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Bending the Arcs

In one of this Sunday’s lenten lectionary texts, the prophet Isaiah conveys a vision to exiled Israel: 

Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
- Isaiah 43:16-21

It’s a powerful look back and look forward to the deliverance God will bring. Just as God has liberated Israel from Egypt’s oppressive violence to bring them through the wilderness, so God will make a way through their current wilderness. Just as God miraculously made a path through the Red Sea, God will forge a river of drinkable water in the desert. God draws Israel’s attention forward to the way prepared ahead of them—a new and life-giving way. 

In this vision, people, animals, and the land are all brought together into provision and praise. They are all co-witnesses to God’s acts and co-beneficiaries of deliverance—responding together to God’s new thing.

It is a powerful vision. 

From where we sit today, it can seem difficult to perceive. 

Right now, the U.S. southwest is suffering the worst drought in 1,200 years. The Amazon, the main forest that cleans and cools our atmosphere, is on its way toward becoming savannah within decades. And last month’s UN report on climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability confirmed that our natural life support systems are now changing faster than we are adapting

As the land suffers, so do the people. (Especially the people who contribute the least impact upon the earth.) Increasing desertification of the land—the opposite of the Isaianic vision—is leaving millions of dear people severely hungry

From where we sit today, it takes faith to see with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”— especially since, right now it’s clear that the “arc of the physical universe is short and bends toward heat,” as Bill McKibben puts it. 

The current, short-term, deadly arc toward heat and injustice is not inevitable.

These arcs toward injustice and heat (which really are but one arc) share common origins: greed and self-interest; a worldview of separation and domination; using people, places, and other living beings for self-enrichment; devaluing life and overvaluing profit. (We also see them at play in Russia’s current terrible war on Ukraine; a war that is underwritten and enabled by deadly oil and gas—leading many to call for a fossil-fuel non-proliferation treaty.) Dr. King identified these root causes of racial injustice, violence, and extractivism as “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” 

But Dr. King also proclaimed, from the pulpit of Riverside Church in 1967, that these triplets could be overcome, that society could have “a radical revolution of values” and orient itself around love of people rather than love of things or money. 

And it still can. The current, short-term, deadly arc toward heat and injustice is not inevitable. There is still time and vision and help to bend it. There are real pathways to walk: paths through the desert; paths toward a liveable future with ultimately more justice and less heat:

  • Last year, the (traditionally conservative) International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s most influential energy modeling agency, laid out a pathway in which no new fossil fuel investment or development is necessary.

  • Earlier this month, the IEA laid out another pathway—to Europe getting off Russian natural gas and attaining energy security.

  • What was once on the outskirts of imagination is now a fully visible and feasible route: the ability to power our lives without burning things. Burnt offerings: no longer required.

  • The current round of IPCC reports show a “window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”—though that window is brief and rapidly closing, it exists.

  • A sustainable future can be a more prosperous and healthy one, by many measures. By transitioning beyond the energy sources and processes we take for granted, which poison the air and damage our life support systems, we can gain better social outcomes.

Yes, at times the pathways might be difficult to perceive. In our world, we can always find evidence that the circumstances don’t bend toward justice (or don’t warrant hope) so to act is pointless. We can always find arguments that resistance is futile. 

Those of us who have not had to learn resistance as a survival strategy might do well to learn from communities who have faced existential threats before, have made it through, and are still fighting for life. Like the Memphis neighbors who fought environmental racism, stopping a pipeline from being put through their neighborhood. Or like Indigenous resistance movements that have stopped or delayed pollution equivalent to at least a quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions in the last decade.

As far as the moral and physical arcs of the universe go, there will perhaps never be a window of time where it’s so important and possible to bend them in the same direction—away from heat and toward justice—than this year and the next few. Every fraction of a degree of global heating we help prevent and every solution we contribute matters for people, communities, cultures, and species around the world. 

Each of us alive during this window have an opportunity and a responsibility to help bend the arcs together. Doing so in community requires a vision of a future that is worth inhabiting.

This is the kind of vision Isaiah offers. It is a vision of deliverance, of divine provision. It is a vision of people, land, and other creatures all brought into God’s deliverance together. It is a vision that recalls what God has done and envisions the kind of thing God can do again. 

We can’t do it by our own strength: we need God to empower us to live as followers of the Way. 

We can live toward this vision. Even when it can be hard to believe God can make a way where there seems to be no way or to believe that God can do a new thing (let alone see it). 

We can pray and work for the physical universe and the moral universe to bend together toward justice. We can pray and work for right relationships between people, God, and the rest of the living world to be restored. We can’t do it by our own strength: we need God to empower us to live as followers of the Way. 

But God can make a way. Will we join it? 

As a possible next step, check out the Climate Witness Project's resources for advocacy, education, energy stewardship, and worship. Their current Lent Creation Care Challenge is a great place to start—in Lent, or beyond.

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