The Moral Arc of the Universe

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

The city of Chicago and the federal government will be putting on a $55 million security extravaganza later this month to protect NATO delegates, representing the most powerful military force on the planet, from nonviolent protesters who want to see an end to war.

Think of the mini-security state as an ironic projection of NATO’s own agenda, which is control — by force — of as much of the world as possible. And of course the propaganda that accompanies the big show is that the protesters are the dangerous and disruptive ones, that NATO’s violence is distant, necessary and somehow clean, despite the occasional awkward headline (“NATO Admits Killing Afghan Mother, 5 Children in Air Strike”).

What the protesters really represent is what NATO, and all the forces of empire and domination, fear most: the impertinence to question and challenge authority and demand a say at the big table.

“The nonviolent resister has a deep faith in the future, and believes that the forces in the universe are ultimately on the side of justice. To quote Dr. King, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”

NATO, on the other hand, has no faith whatsoever in the future, beyond that miniscule segment it thinks it can control by total and overwhelming force. It’s losing the war in Afghanistan but needs to demonstrate it hasn’t lost the one on its own turf — though by defining it as a war it has already lost.

The words quoted above are part of the nonviolence statement at the Voices for Creative Nonviolence website, some of whose members and friends — including Nobel Peace nominee Kathy Kelly — are in the process of walking some 200 miles from Madison, Wis., to Chicago in response to the upcoming NATO summit. I joined them this past weekend on Wisconsin’s Glacial Drumlin Trail, put in about ten miles with them and shared — oh, the joy! — a burst of serious rain with them on Sunday. I got soaked. Everyone got soaked.

Creative nonviolence! Walking in the rain has become part of my definition of what this term means. Indeed, just walking along a trail in calm pursuit of the seemingly impossible — from Helenville to Sullivan to Dousman to Wales to Waukesha, and when the trail ends, more walking, through Milwaukee and south to Chicago, through 25 towns and cities — is empowering in ways that defy logic. If nothing else, it breaks one’s sense of isolation and helplessness, which begins with the question: How can I possibly make a difference?

“This is where you get the energy for the next 20 miles — one person ‘out there’ you connect with,” said Jules Orkin, one of the walkers.

Walking for a cause is building community. It’s also being part of a community. As Jules and I talked, somewhere between Dousman and Wales, it was already starting to rain. I felt a familiar, habitual dismay at the first few drops, an “oh no,” as though the fun were over, but the conversation was getting so good I ignored the feeling.

“I’ve averaged over a thousand miles a year,” Jules said. Walking, that is, to end war, to demand justice for Native Americans, to challenge nuclear power and weapons. This summer he will walk from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, arriving in Hiroshima on Aug. 6. He’s 73. He turns 74 in August.

Did you ever walk along the moral arc of the universe?

Along with Jules and Kathy, my fellow walkers last weekend were Buddy Bell, who coordinated the walk; Alice Gerard from western New York; Kathy Walsh from Madison; and Barbara Hoffman, from Appleton, Wis. Some were vets in taking a nonviolent stand for the future.

“I’ve spent 15 months in federal prison,” Alice told me. She’s been sentenced three times, once for three months, twice for six months — for crossing the line at Fort Benning, Ga., during the annual protests at what was once called the School of the Americas. For decades, Latin American military personnel, in service to the American empire, received training there in torture and other methods of keeping impoverished populations in check. She’s been arrested for protesting, in total, 14 times — spurred to activism after her friend, Sr. Diana Ortiz, was kidnapped and brutally tortured in Guatemala.

“At that point, it ceased to be an abstract concept — the reality of somebody I knew being tortured helped push me across the line,” Alice said.

And so we walked in the rain. We walked to stand in moral opposition to the NATO drone strikes and night raids. We walked to stand against the Strategic Partnership Agreement, recently signed by Presidents Obama and Karzai in secrecy and in the absence of public debate or input, which, after 11 years of devastating war and occupation, will keep a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for another decade.

We walked to take all this and more out of the realm of abstraction, to build community and to acknowledge that the only future worth creating is one that bends toward justice.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at