“…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God… the Brotherhood of Man… the Leadership of Jesus… Salvation by Character… [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are… well… we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know… that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
— declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation–deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers — or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo… So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery–which we call the Civil War–brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws…. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation–Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown–struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.