We Need Leaders Wise to the Bending of King’s Arc

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here in the U.S., we begin every new year in part focused on the civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrating a national holiday to honor his legacy on January 20. King, who was assassinated in 1968, was a stirring speaker, and many lines from his eloquent, passionate speeches are lifted up once again during ceremonies held in his honor. A favorite line of mine, often used by King, is the one quoted above: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

King’s reference to “the arc of the moral universe” is a paraphrase of a longer remark made prior to the Civil War by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker. Martin Luther King Jr.However, it’s not the origins of the quote with which I am concerned. For me, the quote implies two questions we need to think more about as leaders: “What force makes the arc bend?” and “What do we mean by justice?”

I propose here answers to those two questions. I also suggest that my answers hold important implications for today’s leaders.

What Theodore Parker actually said back in the 1850’s was “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.”

To understand the arc, then, we need to start where Parker suggests, by looking at the “facts of the world.” We do not live in the same world Parker did. We know things about the Universe we inhabit that Parker could not have imagined. Modern scientists, gazing through telescopes that see far beyond our galaxy, have given us complex theories about how our Universe came to birth, its wondrous unfolding, and its intricate functioning.

Having studied our Universe, some today would argue that Parker’s intuition about the morality of our Universe was right. Our Universe is moral. Furthermore, its moral trajectory is always in flux.

Say what? Our Universe is moral? With a trajectory in flux? How does that work? What follows is my attempt to explain how it all works, and in the process address why and how the arc bends, and what we mean by justice.

First, I would like to suggest that the force that makes Parker’s moral arc bend is evolution itself. What’s really important today is our coming to an awareness of how in humans, evolution is “conscious.” In other words, we are now aware that we have the capacity to evolve, consciously. At the simplest level, that means what I thought yesterday might not be what I think tomorrow, and what we together think today might also change tomorrow. At the same time, it is important to note that scientists now tell us our Universe is about 14 billion years old. The arc bends slowly indeed, at times painfully so. King knew, however, that its bending is true, and took Parker’s quote because he knew it could be a tremendous source of hope if we caught on to how it works.

We are talking here about a “moral” Universe, so to explain further, I want to turn to the late cultural historian Thomas Berry, who looked deeply into our Universe and dedicated the latter years of his life to helping us understand it and the role of humans in its processes. In the 1980’s, Berry summarized his learnings in “Twelve Principles.” One of those principles describes the three laws, or core tendencies, that have led to the existence of Life in our Universe. Wrote Berry, “The three basic laws of the universe at all levels of reality are differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. These laws identify the reality, the values, and the direction in which the universe is proceeding.”

In simple terms, differentiation means our Universe is wired for diversity, subjectivity means everything, from atoms to people, possesses a unique, interior identity, and communion means it all emerged from a Big Bang, and hangs together as one; in fact, it seeks unity because the coming together of disparate parts often – though not always – results in something even more spectacular than what existed before. We can see a simple illustration of all of this on the elemental level in the coming together of hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms to create H2O, otherwise known by us as “water,” the precious commodity that allowed for the emergence in our Universe of Life as we know it. As its scientific name, H2O, suggests, nothing was lost in terms of identity for hydrogen or oxygen in this process, but by coming together they created something amazingly fruitful.

As Berry suggests, those three laws also create the core of Parker’s “moral universe.” They do so through the values they impart on it, and by extension on us. The first law, differentiation, requires diversity as the ecological necessity for life – that goes for the pond in the meadow next door and all our human organizations. The second law, subjectivity, upholds the value of the inherent dignity and rights of each person and of every aspect of creation. It supports Albert Schweitzer’s intuitive ethic: “reverence for life.” The third law, communion, is the basis for the deepest, most ancient human understanding of justice in all the major religious traditions: right relationship. That’s my operative definition of justice – right relationship. Now, we need to consider how in our moral Universe the idea of right relationship – justice – has been and is in flux.

