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Trees to Plant

On Martin Luther King’s birthday we often remember a famous sentence from his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967:  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Like many of Dr. King’s powerful utterances, these words lose much of their power when detached from the somber context in which they were spoken.  The Civil Rights movement had bogged down and was splintering.  The war in Vietnam was consuming lives and fragmenting a nation.  King described the times as “days . . . dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair. . . and nights. . .  darker than a thousand midnights.”  Yet beyond the horizon he saw a hopeful bending.

A year ago many of us believed we had caught a glimpse of that arc bending toward justice.  To be sure, Barack Obama’s inauguration was surrounded with unreasonable, even vain expectations, but hope was real, and change seemed almost inevitable.  In the wake of Tuesday night’s special senate election in Massachusetts almost every pundit is reminding us, “What a difference a year makes!” Jubilant Republicans will no doubt embark immediately on the fulfillment of their primary legislative agenda, namely, crushing any meaningful health care reform.  Stung Democrats will engage in the usual finger pointing, at times with much justification.  The deals struck by some of their colleagues, frightened of political fallout or plainly self-serving, were unseemly at best, outrageous at worst.

Beyond this political theater some hard facts remain.  Tens of millions of Americans still live without health insurance while our expensive health care system underperforms those of countless other nations.  Unemployment checks for many are running out while unrepentant bankers whose greed helped plunge the nation into recession are receiving their bonus checks.  Troops prepare to leave for Afghanistan in a mission that feels to many like simply digging a deep hole even deeper.  Climate change deniers, like Holocaust deniers before them, consign the most vulnerable of the next generation to a genocide born of flood, storm, and drought.  Bigotry, often sanctioned by religious leaders, still withholds from gay and lesbian couples the blessing rites and the civil rights of marriage.

Progressive Christian leaders understand better than many others the public responsibility of the church to be a prophetic witness for justice, liberation, and compassion.  However, many of us forget that this public responsibility must be sustained by a personal piety steadying us amid the ebb and flow of the fickle political and moral climate around us.  We are often like the shallow ground in Jesus’ parable that allows the seed to quickly germinate, but without sufficient roots to keep the vulnerable shoots from withering under the blazing sun.

King’s soaring hope never lost its mooring in a Gospel that takes seriously the intractability of evil or the vanity of much human striving.  It was, as he reminded us, hope for the stony road and the bitter, chastening rod, not the wide eyed optimism of hubris that stumbles when “yes we can” easily becomes “no we can’t.” In that sense, King joined a theologian of an earlier generation, Reinhold Niebuhr, who reminded us that “nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian who taught for many years in Hyde Park at the Divinity School and then the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and who was one of the first Protestant theologians to take seriously the theological implications and demands of the environmental crisis, once wrote, “I do not think we are in a very good situation historically. . . .  Our record indicates that we can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destruction if there is a profit on the way – and that seems to me to be what we are doing now.  I have no great expectation that human cussedness will somehow be quickly modified and turned into generosity or that humanity’s care of the earth will improve much.  But I do go around planting trees on the campus.”

It’s not a fun week for progressive Christians.  The gleam of a year ago has faded.  Gloom does beckon.  But there are still trees to plant!


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