Hope as Virtue and Discipline: “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

What follows is an essay written from my notes for recent Theology on tap for the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler, written after the discussion. another version  was posted on the Oratory’s website.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism in a sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood.  This is a hopeful image.  The aphorism is a snapshot of hope as virtue and discipline, before we unpack and interpret this aphorism, we need to ask some questions.

What is Hope? Hope can be a slippery thing to lay hold. We may buy a lottery ticket hoping to win the lottery.  A child might hope that she will get a gift that she asked to receive, from her parents. Such hope doesn’t seem to be either virtuous nor does it require any discipline.  The second case approaches more what we mean when we speak of hope as virtue and discipline. In the case of the hope of a child for a gift from their parents, is hoping in someone for something. There is a difference between hoping to win the lottery and hoping to receive something one has asked for at Christmas. The hope of the child is rooted in the loving relationship between the child and their parent. The hoped-for outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely and is bound up with a relationship.  In this second type of hope what one is hoping in is distinguished from what is hoped for, yet they are bound up together. Even so, the hope of a child for a Christmas gift hasn’t yet brought us to hope that is virtue and discipline

All instances of hope aren’t virtuous. So, we need to ask what is common across various instances of hopefulness.  We then can lay hold of a hope that is something we can call a virtue and about which we can be disciplined. What covers all connotations of hope is that hope looks to a fulfillment; it also lives, now, in anticipation of that fulfillment.

What is hope as virtue and discipline?

Given this sense of hope, what then does it mean for hope to be both a discipline and a virtue? Hope is a virtue and discipline, if what is hoped in is a good that is more than a fleeting desire and more than wishful thinking. Hope that is a virtue is a hope bound up with a movement toward the good, something that through hoping for it we are moved towards our betterment. For hope to be a virtue and discipline requires something to be hoped in and for, which can lead us to something greater than we are now.  Hope, which is a virtue and a discipline, is hope that moves us toward what is hoped for.  Hope as virtue and discipline is anticipation that actively waits for what is hoped for. This sort of hope isn’t passive; it is moving towards a goal or an end.

Hope can be a virtue through hoping in something that moves us towards that which we hope.  Such a hope requires an expansiveness, to borrow Obama’s phrase, it requires an audacity. Simultaneously it requires humility to admit that what is hoped for isn’t yet realized. Hope as virtue and discipline is magnanimous and humble.

The enemy of hope as virtue is presumption. This may find itself in too great a confidence, too much assurance, that at any moment what is hoped for is coming to fruition or fulfillment and completion in that very moment. Thus, it is destructive of hope to use hope as part of a political campaign, as Obama’s campaign did.  This is so, largely because, what we hoped for in Barack Obama wasn’t going to be completely fulfilled by Obama’s administration. Rather a virtuous hopefulness in a political party, or a factional politics, or a politician is in their being able to bring us closer to that which we hope, not for their ability to deliver that for which we hope.  What was hopeful about Obama and his campaign and subsequent presidency was only hopeful to the degree that hope was what propelled Obama, not in his or his administration’s ability to fulfill and deliver that for which we hope.  Thus, to the degree that Obama was hopeful with us and not the object of our hope, then we have a truly hopeful politics, but the moment we hoped in Obama or his administration, we ceased to have hope in a way that is virtue and discipline and which could lead us toward a goal greater than ourselves.

Hope as virtue and discipline needs the humility to admit that in time there is always a remainder of what is hoped for in any movement towards what we hope. For hope as virtue and discipline there needs to be the simultaneous magnanimity of claiming to be able to achieve what is hoped for with a sense that the fullness of what is hoped for can’t be found in any one moment.

What sort of things might we say we hope for in this manner? What is it that we can both be audacious about and about which we can be humble?

Hoping in God and of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The God revealed to us in the Hebrew Prophets and the divine human Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is a god who is about justice and who defines for us justice as the concern for and right treatment of those who are marginalized, most vulnerable and who are outcasts. Captives, prisoners, widows, orphans, those who can’t easily and financially hold on to property and means of production to provide for their daily lives, food, shelter and clothing.  In the letter from the Apostle James, we are told that true religion is one that has solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

Thus, hope for this sort of justice cannot reside simply in some future wished for utopia, that may or may not be achieved, nor something that may or may not be realistic and realizable rather this hope is bound up in the very fabric of the universe and in the source of all that is.

When Martin Luther King Jr. affirms the aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, he isn’t affirming some generic hope, but making a faith statement about the one has aimed the bow and the arrow is on target.  This is faith in the God who is revealed to us in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth. That is Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t in that moment talking as a politician of a political party nor as a patriot of a certain nation state, but as a member of the people of God, Israel, the Church. He is speaking as a preacher and a prophet.

The above aphorism. isn’t a hope in humanity’s ability to progress based in humanity alone, but is a hope in God’s work in history.

Hope, then in its activist form, is seeking to act in accordance with this goal. This is what makes hope a discipline.  The virtue of living in conformity with the long arc of the universe bent towards justice, is to live in a certain way. Hoping in this manner is especially a discipline when a present moment seems at odds with what is hoped for. As a Rabbi friend says “it is to act as if”.

The difficulty and the virtue of hope is that some aspects of the current moment will appear to be an argument against having hope.  If hope is merely wishful thinking, if we can’t say truthfully that in some sense justice, wholeness, true life isn’t the goal isn’t the direction of things, then no living as if will counter what immediately appears.

Hope that is a virtue and can be a discipline is to have hope in something that is true beyond a certain instance. It is to hope in something that is true about our deepest selves and the entire universe and of human being.  Different philosophies and Spiritualties may give different reasons for it being there or exactly how to describe it but it must be an affirmation that our goal forms us into our truest selves.  Simultaneously it must also affirm that this goal is beyond any one of us or any moment. The fulfillment of this hope is beyond us but partly realized in us in moments even if not yet landing its mark in time.

This is the prologue to Unbounded Love as Resistance (Part 1)

Works consulted in writing this essay:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood , February 25,1965 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm . Last accessed 11/25/

Pieper, Josef, Faith Hope Love, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pp 87-138