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.