On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I like to look through his archive to see what catches my eye. This is what caught my eye this year, a little jotted note on some index cards:
Ecclesiastes 1:9—Here we find a statement of the author's philosophy of history. History is a series of endless cycles which has no underlying teleology. We immediately see that he is far out of accord with the general Bible philosophy of history. This is the Greek view of history. The Hebraic Christian tradition would insist that Gd is working through history for the salvation of man, and therefore history is headed somewhere. History is not a series of endless cycles, but a movement toward an ultimate goal.
Dr. King disagrees with Ecclesiastes. He believes that the arc of the moral universe bends—slowly, slowly—toward justice, that there is an ultimate goal. I have my own take on what this text means, but I have to say, the eternal spiral seems a better metaphor than the arc.
Things are getting worse, and at the same time, things are getting better. This is always true. The story of the Civil Rights movement, in the United States and the world, is not over. We achieve certain kinds of equality and inequality widens in other ways. We have achieved—we achieved in his own time!—more than Dr. King dreamed of, and so much less. Ever forward is a lovely slogan, but a terrible description of the universe.
So, nu? What do we do with this knowledge? I haven't found a sermon where Dr. King writes about this Ecclesiastes view of history (he doesn't write about Ecclesiastes much at all, as far as I can tell) so we're on our own.
But I would say that the optimism he expresses in his quote about the bend of the arc is not absent from the chaos spiral of Ecclesiastes. In the speech where he quotes Theodore Parker about the moral arc, he also quotes the William Cullen Bryant line that “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” This is Ecclesiastes, isn't it? Truth crushed to earth will rise again, and be crushed again, and rise again. Untruth, too, will rise again, and be crushed again, and rise again. We can be part of that—no, we will be part of that, whether we want to or not, and the only choice is what part of that we will choose to be.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,