Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was one of the most influential theologians and ministers in Unitarianism during the Transcendentalist Movement and leading up to the Civil War. In a sermon entitled Justice and the Conscience, which he published in 1859, he said:
God has made man with the instinctive love of justice in him which gradually gets developed in the world. But in Himself justice is infinite. This justice of God must appear in the world, and in the history of men; and, after ‘all the wrongs that patient merit of the unworthy takes,’ still you see that the ploughshare of justice is drawn through and through the field of the world, uprooting the savage plants... Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.
This is probably the source for the phrase “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” spoken by many social justice activists and religious leaders within Unitarian Universalism and beyond, including the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
I used this as one of the readings for a sermon two weeks ago, reflecting on the question “What Does It Mean to be a People of Perseverance?”. This was the Sunday after 17 students and teachers were murdered at their high school in Parkland, Florida. As I said that Sunday, while I do trust that this is true, deep in my heart, that the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice, there are times when it is very hard for me to believe it, where, as Parker notes, my eye does not reach far enough to see it and I do not have the lived experience yet to know for sure. And yet, something in me trusts that the divine spirit calling us to life is love, not fear. At least, most of the time. And then there are times like the ones we are in, when I wonder and when I doubt.
Trusting that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends toward justice, I realize both the heartbreak and the hope. The heartbreak comes in realizing that this bending can’t come soon enough. So many people are suffering at the hands of the hate, fear and violence inherent in unjust human relationships and systems. So many will not live to see that bending. Paradoxically, perhaps, herein lies my hope. Reading back on the sermons of Theodore Parker and the works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the African American Unitarian author, speaker, suffragette and abolitionist I preached about this past Sunday, I realize that I live in a time when I see things which they did not experience, and could only imagine might happen. Parker did not live to see the end of slavery. Harper did not live to see women get the vote. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when our schools, religious communities and other gathering places are free from the violence of assault weapons. Perhaps I will not get to see the time when every human being can live authentically into who they are, regardless of the ways in which we separate ourselves into us and them. Perhaps I will not get to see when we realize that true love and care for our children requires us to take care not just of each other’s children, but of our earth. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And for it to happen at all, I need to live, even as imperfectly and short sighted as I do, as if it were true.