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Justice and the moral arc

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We buried a good man today. Not as we previously would have. Not as he might have expected. But we did it anyway. He was widely liked and respected; a quiet, get the job done kind of man. His living was quiet and his passing was the same. In the hours leading to death he did not complain. One moment asking after others, the next silently waiting and then he quite simply faded away. Another casualty in an age of new conventions.

We buried a good man today. Indeed we have buried too many of late. One was a young man determined to conquer the world. He wished to make it a safe place for his family and his girl. Was it the virus? We cannot tell. Was he let down? No matter to him now. Another gentleman was older. A giant of a man. A scholar, an intellectual of global repute. Despite all this, he was a practical man. As tall as the tree of his exploits, so deep were the roots of his humanity and humility. But in these days of shaking, even Iroko is not exempt. As suddenly as he came, he was gone.

Good women have also come and gone. There have been quite a few. The season simply will not relent. We had sensed that the road was hungry for more. But not her. Surely not for her. Why would the reaper even come near? But here we are, now speaking in the past tense of a gem. Of one who took her own pain and wove the lessons into a tapestry of love and blessing for the gain of so many. Meanwhile, greed, self-interest, callous indifference and worse abound with impunity elsewhere. The mystery is deep and we must concede; we cannot fathom it.

As life evolves and goes on, so do plans for dealing with death. The hearse arrived as expected. The community gathered in anticipation. His dearest came out and were joined by wider family. Their grief was evident but dignified. Appropriate. At times tearful, at other times, there were rueful smiles. There was no hugging here. Safe distancing the framework that dictated all. The funeral director and his team were respectful in grey. They orchestrated this unusual gathering and gave it a form which enabled mourners to overcome the awkwardness. This was a new way but in our own way, we paid our respects to the man.

How do you take the measure of a man? How to take stock of all he has done? His traducers say he hurt rather than helped others with what he had. His friends defend him and say we misunderstand. At last, how will we choose to remember him? As the cortege drove away, the clapping commenced; we clapped to show the deceased respect, to wish him well in his new world. We clapped for his spouse and children, to encourage and help them persevere. This too shall pass our claps say. We clapped for each and for one another and for the street and our community. We clapped for the nation and clapped for the world. In this era of COVID and unlawful killing, may the days be far apart. May we not gather like this any time soon.

But then, we buried another good man today. He died in a place and in a manner that seems so far away, so foreign. Yet it is not. The one with the knee on his neck and hand in his own pocket did not see what we saw. He did not see tall, handsome and dignified. He did not see the son of Princes born on African shores. He missed the vast potential wrapped in a gentle frame. What he saw was a descendant of slaves. What he saw was another so far beneath him he could casually be done away with.

We buried a good man today. He fell as though in a time of war. That war needs to come to an end my friends. And for that the nations are boiling. But power and privilege do not concede. At first, they do not see it. They do not know the past or recognise the pain or acknowledge the need to change. And then they see but choose to resist. At the point where change is nearest, the seemingly mighty are most unyielding. That is when the cracks appear.

Is it true that the world will be re-set? That the unjust judge will relent and attend the persistent widow? A King once spoke of the moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice. I assumed that this arc would bend on its own and in due course. I imagined that time and decency would ensure this. That historic oppression would be acknowledged, redemption sought and redress agreed. But remember what has gone before; four hundred years of the stony road and the chastening rod1. Decades of outright denial, obfuscation and systematic undermining.

You see the arc will not bend on its own. So what should we do in these historic times? First we must search ourselves and learn humility. Then we should educate our families, friends and colleagues. We need to define the scale of injustice and recognise that justice is indivisible. What we ask of others, we must find within ourselves. We should commit to actively seek institutional change in our areas of influence. We must seek truth, ask for understanding and concern but demand equality and justice. Charity should not be confused with equity. We must work with partners of good conscience who are minded to act. They may be black, white or brown. But whatever others choose to do, you and I must bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

So much of a man’s life is played close to his chest. I suspect his dearest would gasp if he were to confess all. The dark tries to resist the light. But when that light is true, the resistance is to no avail. Did we bury a good man today? I can no longer tell and who is to say anyway? Mine is to pray that he will find rest. That they would all find rest, the many that have fallen. That the good among the seed they have sown will bear fruit. That the fruit will avail for their families, for their children and for their children’s children2. That the fruit will be there for the people and the nations. That those who remain will never be the same. That as a people, adversity will open our eyes and close our ranks. That we would run faster, jump longer and fly higher and, in so doing, experience the blessing. For a thousand generations.
• Ade-Ajayi is a Surgeon and Global Africa Advocate


In this article:
Niyi Ade-Ajayi
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