Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Moral Evolution: Is the World Getting Better?

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Is the world getting better, or is it getting worse?

For Christians, that is a faith question. If we are not making moral progress, if we are not evolving morally, then the whole premise of Christianity is suspect.

It is fundamental. More fundamental than any of the supposed “fundamentals” of Fundamentalism.

My Old Testament professor, mentor and friend, Dr. Harrell Beck (of blessed memory) pointed out that although the people of Israel could see the evidence of God in the natural world, and they could see God’s presence in humanity, it was primarily in history that they saw God at work. 

He would recite those treasured lines from Psalm 121: “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help,” and then note ruefully that most Christians did not recognize that there was a period after “hills,” and a question mark after “help?” For the people of Israel, help did not come from the hills, it came from God. And they encountered God in human history.

The people of Israel believed that God acts in history, in Exodus and Exile and Restoration. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about establishing God’s vision for humanity on earth, in history.

At the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, when Dr. King delivered one of his greatest speeches, analyzing the economics behind the racial politics of the Jim Crow laws, he concluded with an affirmation of faith. Weaving together James Russell Lowell’s great hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” with Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he concluded by channeling the great Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker. We know that we will prevail in the struggle for Civil Rights, he proclaimed, because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

So, is the world getting better, or is it getting worse?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Leif Wenar, of King’s College London, describes the scene in that city in 1665, when England encountered the worst outbreak of the Plague since the Black Death three centuries earlier. Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary, “Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7,496; and of all of them, 6,102 of the Plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000 — partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number.”

The devastation was increased by choices made in ignorance. 

As the death toll mounted and the streets were filled with waste, Londoners saw so many dogs and cats roaming the city that they seemed about to take it over, in response the Lord Mayor ordered that all of the dogs and cats should be killed. 

Wenar describes what happened next:

“The Chamberlain of the City paid the huntsmen, who slaughtered more than 4,000 animals. But the dogs and cats were chasing the rats that were feeding on the waste — and the rats were carrying the fleas that transmitted the Plague. Now spared from their predators, the rats spread the affliction even more fiercely. The medical advice from London’s College of Physicians — to press a hen hard on the swellings until the hen died — did not slow the disease. In the end, the Plague of 1665 is thought to have killed almost 20 percent of London’s population (the equivalent of a million and a half people today). A great fire then consumed a third of the city.”

The immediate cause of death was bubonic plague, but the scope of the devastation was the result of what Wenar calls a “crisis of ignorance.” Now we know how to keep the disease from becoming a pandemic. “Ignorance,” he observes, “no longer plagues us.”

We have made progress. “In 1665,” writes Wenar, “half a billion humans sweated to sustain the species near subsistence with their crude implements. Now our global economy is so productive that 16 times that number — some 8 billion humans — will soon be alive, and most will never have known such poverty.”

Much of our progress is technological, but we have also made moral progress.

We have advanced in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ persons, and in human rights generally. In the seventy-five years since the end of World War II, there have been many regional conflicts and we have often seemed at the edge of Armageddon, but we have lived in relative peace. Isis is troubling and sometimes terrifying, but it is not the Third Reich. Or Imperial Japan.

Sometimes the moral arc is so long that it looks flat, like the earth’s horizon.

They asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come and he cautioned them not to expect obvious signs. But nevertheless, he insisted, “in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.”

The Kingdom of God is already and not yet. 

It is not yet fully realized, but it is already among us.

There is still too much violence and oppression in the world. We cannot be content with billions of people living in poverty. The growing gap between rich and poor is an affront to biblical ethics and economics. As Wenar writes, “The world now is a thoroughly awful place — compared with what it should be. But not compared with what it was.”

We face great challenges. But we are also living in a time when we have achieved incredible advances in technology as well as in morality. “Something is happening,” writes Wenar. “What future generations might marvel at most will be if we, in the midst of it, do not see it.”

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