Monday, January 19, 2009

Joe Biden and the Arc of the Moral Universe

Last week, Joe Biden said farewell to the United States Senate, 36 years after he became its youngest member. It was an unusually personal speech, even for a man who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Biden recounted how the civil rights movement prompted him to seek elected office, and evoked the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who declared on the steps of the state capitol in Birmingham, Alabama, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Biden told the story of an enormous desk that John Stennis of Mississippi called “the flagship of the Confederacy,” where the leading segregationists met to plot the demise of the civil rights movement:
I came here to fight for civil rights. In my office now sits that grand conference table that once was used to fight against civil rights, and I leave here today to begin my service to our nation's first African-American president.
The enduring surprise of Biden’s long Senate career is that he would become the friend, and not just the colleague, of the enemies of civil rights:
I never thought I'd develop deep personal relationships with men whose position played an extremely large part in my desire to come to the Senate in the first place to change what they believed in -- Eastland, Stennis, Thurmond. All these men became my friends.
Indeed, Biden was asked to deliver the eulogy for Strom Thurmond, and was greeted by puzzlement and even criticism for the gesture.
Biden used his experience with his older colleagues to give witness to the truth that even the most determined foes of racial justice did eventually give way in the face of righteous change:
The arc of the universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice.
And the United States Senate has been an incredible instrument in ensuring that justice.
In that one phrase, we can catch a glimpse of a deeper connection between our new president and his vice president. Biden showed us an almost mystical belief in the power of justice to transform powerful men. And he spoke of the Senate itself, and the friendships forged there, as instruments of that change.
Here we see the connection with Obama, who has puzzled, and even infuriated, supporters by choosing a conservative pastor, Rick Warren, to deliver an invocation at his inauguration.
Perhaps Obama imagines that eventually he can change Warren’s mind. Talk about audacity.
As for the famous phrase itself, a correspondent wrote to tell me that it originated with the 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

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