Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke eloquently when he quoted a mid-nineteenth century minister with the words “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Unfortunately, history’s tyrants and oppressors never believe this. For them, history is malleable, its shape determined by those with the most power.
Believing that what is just and fair will prevail takes considerable faith. During the Holocaust, the Nazis were convinced that their power was so great that Jews and others whom they deemed as undesirables would fall into such despair that their will to live would be destroyed. In the 1950s, Stalin sentenced millions of Russians to prison camps with the same belief that state power is supreme.
In our own time, we need only consider the treatment of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of the Myanmar authorities, the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli government, and the treatment of DACA youth at the hands of the Trump administration to see that oppressors still believe that they have the power to destroy hope in those they describe as “extra” and “unwanted.”
“Hope springs eternal” is a common expression. But it is rather the desire for dignity that springs eternal. God has created us so that we are hardwired to live our lives desiring and, yes, demanding dignity.
What else but the human need for dignity can account for Jews in concentration camps fashioning spoons out of spare metal bits so they wouldn’t have to eat with their fingers, using even dirty rags to go through the motions of washing themselves, and gathering in secret to prayerfully usher in the Sabbath? How else can we account for Russians who refused to “rat” on other prisoners in the camps for an extra crust of bread or bowl of watery soup?
In recent American history, what else but the demand for human dignity can account for men and women, black and white, standing up to the fire hoses and dogs of segregationists. And in our own time, what else but this universal desire for dignity can account for Palestinians bringing their infant children, even at the risk of their lives, to protest Israeli policies that have turned Gaza into a veritable prison where Palestinians are denied healthcare, clean water, proper sanitation, education and hope for the future?
And what else but the human desire for dignity explains the children born in this country of immigrant parents, teenagers and young adults who are openly attending college and working jobs in the face of an administration that wants to boot them out?
Oppressors always misread the human drama in front of them. They assume if those whom they are oppressing have the nerve to protest and demand to be treated with dignity, then all they as oppressors need to do is crack down even harder. But oppressors always miss the point of Martin Luther King’s quotation—that we live in a moral universe, governed by a God who instilled in every person a desire for dignity, a desire so deep that we will face bullets, fire hoses, attack dogs, deportation and even death.
In the short-term, history offers countless examples of oppressors acting as if they are in charge of history. But deep within every person is a truth put there by God. And that truth is this: no army is big enough to crush a person’s desperate desire for dignity.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].