Monday, November 9, 2009

The Arc of the Moral Universe

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, the Kingdom of God. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

Last Tuesday we found out, sadly, that Maine will discriminate against gay and lesbian persons. Around the country, the cumulative result of all the votes on gay marriage is now thirty-one to nothing. For those of us who care about justice, it is disheartening.

But I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's wise observation that, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime." What that means, said Niebuhr, is that "we must be saved by hope."

At the end of the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in which he talked about the frustration of the long struggle. His title was, “Our God Is Marching On!” and in spite of the many set backs and the bitter opposition they faced, he spoke with the hope of the prophets. At the conclusion of his address, he asks, “How long?” And this is his answer:

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."
How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long? Not long:
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.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! (Yes, sir) Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

At the center of his wonderfully poetic blend of Bible verses with James Russell Lowell and Julia Ward Howe, is his powerful affirmation of faith, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King adapted that line from the 19th century Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker; although most people think it was original with King. In times of frustration, when it seems that we will forever be strangers and exiles, it is a promise worth remembering.

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