The Arc of the Moral Universe

I learned being a “nation of laws” is not the end all to beat all metric by which to measure a people. But it sounds good. Whether it be the laws of militarism, theocracy, empire, democracy, revolution, despotism or the laws of nature and God, all nations are nations of laws, thus rendering the rhetoric “nation of laws” without meaning.

I have of late heard many use this statement to make an argument, most often to justify a cruelty. It’s a convenient hiding place when ones intentions have no other place to hide. Ironically, it is lawmakers I hear say it the most, as if they were helpless to do anything but the nasty thing they want to do, the thing the law demands they do instead of the thing that’s right to do … like change the law.

Our laws reflect who we are. We here in America are fortunate that over time our laws do change to reflect us more perfectly. It is unfortunate our lawmakers do not necessarily move to change law because it is the just thing to do but because it is merely the expedient thing to do. But our laws do change, slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, our laws eventually catch up to who we are.

A decade before the beginning of the Civil War, a minister named Theodore Parker dedicated his life to changing law. He fought to insure the reflection, the personality of Americans was imposed upon American law rather than the other way around. Parker stood against the Fugitive Slave Act. The FSA forced free-states to return people who had escaped enslavement back to enslavement. Parker saw the immorality of taking a person who once lived on the west coast of Africa, was kidnapped, forced into the hold of a ship, left chained, laying for months in darkness and his own feces, then unloaded, sold, made subservient by the force of the whip, mutilation, death, then one day escaping his circumstances to a place of hope and freedom…just to be chained and caged again and sent back. What sort of law, what sort of people could do such a thing?

Theodore Parker believed law would eventually catch up to who we are. It is Parker who first said, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one …But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

I remember the irritation of driving in a city where it takes an hour, sometimes two, to drive seven miles to work. But my irritation would fade when I would show up on a job site that was peppered with men who spoke in broken English, who had ridden a thousand miles clinging to the side of a box car, then inside the trunk of a car, then two days walking through a desert, just to get to the same job-site. Such tenacity, such willingness to hope for a better life, I was glad we were on the same team.

Some of these men worked hard, they sacrificed and saved until they had enough money to send for their families, their children. They believed in America. They sent their children to American pre-schools, American high-schools and American universities. Their children went on to attended American churches, pay American taxes and serve in the American military. They learned to speak American English, to wear American clothes, to like American music and double-cheese burgers with American cheese. These children, who grew up American, know no other experience other than the American experience.

To argue that these people who were brought here as children, have been raised as and now think of themselves as Americans, should be removed to a country they know nothing of because we are a nation of laws…is a farce and a cruelty. Such an argument may have a basis in law but has no basis in morality. When push comes to shove, what should change…our law or our morality?

Our president and our attorney general have said 800,000 people who have lived their lives as Americans must be removed from our soil because we are a nation of laws. It is true. Statutes say these people are not my fellow citizens, though morality says they are in practice and sentiment, my fellow Americans.

Our president has characterized people born south of our border as rapist and gangbangers. But he is also sure some are very fine people. The Differed Action for Childhood Arrivals program, D.A.C.A., is an application process where fine people come forward and place their faith and trust in America. Rapists and gangbangers are not eligible to apply to remain in our nation of laws.

Theodore Parker was right. The arc of the moral universe is very long and history bears witness that it does indeed tend toward justice. But how many people were domed to die in slavery while waiting for it to bend?

How much damage will we allow, how many will be uprooted from their homes while we wait for our lawmakers to make law just? It is for these, for the sake of my fellow Americans, for the sake of justice, that we should reach up and take hold of the long arc of the moral universe, pull with all our might and bend it hard. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com