In my June 25 open forum (“Working With Moral Universe”), I mentioned Theodore Parker’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of “the moral universe,” and our call to work with it.
Prominent Unitarian pastor and anti-slavery activist, Theodore Parker, in an 1853 sermon titled, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” predicted the inevitable elimination of slavery. Parker preached: “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, in several speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased these words: “I’m convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” While president, Barack Obama had King’s words sewn into a White House rug. In 2016, Eric Holder cautioned that “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.” I, of much less renown than any of the above, stated recently in a Faith in Action Zoom discussion that I hoped my heritage would be something as follows: “He hoped to bend the arc of the moral universe at least a bit toward peace and justice — and he died trying!”
Both King and Parker expressed their affirmations as statements of “faith,” believing in the God of the moral universe. They “divined it by conscience,” not by the “experience of sight.” Yet they would have agreed with Holder’s concern. Their “faith” did not mean sitting back and relaxing while the God of the moral universe delivered justice to humanity.
All of this raises two questions: a) whether the arc of the moral universe really bends toward justice, toward injustice, or is neutral, and b) who bends it — humans or God? The following quote introduces Parker’s answers to both questions: “God has made man with the instinctive love of justice in him which gradually gets developed in the world.”
The sentence which introduced his famous “moral universe” quote was: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.” Even in the dark period of 1853, Parker cited the seeds of justice in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and developments in Europe against slavery. “Injustice cannot stand. ... Human nature is against it, and so is the nature of God.”
Parker had considerable quarrel with the religious right of his day — who preached about God’s power, while defending human slavery: “The popular clergy think miracles better than morality … and have even less justice than truth.”
Parker saw God as responsible for justice in human nature, and as the one who inspires humans to justice, while anticipating Eric Holder: “But in human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.”
Bill Faw lives in Rockingham County.