The Rev. Martin Luther King’s words about justice and the universe have become a mantra for progressives, but most of them are missing the point because the words have been taken out of context.
King was actually quoting another clergyman when, speaking at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and social reformer who helped enslaved people escape to freedom, penned those words in 1810, half a century before the Civil War.
“I do not pretend to understand the universe,” Parker wrote. “The arc is a long one, and 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. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Recalling what Thomas Jefferson said about slavery — that he trembled when he remembered that God is just — Parker concluded: “Ere long all America will tremble.”
Parker was referring to God’s justice, not man’s. So was King.
“Those of us who call on the name of Jesus Christ find something at the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of truth and justice,” he wrote in a Christian newsletter 10 years before his speech at the cathedral. “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C… so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and to be true to his legacy, we should remember that King was first a preacher of the gospel and that the civil rights movement was rooted in the black churches of the South and the white churches and synagogues of the North. Its text was the King James Bible. Its leaders were responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
It’s hard to understand the civil rights movement as anything other than a revival. It was rooted in Christian faith and grew out of black churches of the South, and its key leaders were pastors who believed it succeeded because when they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or marched on Washington, God walked with them.
As the Rev. Andrew Young put it, the Spirit made “a way out of no way.”
Today there is a tendency to downplay the importance of faith in the work of justice, even though its greatest successes, from ending the slave trade in 18th century England to alleviating the spread of AIDS in Africa and rescuing victims of human trafficking in America have mostly been led by people of faith who believed they were doing God’s work.
Today, most charity in this country comes through churches and faith-based organizations.
People of other religions and no religion at all also play an important part in the work of justice and always have, and they, too, should be appreciated for their contributions.
But many believe religion has no place in politics. They’re wrong. That is not what “separation of church and state” means.
It is a notion President Barack Obama, who began his public service career as a community organizer for churches on Chicago’s South Side, dismissed.
“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their faith at the door before entering the public square,” said Obama, who was brought up by an agnostic single mother and became a Christian when he answered an altar call as an adult.
The former president cited examples such as Frederick Douglass and Dorothy Day, whose passion for justice came from their faith in a God of justice.
“So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity,” Obama said. “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
However ennobling faith-inspired public service may be, what Parker and King wrote about the “arc of the moral universe” makes it clear they were not just talking about politics.
I came across this story of Parker and King a few years ago in “Reclaiming Hope,” a memoir by Michael Wear, a White House and campaign adviser to President Obama.
A white evangelical Christian who came to faith through the black churches, Wear made a career in politics but concluded that politics is not where we want to place our ultimate hope for justice. In the end, the hope for humanity is in Christ, whose kingdom is breaking into our world, and who will put everything to rights.
“Hope not only reaches across time, but it reaches from outside of time itself. History will not culminate with the long march of human progress toward perfection but with God redeeming all things,” he wrote.
I think that’s part of what King was talking about when, hours before he was murdered at a motel in Memphis, he said he was filled with hope, not fear or worry, because his eyes had seen “the glory of the coming of the Lord.”