Civil rights champion Martin Luther King, Jr. once delivered a powerful speech with this resonant line: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Beautiful, huh? We all love this great Martin Luther King, Jr. quote… But over the last decade or so, it has been repeated so many times by so many prominent and scholarly people that we forget, or rather look directly past, the inherent and intended risk it portends.
There is nothing magical, let alone inevitable about the arch of the moral universe and all of us just inexplicably arriving at a magnificent age of Freedom, Justice and Equality. If that were so, then we organizers, activists and agitators could all – in fact should all – just pack up our wears and get along home. After all, if the arc of the moral universe just inevitably bends toward justice, then all our work is foolish and wasteful, whereas justice is preordained. Right? Wrong… Let’s look at the origin of this quote.
When King said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” he was actually referencing an earlier preacher – the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and a portion of a sermon he delivered in 1853. What Parker said was “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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
However, out of its full context, as we have grown used to hearing it, this singularly important phrase has become a simplification that simply does not carry the full weight and meaning of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was really saying that day. In its full context, leading into this now beloved but often misunderstood phrase, Dr. King wrote, “Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross,” He then further wrote, “but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”
In this fuller context, a more complete take-away of his meaning would leave us better understanding that bad things in fact do occur and bad people often prosper. The meaning then should never be taken to presuppose that good will always ultimately triumph over evil. It does not and cannot be allowed to mean that we do not need to engage in activism, but quite the opposite. It is a clarion call to It — that we must engage in political activism. It says that there is no other-worldly, magical force that will inevitably lead us all to a place where justice, equality, and truth prevail, and we shall inescapably end all time in an idealistic progressive paradise. No…it does not say that.
In fact, this quote should not leave us feeling comfortable and content with some mystical yet unseen reality that guarantees justice… an unseen hand that will inevitably bring us to the place where all are free and equal. On the contrary, it is a call to engage – to remain engaged – to arm yourself – to fight for right – to play a tangible, meaningful, and active role in the change we seek. So, to the extent that the arch of the universe is bending toward justice, it only does so because of the brave and selfless people over centuries and millennia that have stood up and demanded that it bend. That have made it bend by the conviction of their beliefs, and the might of their right to make it bend.
So, where does that leave us now. Well, as I opened…we have five days. Five little days to take our place among those both named and unnamed that have pressed their will on this long arc of history. Here we stand, looking off into infinity and that long moral arc, and we must ask ourselves what role we can now play? What direction will we have it bend in this moment? Will we wield the conviction of our cause and the power of our will to bend this arch once again toward justice – or at least continue to bend it as described by Theodore Parker and then repeated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?
Do we have the will, the stamina, the strength of our conviction to get out there and vote? To do more than merely vote. To do the work of making sure that everyone we know also gets out there and votes? To toil at the labor of serving those we may not even know but need to get out there and vote and may not have the means or the strength to get up and go out there and vote on their own? Because, if we do not engage and do the hard work of making this change happen, evil can and will prevail… Bad people do win… Justice and equality, while indeed our indisputable, irrefutable, human rights, throughout much of human history have been trampled into the dust of so many long vanished civilizations.
Yes, “The arc of the moral universe is long…” And because, to some extent, we have managed to push back the greedy, the selfish, the avaricious, the rapacious, in more recent time, the great, long arch of the universe has been bending toward justice. However, do not fool yourself. Do not grow comfortable…or fat…or drunk with a sense of completion in work that is never done, for the power-drunk, the selfish, the greedy, the avaricious, the covetous… they are never fully vanquished.
In just these past few years, we have seen them again. We have heard the not so distant howling. Like a rabid pack of wolves, they once again press themselves against our gates. And if we do not defend these hollowed gates of Freedom, Justice and Equality, they will break and the evil they proffer will break through, and once more the arch of the moral universe will retrograde into darkness and want. The powerful will rule, and the voiceless will be downtrodden. All the hard-fought gains for which we have long toiled and so many have fought and died for will be swept away like sand in a dry dessert wind.
Freedom, Justice and Equality are not a place we arrive, but a journey that we take. It’s just that simple. But the struggle of that journey is difficult… So, I say to you. Get up! Get out! Go Vote! Our time is now! Take a comfortable, lightweight folding chair. Take your umbrella to guard against the rain or the sun. Dress in layers so that whatever weather may come, you are ready to put on or take off layers as you need. Pack something to eat. Take something to drink. Charge your phone! But Go! Go Now! That strange, unnerving sound you hear is the stress and tension of the moral arch of the universe bending. The only question is which way?