In 1853, the controversial abolitionist Theodore Parker preached these words: "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."
A century later a young black preacher famously took up this refrain in his sermons and speeches; perhaps most famously on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 when he answered the question how long African Americans must wait for full equality and justice in America, "How long?" Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked, "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
This faith in the moral arc of the universe became a central theme in King's famous "I Have a Dream Speech," delivered to a quarter of a million people at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this week.
The anniversary comes at a time when it is hard to feel that the universe is continuing to bend towards justice -- especially for African Americans. Prison populations offer a stark reminder of racial inequity, Trayvon Martin's killing went unpunished, stop and frisk targeting of African Americans has reached a boiling point, North Carolina has enacted voter suppression law, and the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that was one of the most important achievements of the civil rights movement.
In the majority opinion of the Supreme Court decision on the VRA, Chief Justice Roberts insisted "that nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically" and concluded therefore that the protections enacted and reaffirmed by Congress over that last 50 years are no longer necessary.
The hubris of the decision was made clear within hours as Texas moved forward with redistricting plans as well as voter ID requirements that target poor and minority voters.
Right now, it seems like a combination of false satisfaction and organized attacks have the potential to flatline the arc and reverse the hard fought gains made by those who seek justice for the African American community.
As my great grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch, eloquently reminded readers in 1908: "As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present social order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin."
Whatever we would like to think about ourselves as a people, the deep sin of racism continues to be the scourge of America. Like any sin, the only way to be freed from it is to admit that we are guilty of it, and make a commitment to repent from its influence and redeem and transform our lives and the lives of our communities.
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which "is" to that which "can and must be." That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that King dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending.
One of the people who has dedicated his life and ministry to uplifting the black community is a friend of mine from seminary, the Rev. Tony Lee, who is pastor of the Community of Hope in Maryland. Rev. Lee told me he was "in his mother's womb" when Rev. King was assassinated, and Washington burned, and was born on the anniversary of the March on Washington:
Even though I never saw Dr. King or heard Dr. King, I feel connected to his legacy and moving his work forward. Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement -- it is a hope statement -- and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God's assistant we can help bend the arc.
Another young leader who works for justice every day is Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity Church in Chicago. His father, Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. was with King 50 years ago and this year the two pastors, father and son, will be speaking at the observance in Washington D.C. on August 28.
Rev. Moss III also emphasizes the importance of King's testimony of the moral arc in this moment 50 years later:
I talk about the moral arc of the universe in terms of social justice -- but the truth is we get weary. The moral arc takes the long view of history and insists that the work we do today is not done in vain. Taking on the King legacy is about the challenge of the unfinished work of human rights and civil rights for all people.
150 years ago, Theodore Parker divined through his conscience that while no one could see it to its conclusion, that we were moving along an arc towards a place of more justice, equity and peace for all humanity. King called this destination the Beloved Community and encouraged us to "make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."
Those of us who wish to honor Dr. King and all those who took part in the March on Washington 50 years ago can best do so by maintaining hope in the moral arc of the universe and by getting busy bending it towards justice for our generation and the generations that are to come.
"Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step."
"I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land."
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
"The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict."
"The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'"
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies."
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”
"You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression ... If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. And if we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Address to the first Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) Mass Meeting, at Holt Street Baptist Church, 1955
“It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart.”
“The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”
“The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
“When I took up the cross I recognized it's meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately, that you die on.”
"The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." Pilgrimage to Non-Violence, 1960
Follow Paul Brandeis Raushenbush on Twitter: www.twitter.com/raushenbush