11/25/2014 09:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does Ferguson Herald the End Times? Ptolemy Says No!

These are dark and bloody days.

In Russia, Putin is out to restore, of all things, the Soviet empire. In China, Hong Kong's promise of freedom endures slow strangulation. In Europe, neo-fascist parties are scaling the heights of power. The Middle East, never at peace, has sunk to new depths of depravity. And here in America, we've slid all the way back to Watts.

I can't judge the grand jury that declined to indict Officer Wilson. I can't condone those who reacted with violence and looting. But I can share in the grief and rage of Michael Brown's family and community. This is not supposed to be how life goes -- and ends -- in "post-racial" America.

With the historic election of Barack Obama, much of white America made a paradoxical statement: racism is over, they declared, now we want our country back. Since then, every time a young black man is shot to death by police, or even by a sleazy vigilante, the white right leaps to the defense. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised, rumors are broadcast as facts, the dead man is vilified, and any chance of clarity, let alone justice, is lost.

Consider: In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that police can only use deadly force when facing an imminent threat to life. Since that decision, the "imminent threats" posed by young black men have skyrocketed (according to police), even as the overall rate of assault and other violent crime has plunged. Today, a young black man has more than 20 times the risk of being shot to death by police than a young white man.

So dark are these days, we cry out for explanation.

And, of course, the End-Timers are happy to explain: God's steamed. Rev. Franklin Graham recently wrote: "As I read the news, I can't help but wonder if we are in the last hours before our Lord Jesus Christ returns to rescue His church and God pours out His wrath on the world for the rejection of His Son." Half of all Americans, including more than three-quarters of white evangelicals, believe the End Times are upon us!

Well, if Graham's right, not to worry. Just say the magic words, and you're in the clear. But, seeing as the clearest prophecy in the Bible, attributed to Jesus himself, went unfulfilled, maybe we need think harder.

Maybe we need to go all the way back to Ptolemy. The ancient Greek astronomer, peering at the night sky, observed that the planets sometimes seem to slide backwards in their course. Since like most ancients he believed that the heavens whirled around the still center of an unmoving Earth, this was hard to figure. Ptolemy came up with a brilliant explanation: the retrograde epicycle.

If Earth, on its actual orbit around the Sun, happens to whiz past Jupiter, the red giant appears to move backwards in the sky. Ptolemy explained this by assuming that Jupiter, in addition to making a large orbit around the Earth was also making a smaller orbit around an invisible spot out in space (sort of like the Teacups in an amusement park ride that spin while also orbiting). Jupiter would therefore appear to loop back from time to time in its larger orbit.

The same kind of explanation can help us understand what's happening to us. We are on a linear rollercoaster that, from time to time, loops back. From 1963 until last year, humanity made astonishing, unprecedented advances in social justice. Like the Earth's orbit, progress is hard to notice progress day-to-day, but consider:

* The U.S. civil rights movement results in comprehensive abolition of legal racism.
* The world follows suit, with the last bastion of legal racism, South Africa, electing the symbol of resistance to apartheid as its president. Nelson Mandela becomes a world-revered figure.
* The feminist struggle results in legal equality in most of the world. Women are elected president in places as diverse as Liberia, Brazil, Germany, and Ukraine.
* Women in much of the world gain the right and means to control their fertility.
* The Soviet Union dissolves in relatively peaceful transition, and democracy becomes the worldwide norm.
* The entire content of South America flips from brutal military rule to democracy.
* Africa, though continuing to suffer from misrule and many other ills, begins a steady march out of poverty.
* Gays and lesbians gain rapid acceptance and legal equality throughout Europe and much of the United States.
* Trans people begin to gain some measure of acceptance and protection.
* Sex workers, long despised and much abused, begin to gain legal recognition.

So much change in so little time has provoked deep, reactionary fears among conservatives. This is understandable. The entire history of humankind can be summed up as a continuous struggle for domination or liberation. The promise of liberation has often resulted in a new order of domination.

But, epicycles aside, progress is discernible and real. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In a world where everyone has personal interests to defend, loyalties to honor, enemies to despise, and, let's be honest, biases to overcome, securing justice is hard. But it can be done.

Retrograde epicycles don't last forever. Progress will resume ... if we get over our fear and hate. The first, crucial steps are to extend the circle of trust, commit to fairness, and to recognize and embrace the humanity of people different from ourselves. As we used to sing, hand in hand, in the days of the civil rights marches, "Black and White together, we shall overcome some day."