Around 1853, an American abolitionist preacher eloquently proclaimed his faith in the ultimate victory of justice. His words were later cited by Abraham Lincoln and memorably by Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, including President Obama. Parker 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. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice” [Ten Sermons of Religion, III : “Of Justice and the Conscience”].
Today’s readings underscore and highlight such a verdict, and it is as relevant today as it was in 1853 or when it was cited by the young
Martin Luther King a century later when he wrote, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose 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.’ There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again’” [The Gospel Messenger, 1958].
We are in the midst of Black History Month in these once-United States, and Parker’s words, even as abbreviated by King and others, are worth noting again in the light of our Scripture readings, not least as the penitential season of Lent approaches.
Joshua ben Sirach, in the great work once called Ecclesiasticus, reminds us that God’s wisdom is vast and powerful, his gaze searching and inescapable, his justice inexorable: “he understands every man’s deed. No one does he command to sin, to none does he give strength for lies.” In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Paul is no less uncompromising: “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” [1 Cor 2:4-6].
And with The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus amplifying the Decalogue itself, condemning not merely murder, but anger and abusive language; not only adultery, but lustful intent; not only lying, but swearing oaths falsely. Hard advice in an era when false witness seems to be the norm rather than the exception, when dissimulation, not to say outright lying along with abusive language, has become the currency of political speech here and throughout the world. But “unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matt 5:20].
The young Thomas Jefferson, haunted by his own compromises over slavery in the new Republic, expressed concern about the fate of a democracy erected on the shifting sands of expediency and self-interest when he demanded,
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” [Notes of the State of Virginia, Query 18, 1781.] As with Parker’s reflection, this prediction, too, was cited by Abraham Lincoln a few decades later in an era of great moral and political danger spawned by those very compromises. But the moral arc of the universe stretched on.
Not long before his assassination in 1964, Martin Luther King thought again of Parker in concluding his Baccalaureate address at Wesleyan University: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he repeated, “but it bends toward justice.” [https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/] As we continue but not conclude our consideration and commemoration of Black History in these trying times, may we too find consolation and encouragement in the words of King, and that old Abolitionist preacher and his disciples who inspired him. Truth crushed to earth will rise again. Justice will prevail.