January 28, 2024
“The Arc of the Moral Universe”
First, a confession. My sermon title is stolen. But that’s OK, because the guy I filched it from stole it first. You may recognize it as part of the famous line by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a line he used, by the way, in three different speeches and a sermon). Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He is regularly credited with those words, but he stole them from a nineteenth century Universalist preacher named Theodore Parker. Don’t let all of this upset you. We preachers are famous for being literary thieves. A seminary professor of ours used to say that any preacher only has one original idea at most, and only three sermons (everything else amounts to variations on themes).
Anyway, this brings us to the question of why there is a photo of Theodore Parker on the cover of your bulletin this morning. It’s because I wanted to introduce you to this remarkable man who was ahead of his time in so many ways, and because some of what he had to say bears directly on our scripture readings today – and might just change your life, as it has mine. Theodore Parker was an outspoken, theologically radical, Unitarian pastor and leading abolitionist in the mid-eighteen hundreds. His grandfather, John Parker, by the way, was Captain of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington in 1775. Parker’s rhetorical brilliance was plundered not only by Martin Luther King, Jr., but by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s famous line in the Gettysburg address, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” was lifted right out of a speech by Parker thirteen years earlier titled “The American Idea.”
Over the years of his ministry, Parker became so radical in his theology that he was too much even for the Unitarians to bear. He pretty much rejected the Bible, and counseled people to base their faith on personal experience instead. More and more he became a social activist and provided not only some kindling, but the lighter fluid and matches for the abolitionist movement in Boston. He started an independent Congregational Society and filled the pews with the likes of Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. That congregation came to number in the thousands. He never lived to see either the horrific tragedy or the glorious triumph of his cause, however. He died less than a year before the outbreak of the Civil War.
So, why do I share all this biography with you? It all comes back to this phrase of his that Dr. King pilfered. It comes from a remarkable sermon that Parker delivered in 1852 titled “Of Justice and Conscience.” I’ve read it, and I must tell you, it took me a while. In those days, sermons went on for one or two hours. He begins his treatise with a survey of the physical sciences (and does so, by the way, with language that presages some of the discoveries of quantum physics that were about seventy years from being formulated). He then says that, just as there are physical forces that hold the material world together, there is a force that holds the moral world together; that force is justice. His argument is that justice is not a choice that we can make or let be; it is an elemental principle of human existence that cannot be undone any more than we can dismiss with gravity. Making his case he writes, “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. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”1 Dr. King expressed this confidence in the irrepressible power of justice with these words: “. . . let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”2
This idea, that justice is an indispensable element of the created order and the arc of its direction is built into the structure of things, is actually a very old one. We heard a remarkable reflection of that principle in our reading from Deuteronomy this morning. By the way, sometimes I don’t understand the lectionary people. In the given pericope for today they left out the best – and most important – part of the passage. I fixed that by including verses twenty one and twenty two. Those two verses deal with the question that jumps immediately to our minds when we hear these ancient penalties for false prophecy. The biblical writer says, “You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.” This is pretty neat, really. The role of the prophet in ancient Israel was to speak the disturbing word of justice to the principalities and powers. And these verses are telling us that you have to wait to see how things come out – no matter how long it takes – the words of a true prophet will inevitably come true. The point beneath the point is that, well, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
You and I see evil on the throne in so many places around our world. Theodore Parker saw it too; the scourge of slavery was not bending to the will of his band of abolitionist followers. But tyrants fall, evil is ultimately exposed for what it is, and the sands of time wear down and blow away the pride of those who devote themselves only to greed, destruction, and violence. This truth gives us something to hold onto in those hours of dread when it seems that the darkness is overtaking the light.
But this law of abiding justice is not only for the great arc of history, it is the glue that holds our own hearts together. Parker put it this way: “. . . I learn justice, the law of right, the divine rule of conduct for human life; I see it, not as an external fact . . . but I see it as a mode of action which belongs to the infinitely perfect nature of God; belongs also to my own nature, and so is not barely over me, but in me, of me, and for me. . . . I find a deep, permanent, and instinctive delight in justice, not only in the outward effects, but in the inward cause, and by my nature I love this law of right, this rule of conduct, this justice, with a deep and abiding love. I find that justice is the object of my conscience. . . . Finding it fits me thus, I know that justice will work my welfare and that of all [humankind].”3 Here’s how I would make Parker’s point: a love of justice and the longer perspective that one acquires by knowing its law, alters one’s own moral bearings.
And this takes us to our second reading for this morning from the gospel of Mark. It’s a tale about casting out demons. But I’m not going to focus on demonic possession (although you and I are certainly subject to our own demons at times). My interest here is in the statement at the very beginning of the passage in which it notes that Jesus was doing this healing on the Sabbath. This is exactly the sort of thing that got him in hot water so often. Later on in the gospel Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and Mark says because of it, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”4 But Jesus’s argument was that the law of love (or, one might say, the law of justice) supersedes all other laws. If there is a question about what course of action to obey, if there is a conflict with one moral principle as against another, the law of love – the law of justice – wins. Period.
Theodore Parker put it this way: “Viewed as an object not in man, justice is the constitution or fundamental law of the moral universe, the law of right, a rule of conduct for man in all his moral relations. Accordingly all human affairs must be subject to that as the law paramount; what is right agrees therewith and stands, what is wrong conflicts and falls. Private cohesions of self-love, of friendship, or of patriotism, must all be subordinate to this universal gravitation towards the eternal right.”5
Parker saw this at work even as those in power struggled against the eternal and irrepressible force of justice. He wrote: “Hitherto, the actual function of government, so far as it has been controlled by the will of the rulers, has commonly been this: To foster the strong at the expense of the weak, to protect the capitalist and tax the laborer. The powerful have sought a monopoly of development and enjoyment, loving to eat their morsel alone. Accordingly, little respect is paid to absolute justice by the controlling statesmen of the Christian world. Not conscience and the right is appealed to, but prudence and the expedient for to-day. Justice is forgotten in looking at interest, and political morality neglected for political economy. . .”6
He was a man ahead of his time, and his words not only inspired Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., they touch our hearts, and remind us that the course of history, like the topography of our own lives, is littered with the remains of poor decisions, greed and self-interest, foolish notions, and even, for some, senseless violence, but that those have not the final word, for us or for humankind. This principle is made manifest in my own life experience. I was rebooting my laptop the other day and across the screen it said, “Upgrading your system firmware. Do not power down your system.” It struck me that looking back at all the foolish, embarrassing things I’ve said and done in my life I’d like to “upgrade my system firmware” instead of “powering down.” And Parker’s words remind us that that is an ever-present possibility, that there is a law that holds both our hearts and our moral universe together, and to which all other laws must yield. You might remember it as a principle for your own life with a familiar mnemonic device: WWJD, What Will Justice Demand?.
I leave you, of course, with the words of Theodore Parker: “As an eagle stirreth up her nest, from her own beak to feed its young, broods over their callow frame, and bears them on her wings, teaching them first to fly, so comes justice unto men.”
1 Theodore Parker, The Collected Works of Theodore Parker: Sermons. Prayers, p. 48. See: http://books.google.com/books?id=_VRGAAAAMAAJ&dq=theodore%20parker’s%20life%20and%20writings&pg=PP5#v=onepage&q&f=false.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?, Speech delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention,
Atlanta, Ga., August 16, 1967.
3 Op cit.
4 See Mark 3:1-6.
5 Op cit.
6 Op ct.