The Long Arc of the Moral Universe

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And another angel, one who has authority over fire, came out from the altar, and he called to the one who had the sharp sickle, saying: “Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of God’s wrath.

Revelation 14: 19-20

 

The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, often quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon at Temple Israel in 1965: “. . . somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King’s statement is a truly radical expression of faith: faith that the universe is moral, despite the fact that during its painfully long and slow course it does not appear moral to us, and faith that, ultimately, there will be justice. This is a profoundly biblical faith, a faith that abides, ultimately, in the providential presence of God in history. In that same sermon, Dr. King quotes the poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell, “behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

During the final days of every liturgical year in the Church, we are given for our reflection texts that are, at least for me, among the most challenging of the scriptures. The challenge, as the scripture scholar Wilfrid J. Harrington writes, is to reckon with “the humanly insoluble problem . . . to maintain faith in the long-suffering of God, faith in the infinitely forgiving love of God and, at the same time, to grasp, and find some way to express, God’s abhorrence of evil and sin” (Revelation, p. 157). As Harrington points out, given the inadequacy of our imagery and language to explicate this mystery, “we too readily end up presenting an unsavory image of our gracious God.”

Yet, the “unsavory image” we wind up presenting has a certain emotional honesty about it. Real life very often seems unjust to us. So often it does seem, as Lowell writes and King quotes, that truth is “on the scaffold” and wrong is “on the throne.” And when this strikes us and those we love personally, we want the hated other to suffer and pay for it. While we would ourselves not want to wind up in “the great winepress of God’s wrath,” we’d be dishonest if we didn’t admit that quite often there are others we’d like to see there. We have a very difficult time in getting our minds around love and judgment because they are most of the time contradictory realities for us. We want to punish those who hurt us. We can readily identify with the words of Psalm 137: 8-9:

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

When hurt and angered, then, we imagine judgment to be the suffering of those who have caused us suffering. If this can’t happen, as we would prefer, in the “short term” of our lives, we can image an end time when we are justified and when those we take to be “the evildoers” get their comeuppance. Our emotions are not patient and our capacity for insight and self-awareness quite limited. The biblical faith of Dr. King does not come easily to us. According to our own impatient standards and insights, the universe most often does not seem to be “moral” nor to bend in the direction of justice.

The English comedian John Oliver has a weekly television program called Last Week Tonight. The most recent program was his last one for the year 2016. The concluding segment of the program was a video montage of countless people cursing the ending year. As tasteless as the language of the segment was, it did express what a secular culture is left with in the face of the “harshness of reality.” The host of the program, as well as the many persons in the video, were all contemporary versions of Lear on the heath, albeit with a severely impoverished vocabulary. Each in turn merely cursed the year, and the program ended with Oliver “blowing up” a lighted sign reading “2016.” The entire exercise, it seemed to me, was an expression of hopelessness and faithlessness. There is nothing left to do, no way left to respond, except the impotence and frustration of cursing and raving.

Perhaps, in both the secular and the religious spheres, we fail to live out our true spiritual potential as human persons. The secular world hopes for “better luck next year” in order to feel more gratified by how the world treats it, and too many in the religious world wait for a god to justify their own moral view and to balance the scales by divine intervention, including the destruction of their adversaries. As sharers in Divine life, however, we can begin to intuit that, in fact, the universe is profoundly moral and that each moment is one of judgment. It is each of us who needs to appraise and discern at each and every moment what the bending of the arc of the universe toward justice is asking of us. We can grind our teeth and curse the darkness, or we can allow the light and the dark to teach us and summon us. We can learn, moment by moment, person by person, and encounter by encounter of our own responsibility in and for the world and our role in the long arc of the moral universe.

St. John of the Cross wrote that “In the evening of life we will be examined in love.” Love and judgment are not contradictory. If the long “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” it also bends inexorably toward love. So too does the arc of each of our own lives. If the horizon of our life and of our world is love, then that is the standard by which we are to judge our lives, our actions, our thoughts — as well as those of others. It is Love to whom we are responsible. We are examined in love that we may grow in love. That examination, that judgment can be painful. It is not easy to recognize that I have not only countered but also contributed to what I see as the terrible and destructive aspects of the past year. Our lives, as the universe, are, although in a much shorter arc, also only slowly bending toward justice and love. May we trust enough to receive the judgment in love of the truth about each and all of our words, thoughts, actions and relationships. As with the Rich Young Man of the gospel, we are always being looked upon with a love that is both a judgment and a call.

And I say to you that I am absolutely convinced that maybe the world is in need for the formation of a new organization: “The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment” — men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day would cry out in words that echo across the centuries: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream;” as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would etch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth that said to the men and women of his day: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” And through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

. . . . 

And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words: “the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

Martin Luther KIng, Jr., Sermon at Temple Israel of  Hollywood, 28 February, 1965

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One Comment

  1. Vincent Maligno PhD says:

    Awesome how you blend the secular with the bible and quotes from famous people. Love makes the world go round!

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