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.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remem­bered as the most impor­tant leader of the civ­il rights move­ment in the 1960s, but he was also a Baptist min­is­ter, and his mes­sage was root­ed in his Christian faith and echoed the words of the Bible.

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.”

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.