A Malignant Myth: Confronting the Presumption of Timely Progress


In his 1965 commencement address at Oberlin College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., confronted his listeners with these words of warning:

“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth.”

Fifty years later, our nation – indeed our world – is still shaken not only by how accurate Dr. King was then but by accurate he still remains today. Just as he cautioned us, time has not been our friend. “Time,” he implored us to remember, “is neutral.” It is neither better nor worse than the uses to which we put it. Like any other resource, time can be constructive or destructive; it is not inherently positive or negative.

Conditions have not improved with time. When and where progress has been made it isn’t simply attributable to the passage of time but to hard work. It’s true that time is required to make things better, but things don’t just get better with time. King said these words to college students on the precipice of their adult lives. One might think that he should have been more encouraging, but in a manner reminiscent of the teachings of his friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, he sought to remind the graduates that we are called to make time meaningful and to acknowledge the sacred potential of every moment.

If forced to grade our efforts at social progress, we have earned neither a passing nor failing mark. We have achieved nothing more and nothing less than an “incomplete.”

Instructors will tell you that, in many cases, an incomplete is even more frustrating than an F. It means that both teacher and student remain in a state of limbo. Students with an incomplete have the potential to pass, often the desire to pass, the resources to pass, but until or unless they do the required work, there exists no proper means of assessment, no way to measure progress. Some teachers might be interested in why the work hasn’t been done. Others don’t see that question as part of their job description. The United States must confront our mark of incomplete and the misuse of time that has prevented the real work from getting done.

Time has not and will not make relations between police officers and Black Americans any better. Time has not and will not improve the quality of education that Black Americans receive. Time has not and will not improve disparities in health care, employment, and housing. Time is finite. It cannot be given back to those who have been unjustly incarcerated, or lost their loved ones to senseless violence.

The rhetorical question “But aren’t we making progress?” — almost always asked with a degree of defensiveness — fails to address the crisis at hand. It is an attempt to deflect and dismiss the crisis. The amount of work that has been done is woefully insufficient. The rate of progress is too slow. The amount of lives that have been improved is too small, and the number of people who are neglected, oppressed, and abused is too great.

The assertion that things will get better with time is not merely a myth but a malignant myth. This unsubstantiated claim has spread throughout the minds of those of us blessed with privilege, position, and power. It has metastasized throughout our collective conscience, fueling passivity despite ongoing prejudice, ambivalence despite ongoing aggression, and complacency despite ongoing callousness.

The notion that time is on our side is a moral cancer that we cannot allow to go unchecked any longer. The time is long overdue to disabuse ourselves of the delusion that time is on our side. In parashat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, through, next week’s portion, parashat B’shallach, the mindset of Pharaoh, right up until the final plague, suffers from just such a delusion. The tyrant refuses to see the consequences of tyranny. To him, the plagues are a nuisance, a disruption, and an inconvenience. He refuses to recognize them for what they are: God’s condemnation of an evil, immoral, and brutal system that can no longer be tolerated.

It is high time that we denounce the delusions of our day. To delude ourselves with the myth that things have improved with time is to deny the reality of persistent racism, poverty and violence.

Time, in and of itself, has not and will not make things better. Injustice has not and will not find a way to “work itself out.” The only way time can make things better is to devote our time to correcting injustice.

6795353385_0c45667c22_bRather than waiting in vain for time to heal all wounds, let us resolve to heal the wounds of time. May we dedicate ourselves to achieving something bigger, bolder, and better than an “incomplete.” May we heed what Dr. King called “the urgency of now.” And may we go from celebrating Dr. King’s legacy today to working for it tomorrow.


You can also see a version of this post on the URJ blog: http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2016/01/18/mlk-day-its-us-heal-wounds-time


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