The Arc of the Moral Universe is Bending Toward Justice

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Most people probably haven’t been thinking much about the “arc of the moral universe” lately.  But, strange as it may seem, it has been on my mind.

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is because I’m frustrated with the pace of immigration reform.  I’ve spent several days in Washington recently with some wonderful people appealing to Congress to pass immigration reform instead of passing the buck.

I am in awe of Martin Luther King’s ability to string words together in such a powerful and eloquent way. His words offer insight and inspiration as we await reform.

I have written before about how King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail has so powerfully shaped my thoughts on immigration reform. Phrases like, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” reassure me that my focus is in the right place when people ask why I am so obsessed with an issue that doesn’t affect my own immediate family.

I’m sure that I am sharing King’s impatience with change when he wrote, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” The difference of course is that I write the words in a cramped airplane and we wrote them in a cramped jail cell.

And to those who feel that immigration, like civil rights, isn’t their concern, King warned, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He explained that the reason this is so is because “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

These are all great quotations with immeasurable relevance to the task of enacting immigration reform. But the one most on my mind this week was popularized by King, but actually written by someone else a century and half earlier. It goes like this.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

This quotation predates King, and may have appeared originally in a sermon delivered by Theodore Parker in 1810. Parker was a transcendentalist who was pondering the future of slavery when he wrote:

“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, and 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. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.” 

King first cited the quotation in a sermon published in 1958. He used it again in a commencement speech at Wesleyan University in 1964. We look back at the civil rights movement or the fight against slavery and we condense them in time, forgetting that the battles to end slavery and ensure civil rights were long, arduous, and uncertain. While it is true that there were twists and turns along the way, in each case the universe’s bent toward justice prevailed.   Slavery eventually ended and a few weeks after King’s commencement speech at Wesleyan University President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   To accomplish this an achievement Johnson needed the support of Republicans who voted for the Civil Rights Act in larger margins than their Democratic counterparts.  I mention this, not to denigrate Democrats, but to remind Republicans of a time when they worked with a Democratic President to take a stand on an issue of justice.

I believe that we are at another point in history where the solution to a pressing moral problem is in sight, if not just around the bend. The issue this time is immigration reform and the moral arc is once again bending toward justice. The debate has shifted. Instead of arguing over whether we should have reform, most of the debate has shifted to timing, and some are hoping that reform may be only weeks or months away.

We seem to live in a world where evil and injustice sometimes seem insurmountable, but in the end they do not prevail. C.S. Lewis reflected this reality by creating a place called Narnia where the winters were long, but where spring always brought an eventual thaw, a world where good eventually triumphed over evil.

I believe that immigration reform is coming, and that it is coming soon. My confidence comes, not only from sensing the change in Washington, but more deeply, from a personal conviction that there is a rhythm between creation and Creator that bends human morality toward eventual justice.

And for this, I am both hopeful and thankful.

To learn more about a Christian perspective on immigration reform, download and watch “The Stranger.” 

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