Hope and History: Three Views
Peter Dula

Ta-Nehisi Coates announces his distrust of Christianity early in his 2015 book, Between the World and Me. He writes:

I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas…We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel
before their God. And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side…My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then
concluded in a box (28).

With his invocation of the universe’s moral arc, Coates places himself within a long history of reflection. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” was a favorite line of Martin Luther King, Jr., so much so that it is engraved into his Washington D.C. memorial. Barack Obama took it for his own when he had it woven into the Oval Office rug. But the line is actually much older than King. Its original version comes from Theodore Parker, who said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

So we have four different people using and modifying this quotation for distinct purposes. I think clarifying the differences can help us understand Coates’s influential book and, at the same time, help us untangle Christian hope from other versions of hope, or untangle good theology from bad.

Let’s start with Theodore Parker. He was a nineteenth-century abolitionist preacher. He got kicked out of the Unitarian church for his skepticism about the Bible (which shows you how long ago that was). He hung around Massachusetts Transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Alcotts. I appreciate his modesty concerning the arc. I admire the tension between acknowledging that there is no evidence for the arc’s direction or length on one hand and, on the other, his assurance that what he cannot see with his outer eye he can see with his inner eye.  But you can imagine Coates reading this and just being bewildered. “You divine it by conscience?! You’re just making that up.” I confess considerable sympathy with Coates here. If there is such an arc and if it bends the way Parker thinks it does, that would have to be known from revelation. Parker is right that it can’t be simply read off history, but “divine by conscience” isn’t, theologically speaking, much of an improvement.

Obama’s version is distinctly different. He turns it into a statement about history, not “the moral universe,” but I think that is a fair translation, mostly because I am not sure I know what the moral universe is. The mysteriousness that pervades Parker’s version is gone. And unlike Parker, Obama thinks it can be read off of history, in particular, off of American history. Not only that, it is now something that is in our control. Not only can we see it, we can help it bend and those of us who voted for him nine years ago participated in bending it.

I think Obama’s version is Coates’s central target. I have found it useful to think of Between the World and Me as a kind of companion counter-volume to Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Both are the coming-of-age stories of young black men coming to terms with race in America by becoming writers. But they end up in very different places.

Not just in his memoir, but in speech after speech, Obama presented his story, his rise from childhood poverty to the Harvard Law Review and the U.S. presidency, as evidence that racism is not essential to the American story, to what Coates calls the Dream. Racism for Obama is not inscribed at the founding. In Obama’s version of the story, America is founded on the conviction that all humans are created equal and deserve an equal share of power in governance. American history is the story of progressively making that vision a reality by overcoming the obstacles of slavery and patriarchy. He identifies that progress with history’s arc.

For Coates, on the other hand, Obama’s American creed of liberty and equality does not exist alongside slavery and the genocidal dispossession of Native Americans; it rests, as it were, on top of them. The distinction is absolutely essential to understanding the difference between Obama and Coates and the difference between liberalism and radicalism. The liberty and equality enjoyed by whiteness did not exist in spite of the oppression of people of color but because of it. The material prosperity that is constitutive of the Dream requires the exploitation of the those marginalized by it. People of color haven’t been benignly left out; they have been actively and necessarily excluded.

I’m not going to try to tell you who is right in that debate, Coates or Obama. My own story, as the son of a white woman and an African man, has far more parallels with Obama’s than Coates’s story. But my historical and philosophical commitments place me with Coates. I don’t think the arc of history bends toward justice. But I don’t think the arc of history bends toward chaos. I don’t think history has an arc. History has thousands of arcs. Some of them have bent asymptotically toward justice. Some haven’t. Some looked like they did and then crashed and burned. Others had the opposite trajectory.

But where do my theological commitments place me? Doesn’t the Bible make repeated claims about the arc of history bending towards justice? Doesn’t the Bible—from beginning to end, from the promises to Abraham and then to Moses and up through the prophets and all the way to John’s Apocalypse—repeatedly and consistently understand history as the field upon which God’s purposes are enacted, culminating in a time when they are decisively disclosed?