First, recall that Berry suggests that his three laws “provide the direction in which the universe is proceeding.” That direction is visible to us now in the story of the evolution of our Universe our science is giving us.

Reflecting on that story, the futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard sees Berry’s “direction” leading towards greater freedom and greater complexity. With that thought in mind, it occurs to me that today we, even more than King and certainly more than Parker, are witnessing universe1 humanity struggling with both of those evolutionary dynamics – greater freedom and greater complexity – on a grand scale in trying to sort out our relationships. Around the globe, more and more people are demanding freedom and respect for their unique identities, in both violent and nonviolent ways. Simultaneously, the complexity of our diversity at times feels overwhelming. In short, Parker’s arc is taking a huge bend towards new understandings of what constitutes justice as right relationship while we grow into our fledgling vision of global communion.

As I said at the beginning of this post, all of this makes me concerned for the focus of leadership in our time. For I believe that a values shift in the expectations of leaders, and the workplaces and world they will create, is another part of the arc’s bending today.

Ronald A. Heifetz, the Harvard University professor and proponent of adaptive leadership, recommends that leaders today “get off the dance floor” and get a “balcony view” of their organizations. It seems to me that Parker’s moral universe is our ultimate “balcony view.” Therefore, we need leaders trained to respect the values-laden implications of our moral Universe, and who are ready to pay due respect to the arc’s bending as more and more people experience “conscious” evolution.

My first leap onto the moral balcony came in reading Roderick Frazier Nash’s book, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). In two simple illustrations, he depicts the conscious evolution that has taken place within the human community when it comes to ethics and rights. He suggests that ethical concerns historically evolved from a pre-ethical past in which concern was focused solely on self, to an expanding ethic of concern for family, tribe, region, nation, race, and all humans. At present, debate regarding ethical concern is expanding to animals, plants, ecosystems and Life itself (see here the debates on genetically modified seeds).

According to Roderick Nash, a trajectory in flux is also noticeable, when viewed with evolutionary eyes, in the expansion of the concept of rights. He offers a brief  overview of this pointing to the historical development of legal documents (each one in a sense bringing new “others” into full communion) starting with the Magna Carta, signed in 1215 and giving new rights to English Barons; and moving on to the U.S. with its Declaration of Independence of 1776, giving new rights to the American colonists; the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, giving the right to freedom to American slaves; the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920, giving women in the U.S. the right to vote; the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizen rights to Native Americans; the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first law to grant rights to African Americans; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which extended the concept of ethical rights for the first time to nonhuman Nature.

While the above examples have sweeping implications for global leadership, on a day-to-day basis, today’s corporate and non-profit leaders also must be alert to the arc if for no other reason than that those they lead now are demanding a different kind of leader. According to the “Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness” (GLOBE) Research Program, which is studying culture and leaders across the world, the ten most universally desirable attributes of leaders today are: integrity, inspirational, visionary, performance oriented, team integrator, decisive, administratively competent, diplomatic, collaborative team oriented, and self-sacrificial. For me, many of these universally desirable traits reflect our Universe’s moral bend toward greater emphasis on respect for diversity, inclusion of multiple voices in decision-making, and a communal vision and purpose that takes into account the common good. The least universally desirable leader traits are from a previous worldview. They include: status conscious, conflict inducer, procedural, autonomous, face saver, non-participative, autocratic, self-centered and malevolent.

In short, to lead in these times requires a return to wisdom, defined by Miriam Webster as not only knowledge but also insight and good sense.  Jonas Salk, best known as the inventor of the polio vaccine but also a futurist, predicted this moment in his 1973 book, The Survival of the Wisest. “Wisdom, understood as a new kind of strength, is a paramount necessity,” wrote Salk. “Now, even more than ever before, it is required as a basis for fitness, to maintain life itself on the face of this planet, and as an alternative to paths toward alienation and despair.” Salk defines wisdom in part as the ability to consider new alternatives – in other words, to be alert on the balcony to King’s arc as it continues to bend towards new understandings of justice.

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