by Sarah Morice Brubaker
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind. – Psalm 107:12-15
This evening, we watched Star Trek: First Contact. It’s spring break, we have two school-aged kids, and frankly we had somewhat maxed out on more active forms of togetherness. In First Contact, there’s a lot of playing with time. Captain Picard and crew travel back in time to 2063, just before the liquor-soaked human Zefram Cochrane successfully uses warp drive technology, thus ushering humanity’s first encounter with alien life. Cochrane isn’t thrilled with all the attention he gets from the Enterprise crew — which, to be fair, is for something he hasn’t done yet — and so First Officer Riker gives him some sage bit of life advice. “Who said that?” asks Cochrane. “You did,” replies Riker, “in about ten years.”
James Cromwell, who plays Cochrane, effects precisely the scoffing sneer that I sometimes feel is appropriate to texts such as these. Can’t you sort of picture the scene? God says, “There was once a people whose bonds were completely broken asunder! Let them thank the Lord for the Lord’s steadfast love!” “Oh yeah?” asks the people still crying to the Lord in their trouble. “Which people were those?” “Oh, they were you… in a couple thousand years.” “Um. Ok, God. Well, thanks?”
If you believe that God hears and delivers those who cry out to God for deliverance, and you take seriously all the people who are crying out yet are undelivered… well, it often requires taking the long view, to say the least. One of the most beloved sayings of Martin Luther King, Jr. is his reminder that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King was paraphrasing a reflection by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian abolitionist minister, from more than a century earlier: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,” Parker said. “[T]he 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 toward justice.” An odd way of reasoning, no? You can’t see that the moral universe bends toward justice, but from what you do see, you’re sure that it does? Why?
Some might call it wishful thinking.
Yet there’s something to be said for realizing how agonizingly long the struggle is. For one thing, it fosters endurance, in a dominant culture that promises the quick fix. It also allows for the celebration of small victories: even if oppression wasn’t ended forever thanks to that thing we just worked on, we did something, and it was real; and there will be more things, and they will be real too. It reminds us that the work ahead is complex, and will involve lots of people doing different things, rather than everyone doing the same thing. If you’re the sort of privileged person who *cough* gets a little too *cough* hung up on whether you’re Doing A Good Job At Being Visibly Anti-Oppressive (NOT THAT I KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THAT, NOPE NOPE!)… well, it can remind you that your feeeeeeeeeelings about your public platform are not even close to being the point. And it can also give a kind of permission to say — to each other, to the Psalmist, to God — this is hard, and it seems to be taking a really long time.
Sarah Morice Brubaker is assistant professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary, author of The Place of the Spirit, and an associate editor at Religion Dispatches.