Sunday, November 13, 2016

Does the Moral Arc of the Universe Bend Toward Justice?

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
                                                                 James Russell Lowell

At the end of the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled, “Our God Is Marching On.” And at the end of the speech, he wove together a rich poetic tapestry of Bible verses with the poetry of Julia Ward Howe and James Russell Lowell. Then he adapted a phrase from the great abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and declared that although it had been a long struggle for Civil Rights, in the end they would be victorious because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

No one doubts the “long” part of that sentence. But especially this week, some of us may have our doubts about whether it is bending toward justice.

I don’t know whether King would see his phrase about the “arc of the moral universe,” as interchangeable with “the moral arc of the universe,” but I prefer the latter.

If we believe in the Kingdom of God, then we believe that the universe itself has a moral arc that bends toward justice.

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was already among them although it was not yet fully realized. This is what God is doing in the world. The moral arc is bending toward justice. Jesus called his disciples to join in what God is already doing, to share in bending the moral arc of the universe.

The liturgical season of Kingdomtide ends next Sunday.

That is, if we still celebrated Kingdomtide, it would be ending next Sunday.

In the old Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

The loss of Kingdomtide is not a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, although sometimes it seems to me as if it is. And the loss of a liturgical season does not stop the bending of the arc or the coming of the kingdom. But it is still a loss.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

Although Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has often been ignored by modern Christians.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

The great abolitionist and social gospel poet James Russell Lowell was a Unitarian. He was also a disciple of Jesus in the best and most inclusive sense of that term. And he was clear that those who follow Jesus must be in it for the long term: 

"Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own."

In this post election season some of us may feel like truth is on the scaffold. For those who live in the relative security of privileged race and gender, as I do, it is only a metaphor. And to some it may seem like hyperbole.

But to those on the margins, it is a terrifying reality.

At the University of Pennsylvania, African American students themselves unwillingly added to a group email account that invited them to a “daily lynching” and received other racist threats. The FBI eventually traced to students at the University of Oklahoma. In a statement to the students at Penn, University President Amy Gutmann wrote:

"We are absolutely appalled that earlier today Black freshman students at Penn were added to a racist GroupMe account . . . The account itself is totally repugnant: it contains violent, racist and thoroughly disgusting images and messages. This is simply deplorable.”
Similar incidents have been reported around the country.

Luke reports that in a far more perilous time than our own Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation, which would go on for centuries. The world did not belong to the emperor; it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

This is a vision that transcends partisan politics.

The popular misinterpretation is that when Jesus talked about God's Kingdom, he was talking about heaven.

But he wasn’t.

He was talking about what happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

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