Maybe the Arc of the Moral Universe Isn’t an Arc at All: A Reflection for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is credited (perhaps incorrectly) with the words “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have begun to wonder if he was right.  I look around and see a growing disparity between rich and poor.  I see racist language, which I thought was long since discarded, reappear.  And this week, I am disheartened to note that no less than the President of the United States referred to whole countries of non-white people as shitholes.  We seem to be taking steps backward, giant ones.  I am no longer so sure that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.  In fact, it seems to me we’ve been bending toward a different direction altogether.    

I once had a conversation with a very wise woman who had graduated from Tuskegee Institute 75 years earlier.  The year was 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency.  I was disturbed by the open resurgence of racism that I saw occurring.  The precipitating event was an editorial cartoon with watermelons growing in the yard of the White House.  It seemed to me that we were going backwards.  “We are in a quiet civil war,” she said.  I think she may have been right, a war for the direction of the universe’s moral arc.  It now may be becoming anything but quiet.   

What I need to remember is that we’ve been in that civil war before.  The civil war of the nineteenth century was anything but a quiet, but in the end, it bent toward justice.  The Civil Rights movement of my childhood, the one Dr. King led, was anything but quiet, but in the end it bent toward justice.  And perhaps we’re there again.  Since Charlottesville, it has seemed increasingly less quiet.  I believe it will ultimately bend toward justice.  Whether it does or not, depends on us.  God has placed the arc in our hands this time. 

And then I read the passages of Scripture assigned for the coming week.  The Old Testament reading (Jonah 3:1-5,10) is about a massive ancient city, Nineveh, repenting of its evil ways in favor of the ways of God based on the warning Jonah delivered.  The New Testament reading is similar.  “For the present form of this world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31b).  The Gospel is the story of the calling of the first disciples, who Mark tells us, immediately left their old lives behind and struck out with Jesus to remake the whole of creation into God’s original dream for it.  My favorite, though, is the psalm.  “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him” (62:6) [BCP version]).  Passages like this suggest that King was right.  The moral arc of the universe seems to bend in the right direction after all.

But there is more to the story.  The repentance of Nineveh is not the last word.  Jonah himself regrets that God chose not to destroy Nineveh.  Nineveh no doubt fell back into its old ways.  The first disciples Jesus called along the shore of the Sea of Galilee responded positively in the moment, but it was not all that long before they had abandoned Jesus.  It is not at all clear to me that Paul is right that “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Maybe the moral arc of the universe isn’t an arc at all.  Maybe the moral direction of the universe is more like a wave than a simple arc.  A sin wave (no pun intended) suggests an orderly oscillation, sometimes up and sometimes down, perhaps with the variation between high and low growing less and less gradually over time until the wave eventually levels itself along an axis that corresponds to justice.  Maybe it’s a wave more than a simple arc. 

Nature may suggest a wave in another sense, more in the sense of a wave in the ocean than an orderly function on a graph.  Justice ebbs and flows inconsistently.  Sometimes it is a high tide and sometimes a low.  I do not think I can look at the world as an unimpeded and uninterrupted movement toward justice.  The facts do not bear it out.

Here’s the thing.  The direction of the arc, or more aptly the effect of the wave, depend on the goodness of those who bend the arc or stir the water.  Just as a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world affect the direction of the winds on the other, so does the goodness of human beings, one by one, have the potential to direct the universe toward God’s intentions, God’s dream.  Of course, that means that we human beings are also left with the potential for just the opposite. 

What I believe is that the human heart is such that it will inherently orient itself, perhaps haltingly, always imperfectly, to the will of its creator, to the call of love, to the dream of justice.  It is how we are made, but I admit it is something I cannot prove.  It is simply a matter of faith, hope in that which is as yet unseen. 

Perhaps it is more a wave than an arc, and that may help give me the courage to face the day, but in the end, Dr. King was still right:

We are going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. So however difficult it is during this period, however difficult it is to continue to live with the agony and the continued existence of racism, however difficult it is to live amidst the constant hurt, the constant insult and the constant disrespect, I can still sing we shall overcome. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.

It just may be a little messier than it sounds. 





                                                                                    Bishop Stacy Sauls

                                                                                    Founder and President

                                                                                    Love Must Act, Inc.