climate, here are three things to watch out for in your thinking, or more to the point, your acting.

Three Illusions
The first illusion is that we can live our lives without impacting those around us. We can no more ignore the injustices of this world than we can pretend we are exempt from living our lives in history. But hard times tend to make us myopic, draw in on ourselves, look out for number one. The suffering of others, in Sudan or Chicago, is still there. So are the delicate structures of the environment. We can't consume heedless of the impact we are making on the world, especially when our own security, our own environment or personal space seems in peril.

The second illusion is that we are solitary moral agents. Even if we say, yes, I know my acts have an impact on others, we could still fall into the trap of saying, what difference can one person make? But ask yourself, where is history going without our collective efforts? Toward the status quo. Where was that arc of history heading when Obama called on us to put our hands on it—remember, he addressed his remarks and his victory toward the cynical, fearful and doubtful. The arc of history was, and is, tending toward those who have bent history to their ends. Collective action is needed if we wish to take it in a new direction. But if we believe we are alone, we can never find the courage to lift our hands toward that arc and redirect it. We are in this together. Together we can hope for that better day and bring about a future that improves life for all. I have spoken of this concept before in the context of traditional Cherokee society. The remedy to the second illusion, in Cherokee, is ga-du-gi, “all working together.”
The third and final illusion is that we can take responsibility for the world and act together without a master narrative. A master narrative is a big story that we all can believe in. It is a human story. Stories of universal progress, liberal democracy, religious redemption, self-reliance, dialectical synthesis in a workers’ paradise, or natural evolution, are all master narratives. They seem to come without announcing themselves and sink deep into our bones. They build communities. They organize our choices. They inspire action. But they are ultimately human creations and we can choose to change the ones we have and give ourselves new ones that work better. King’s moral universe bending long toward justice is such a master narrative, rippling with undercurrents of the American dream, Enlightenment hope in reason, and most of all, the rich narratives and imagery of his biblical faith lived through the experiences of a black man in the 1960s. 

To revert to my car metaphor, a master narrative is our story of why we are on the road, going wherever it is we believe we are going. Without a master narrative, we are like the anti-heroes in Waiting for Godot—we can act, we can act together, but we’re still just standing there our whole lives, waiting for a story to happen to us.

Acting "As If"
The arc of history turns out to be both a political arc and a narrative arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. The narrative is made real through concrete imagery, the blending of tales and stories, the sharing of dreams, and above all memory and imagination. It is imagination that brings the past into the present and forms our lived world of possibilities. We are formative agents of our world and ourselves. We like a good story, with us in it, and we like happy endings. Illusion three (“you don’t need a master narrative”) implies we can get where we are all going without imagination. But King said it famously: “I have a dream.” 

A focus just on grabbing the arc of history, on human agency alone, is worthless, even dangerous, like driving a speeding car with no map. We need an underlying, guiding belief in King’s imagined moral universe. We must act as if the world is a moral place, to direct history’s arc toward its imagined conclusion in a just society, even if the evidence all around tells us otherwise. Even if we are hard pressed to find employment, and want nothing more than to look after ourselves. Conceiving of the world “as if” it is a moral universe tending toward justice, though, is the highest function of our imagination and the hardest task there is. But it is a fundamentally human task, and regardless of how challenging our economic environment is today, how tempted we may be to live as if—those words again—our lives had no effect on others, or we had only responsibility for ourselves, if we choose to tell ourselves a story that is unworthy of that future, we are to that extent acting less than fully human.

If we say that life is all about who dies with the most toys wins, or life is simply fate (divine or otherwise), we have succumbed to one or more of the three illusions. It is your responsibility as you leave here to perceive the illusions around you and within you, to think critically about all that you are told and everything you see. 

But it is also your obligation to imagine. To dream. To think constructively and creatively about yourself and your world, to unite your life to a worthy master narrative and transform it day by day. In the language of ancient Greek poetry, we are both Odysseus and Penelope—we move through the world in search of home, but we spin the world daily at the loom of our imagination, even as we untangle our dreams at night, how odd. But this is your work: despite all the financial hardships that may lie ahead of you, do not disavow your humanity. 

In conclusion, understand what your humanity is and act accordingly. Understand the temptations to deny your power, your entwinement with the lives of unknowable numbers of others, your ability to act collectively, and your duty to imagine the world as a better place. That’s what hope is: the exercise of your duty to imagine better for all. Exercise your capacity for intellectual and personal self-formation and become an agent of aspiration and change. Get involved. Stay engaged. Recognize your master narrative, own it, and don’t be afraid to rewrite it. If it still doesn’t work, get another one.

The arc of a moral universe soars above you. Look up and be guided. The arc of history extends before you and countless friends. Together, clench it in your hands. Bend it toward justice. Bend it toward hope.


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