Well, yes and no. I think the better way to say it is “the arc of God’s purposes in history bends toward justice.” Here I want to turn at last to the King quotation and point out something that places it in contrast to Parker’s and Obama’s and in the company of the prophets.

One thing that is immediately obvious, perhaps most obvious, is King’s ability to constantly keep hope and despair in tension. Like almost every page of the prophets, King never relaxes this tension. Success and failure, light and dark, cross and resurrection, Friday and Sunday are always held together. He puts it most famously and pithily when he said, “We must hew a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair”—a line that comes right after he quotes Parker again in a 1967 speech. He does this over and over. It is one of his most characteristic ways of speaking. The arc of God’s purposes in history, he seems to say, bends toward cross and resurrection. But he never lets resurrection crowd out the cross or the cross crowd out the resurrection. He is situated firmly in Holy Saturday.

Most often in Between the World and Me, Coates seems to understand even King’s hope as false hope. But Coates never makes the common, easy, conventional criticism of Christian hope—that is, if God is in control, then humanity is relieved of responsibility, that God’s guarantee of the future means we don’t have to worry about the present. He doesn’t make the political critique of Christian hope, he makes what I think of as a psychological critique. In contrast to the false hopes and blind faiths of white, black, and Christian Dreams, Coates offers questioning. Here he is describing his education at Howard:

I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power. I was learning to live in the disquiet I felt in [the library], in the mess of my mind. The
gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon (52).

I think those three sentences should be engraved in granite above the entrance to every university library in the country. I think this is at the heart of Coates’s rejection of Christian hope. He thinks Christian hope is a way of avoiding the discord, argument, and chaos, and if he loses that,  he loses what he calls “a kind of power,” a writer’s kind of power. He loses his beacon. For him, such discord is the pulsing energy at the heart of his existence, and to trade in those questions for Christian answers would be a kind of death.

So we may be surprised, but shouldn’t be, when, toward the end of Between the World and Me, Coates turns a quizzical eye on his own relationship to the church. In the third and final section of the book, he reaches out to the mother of Prince Jones, his friend from Howard, killed, like so many other innocent black men, by the police. Reflecting on his impressions of her, he writes,

I thought of my own distance from an institution [the black church] that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve
missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have
transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment because something beyond everything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life

Here Coates, for the first time in the book, revises the quotation with which I began. He takes back the part about “retreat,” realizing that the church may not necessarily be an escape. Here it is narrated as the exact opposite, as something that pushed Mabel Jones into the world and not away from it, into her own kind of disquiet. Here, ten pages from the end, by acknowledging the possibility of “something beyond the body,” Coates questions his materialism, too. Moreover, his en-counter with Mrs. Jones also prompts a revision of his early disdain for the civil rights movement’s nonviolence. Gazing at her reminds him of “the pictures from the sit-ins in the ’60s”:

Have you ever looked at those faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us,
and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god
or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real (142).

If you or I as Christians hear that with a sigh of relief—Whew! He’s let us off the hook—we have entirely missed the point. The point, rather, is this: we, or at least many of us, are to come to Coates the way Coates comes to Mabel Jones, allowing him to draw us into questioning our most fundamental convictions. Not to abandon them or disown them but to rethink them. James Baldwin wrote, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” It is also the purpose of theology. The arc of history doesn’t exist. The arc of God’s purposes does, and it bends toward justice. But justice is an abstraction. We can be more precise. The arc of God’s purposes in history bends toward the cross. That sounds like an answer, but it is an answer that lays bare a host of questions: How is that justice? How does that fulfill the promises that pervade the Old Testament? Shall we understand those promises to have been revealed as metaphors for the cross? And, if so, shouldn’t we also think of the second coming as equally metaphorical, but of a mystery that we cannot understand rather than a future firmly in our intellectual grasp? I don’t know about you, but those questions provoke in me what I imagine Coates means by intellectual vertigo.


Peter Dula is associate professor of religion and culture and chair of the Department of Bible and Religion at Eastern Mennonite University, where he presented a version of this essay as a chapel talk.

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