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Psalm 118

Psalm 118:22

The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.


The Moral Arc of the Universe


At the beginning of this Lenten focus on the cross I wrote with Calvary in view: “History, by starts and fits, lurches in that direction.”  I also voiced doubts that such an outcome would be obvious to anybody.

Still I persist.  And to make my case I borrow the observation of a Nineteenth Century abolitionist, a Massachusetts Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, writing in the 1840’s: “
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."

A paraphrase of that quote is attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. and borrowed by President Obama. 

However many the battles for what is right and good and fair are lost along the way, final victory is assured.  Or as my mother’s favorite hymn puts it, “that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

In the battles of the moment - whatever they are, personal or political, when emotions are strong, and matters don’t seem to be going the way we think they should - we tend to conclude this long view is a heaping pile of… garbage.  Age and memory should provide us with a more balanced perspective, but, regretfully, the designation “Old Fogey” wasn’t earned from a surplus of wisdom, but from an excess of crankiness.

Nonetheless, let a senior citizen, who has sometimes been dismissed as a cynic, suggest, in the light from the cross, another way of appraising subsequent human history, as bending toward the values (i.e., the kingdom of God) which Jesus preached and practised.

Those values permeate our way of thinking about others, next door and around the earth.

Feeding the hungry: would, for instance, Nero send cargo ships of grain to the starving population of Sudan?  But in the wake of Matthew 25 and the parable of the judgment on the nations [!] presidents, premiers, and ayatollahs feel obliged to do what a Roman emperor would deem beneath his dignity.

Respecting the infinite worth of every person, however insignificant by worldly measure: the moral arc has bent in this direction only lately (that is, a couple of centuries).  In this season a mogul of a vast business empire has been brought down by a little girl whose murder he unlawfully exploited to augment his newspaper’s circulation.  In the voiced complaints of Parliamentarians, I hear the fluttering of a fallen sparrow.

Making peace: yes, the war drums still rattle and the earth hovers ever on the brink of nuclear annihilation; but the locus of so much conflict for generations, Europe, has found a way for nation states to live together.  Moreover, the bloody battle no longer is advanced in the western world (as in years past) as a path of glory but as a sorry necessity.  The cross may not have vanquished our propensity to violence, but it has shamed it. 

I’d have to write another book to flesh out the bending of the moral arc toward justice and peace and compassion.  Maybe, someday…

In my junior year at college I provided counsel to a dormitory of freshman. One of my charges opined quite seriously that he, like Miniver Cheevy,NB should have been born in a more noble age, say, the Pax Romana, when his excellences would be given their due.  The faculty advisor, on hearing this complaint, reported that he (the advisor) was happy to be alive in the modern era when his astigmatism could be and was corrected.  That is, the way we read history begins with who we are or think we are.

I am a white male, Protestant, and more than, far more than, middle-aged.  The world has pretty much been my cup of tea.  Others similarly identified have in my hearing expressed a judgment upon our present moment suggesting we are going to hell in a handbasket.  The moral arc of history bends from their perspective in the wrong direction.  Because they no longer rule the roost?  Perhaps. To them (and sometimes to myself) I recommend imagining being in another’s shoes.  A woman, maybe.  Or an African-American.  For the one, a century ago was disenfranchisement.  For the other two centuries ago was slavery.

Which is where (slavery) the metaphor of the moral arc of the universe was first uttered.  By someone well-acquainted with Calvary. 

Battles, many of them, are still to be won (and lost).  But the cross towers above the wrecks of time and will, by God, bend the moral arc of the universe into a design to match the one who died on that cross: with arms wide open to embrace and grace sufficient to overcome a world defiant to the end.



NB: For those of you who cannot find in your memory of high school English this reference, a fellow who must have inspired Major Hoople, here is the poem entitled “Miniver Cheevy,” by Edward Arlington Robinson.

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