It’s a perennial question: is the world improving, degenerating, or zigzagging? Idealists and providentialists like to quote Martin Luther King Jr. that the arc of history bends towards justice. Dour realists disdain this ostensibly moralistic hubris, especially its geopolitical assumptions about the automatic ascendancy of democracy, human rights, and global rules-based order. Damir Marusic is one example of the latter, recently citing Secretary of State John Kerry’s response to Russia’s 2014 Ukraine invasion: “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Marusic warns, “If you put values before order—if you make the mistake to think that values exist independently outside of order, and indeed create order—you create massive blindspots for yourself.”
Recalling Machiavelli, Marusic concludes:
He is best read as warning of the perils that come if we take morality as our starting point for the creation of any kind of order, and that order is foundational to everything else. This does not prevent us from unfavorably comparing an autocratic order to our own, nor does it disallow us to point out the fragilities of centralized, repressive regimes. But neither should we blithely believe that these judgments count for much beyond temporary tactical advantage in our struggles, in bucking up our side or undermining theirs. At the end of the day, all that matters is who prevails.
David Polansky, also writing for The Wisdom of Crowds, likewise touches on this presumption of global cosmic moral order, opining against a “worldview that is essentially characterized by piety“:
That is to say, the belief that the universe rewards or punishes our conduct according to some cosmic standard of justice. Contemporary expressions of pious expectations about political life are characterized by two things: we generally no longer make explicit reference to a divine being or beings who enforce such a system; and the circle of judgement is limited to democracies—the political order in which all of us notionally have a say in the decision of the state.
Polansky’s point about some cosmic justice punishing democracies that betray their own principles is interesting. This perspective imagines America or Israel might suffer for hubris but China and Saudi Arabia won’t. He continues:
Even as we maintain profound disagreements about what constitutes justice and injustice, we are broadly accepting of the idea that it is not merely wrong but somehow dangerous to ourselves to persist in unjust behavior. It is perversely less disturbing to think that we live in a world where we will be punished for our transgressions than that we live in a world where we won’t.
I expect we will continue to operate according to largely unexamined and essentially pious assumptions about the implicit role of justice in political affairs—a form of democratic piety that necessarily persists in the absence of evidence. We sense it somehow, looming above us, just out of sight, as though we might eventually break through, coming out to finally reveal some cosmic superstructure that rewards or punishes the just and the unjust among us according to their deserts.
As Polansky notes, much of the modern notion that favored nations will be punished originates with biblical Israel incurring divine judgment for its sins. But Polansky posits that less favored nations without lofty aspirations are not, in current parlance, expected to suffer for their transgressions. It is true that democratic nations are held to a higher standard and for some good reasons. But there definitely is, as Marusic complains above, a vague expectation of judgment against transgressor nations who violate international morals. However naively, John Kerry surmised that Putin, upon admonishment, or after enduring unspecified consequences, would realize that his nineteenth-century aggressor behavior was retrograde and unfit for the twenty-first century.
Both Marusic and Polansky lament these dangerously dewy-eyed expectations that justice ultimately will prevail as the world moves ever upward to better standards of global conduct. And in many cases such expectations of more gentle behavior by despots are absurd. Often the diplomats who express them do not themselves believe their own rhetoric. As Marusic says, such rhetoric can be politically useful, offering “tactical advantage,” in establishing a moral case against aggressors and tyrants. Polansky warns against the supposedly baseless hope from “democratic piety” of “some cosmic superstructure that rewards or punishes the just and the unjust among us according to their deserts.”
But America and much of the democratic world are in fact animated by a biblical expectation that God contends with nations here and now, and that justice is ever prevailing, however unevenly. The Hebrew scriptures portray God contending not just with Israel but also with other nations. In this continuity, Christians also understand that history is moving toward a divinely ordained conclusion.
In my Twitter exchange with Polansky on this point, he responded that “unlike our democratic enthusiasts, religious believers do not necessarily insist that this settlement will take place in this world.” True, but most traditional religious believers do understand the deity to be active in this world among individuals and nations. Consequences for bad behavior, or blessings for faithful conduct, do not necessarily await the final judgment.
The Christian Dispensationalist “left behind” perspective so prominent in recent decades imagines the world always getting worse, concluding with ongoing calamity. This narrative is generally popular among comfortably middle-class and safe American Christians. Meanwhile, more impoverished and endangered global south Christians often have a more optimistic expectation of God’s blessing in an improving world. Prior to Dispensationalism, American Protestants generally assumed the world was ever-improving as the Gospel spread amid greater knowledge mediated by divine grace.
This Protestant providential optimism informed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last inaugural address, in which he quoted his boyhood Groton headmaster Reverend Endicott Peabody, an Episcopal divine:
I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights—then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”
Of course, Protestant optimism is not required for the general observation that bad actors often get their comeuppance. Hitler’s thousand-year Reich got 12 years, buried beneath rubble. The Soviet Union, supposedly representing the end of history, got 74 years. Mussolini was executed and hung naked upside down with his mistress. Romania’s vampire couple, the Ceasescus, got the firing squad not many hours after presiding over a murderous terrible police state. China’s current despots are not eternal. No regime ever is. Evil never endures. But righteousness does.
MLK’s arc toward justice doesn’t entail passivity and requires sacrificial labor with patience and suffering. It also offers confidence that such labors and sacrifices are not in vain. There is a cosmic superstructure, and its Architect presides and will prevail.