Bending Toward Justice?

The Arc of the Moral Universe, part 1

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Stirring and hopeful words! Is it true?

Theodore Parker
Theodore Parker, born in 1810 in Massachusetts, became a prominent Unitarian minister and abolitionist. In a sermon delivered around 1850, titled “Of Justice and the Conscience,” Parker spoke against slavery, made the case for abolition, and expressed optimism that slavery would end. He said:
“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. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” (Parker, Ten Sermons of Religion, 1853, pp. 84-85.)
By 1918 a book of quotations attributed to Theodore Parker the more concise expression:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is the version that Martin Luther King used. King first used it in a print article he wrote in 1958, where he put quotation marks around it, indicating his acknowledgment that the expression was already in circulation.

President Obama has, on a couple of occasions, employed the metaphor of history bending toward justice.

In the last year, I’ve heard a lot of references to the onward progressive march of history. From 2014 May until 2015 Feb, the number of states or DC recognizing same-sex marriage ballooned from 17 to 38 in less than 9 months. Then last June, the Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize same-sex marriage. During this march to marriage equality, I heard often that the opponents were on the wrong side of history – that this progress was bound to happen and that those who opposed it would end up in the same historical dustbin with proponents of slavery, opponents of women’s suffrage, and the upholders of Jim Crow and segregation. My friends were saying this sort of thing, and while I certainly agreed with them that recognizing same-sex marriage was the right thing to do, I was uncomfortable with the argument that "history has ruled so get used to it." The call of justice is not a call to read the tea leaves and then jump on board history’s train. The call of justice is not to follow shifting popular attitudes, but to lead them, if we can -- with humility, never certain what history will do -- and in any case, lead lives of integrity, standing up for fairness and respect for all.

The arc of the moral universe is not merely a long one, it is not a smooth arc at all. It, in fact, bends every which way. It is well to remember:
  • In 1920, a huge push for what had looked to a lot of people at the time like moral progress culminated in the prohibition of alcohol. The general consensus today is that that was not moral progress, but rather a mistake.
  • More of us would say that what happened in 1972 with the Roe v. Wade decision actually was moral progress. But if that was a bending toward justice, we have been bending away from it ever since, as women’s reproductive freedom has endured curtailment after curtailment for the last 43 years.
The optimism of Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King has value. That optimism is a core part of our liberal faith. Another great Unitarian minister of the 19th-centry, Rev. William Channing Gannett, wrote the words of our hymn, “It Sounds Along the Ages.” The hymn's words declare that there is some kind of force at work in history that sounds throughout the ages, pushing humans to new stages of moral awakening. “It calls and, lo, new justice, it speaks and, lo, new truth.” (Singing the Living Tradition, #187). And when the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams discerned what he called "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion," one of those "stones" is liberal religion's conviction that:
"the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism."
James Luther Adams
Adams also cautioned us repeatedly and at length to take seriously the capacity of human evil, which he witnessed as a visiting scholar in Germany during the 1930s as the Nazis were rising to power. So he adds:
"This view does not necessarily involve immediate optimism. In our century we have seen the rebarbarization of the masses, we have witnessed a widespread dissolution of values, and we have seen the appearance of great collective demonries. Progress is now seen not to take place through inheritance; each generation must anew win insight into the ambiguous nature of human existence and must give new relevance to moral and spiritual values. A realistic appraisal of our behavior, personal and institutional, and a life of continuing humility and renewal are demanded, for there are ever-present forces in us working for perversion and destruction." (James Luther Adams, "The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion)
It’s interesting that both Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King spoke of the moral universe bending toward justice in the context of America’s treatment of people of color. Parker was speaking for abolition of slavery, and King for the abolition of Jim Crow segregation. It is matters of race that have particularly inspired our thinkers and leaders to hope for an arc of justice which, howsoever slowly, bends toward justice.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not so sanguine. When Jon Stewart interviewed Coates, Stewart observed, "It's not as optimistic for you. You don't have that feeling that the arc of history may be long, but it bends toward justice." Coates replied, "I don't. I think it bends toward chaos." (Daily Show, 2015 Jul 23)

Ta-Nahisi Coates
In his recent "Letter to My Son," Ta-Nehisi Coates writes powerfully of the state of race relations in the US today:
"I write you in your 15th year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. And should one live in such a body? What should be our aim beyond meager survival of constant, generational, ongoing battery and assault? I have asked this question all my life. I have sought the answer through my reading and writings, through the music of my youth, through arguments with your grandfather, with your mother. I have searched for answers in nationalist myth, in classrooms, out on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and myths." (Atlantic, 2015 Jul)

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This is part 1 of 3 of "The Arc of the Moral Universe"
See also:
Part 2: A Powerful Perception
Part 3: Unconscious Bias and Moral Imagination

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