Progress Changes Things

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, May 3, 2024

That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.

—Rebecca Solnit

On several occasions in the last couple of years, I have heard friends, commentators, and scholars lament that the political project of federal and state governments since 2016 has been stripping away rights, including fundamental rights of a functioning democracy. My reaction to that observation has alternated between academic detachment to low simmering anxiety to outright panic. Have we abandoned the effort to expand the blessings of liberty for all? The ending of federal protections for women’s right to abortion, the passage of 84 anti-LGBT laws in states across the country, enacting laws to make it harder to vote, drastically limiting access to asylum at the southern border, and the passage of laws to restrict and criminalize the right to protest all point to retreat from an expansion of our democracy to protect those at risk of being excluded because of who they are.

Responding to the concern about backlash and stalled progress in pursuing justice, the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit cautioned us, “That everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure.” Our progress has power and promise amid backlash, resistance, and regression. Progress in rights, dignity, and status for women, Black people, and LGBT people occurred due to the power of ideas and “the transformation of imagination” that invited people to see the humanity of those once deemed less than, leading to changes in law, politics, and culture. That doesn’t mean later generations or newly empowered opponents of human rights for vulnerable others won’t retreat from those hard-won gains. It does mean that the work of justice continues.

The biblical readings in the common lectionary for this Easter season include stories about the journey the followers of Jesus took to build a church in the aftermath of his crucifixion and resurrection. As their numbers and influence increased, they endured continued oppression and violence. An observer of their experience could choose among many events, actions, and responses to make the case that the movement was succeeding or failing. And yet, as Solnit rightly maintains, it would be a mistake to assume that “the history of change and transformation is a linear path.” Jesus’ followers never toppled Caesar to impose God’s reign. Instead, their living out the meaning of God’s reign in their lives and communities disrupted the status quo of oppression and domination. Everything changed. Perhaps taking away rights granted and secured over the last 50 years means we’ve hit that part on the road of progress where gridlock and alternative directions seek to divert us. But we won’t turn back from the work of justice and liberation. The power of our progress in expanding rights has changed much in the world. Progress isn’t completion, but it does mean change.