“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
That quote of Martin Luther King Jr. has reappeared in recent days, encouraging a hope that we will get beyond the systemic violence and the raging streets that call for justice.
While MLK offered those words to the world, their source was a 100-year-old sermon of a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker.
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,” Parker confessed. “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, it bends toward justice.”
Parker’s words remind us that the march toward justice is a long one, that victory is not inevitable, and that ultimately it depends on conscience.
So, when George Floyd died, I wondered how much weight I added to that knee on his neck.
I once thought I was a pretty woke guy. I had black friends. I’d read Douglas, Baldwin and Coates. I knew 10 million human beings were imported into this country and that Gen. Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” for former slaves was nixed by Lincoln’s successor.
But then I traveled to Nigeria. For seven days, I never saw another nwoke ocha, a white man.
Still, I felt welcome, comfortable at meals and conversations, enjoying the discovery, the laughter, and the countless hugs of each day.
I remember asking myself if I would feel like this if I spent a week alone in North St. Louis, South Chicago, or Watts.
The question itself suggested some vestiges of prejudice. I didn’t feel guilty, but I knew it was something I had to examine.
Now we hear calls for a litany of changes and reforms. Regardless of the merit of any of these, nothing is going to work without an examination of personal conscience, without a conversion of the heart.
Paul echoes this in his epistle to Philemon. In prison, the evangelist has befriended Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who stole from his owner.
When Onesimus is released, Paul sends him back to his master with a letter and a challenge. He urges Philemon to a vulnerability open to change, to treat Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.
The arc of the moral universe may well orient towards justice, but whether it bends or breaks depends on each of us.