Bending Toward Justice (MLK Sunday)

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on January 15, 2017

One day last spring, as I was driving east with Gail from Atlanta to Savannah, we encountered a light rain and then the longest and grandest rainbow I think I’ve ever seen.

It was late afternoon and the rainbow’s colorful arc was directly ahead of us. It bent majestically over the highway we were traveling. And on either end, the arc magically dissolved into the trees and fields along the sides of the road.

Despite traveling for miles directly toward it, we never did eventually drive under it. No one ever gets any closer to any rainbow they see no matter how far they travel. That’s because a rainbow isn’t a real object; it’s an optical illusion caused by water droplets and by sunlight that’s angled low in the sky.

It’s said that even if one observer sees a second person in the distance who seems to be standing “under” or “at the end of” a rainbow, that second person will not see a rainbow overhead or by her side at all. Rather, she’ll have a view of a completely different rainbow – farther off – and at the same angle as the one seen by the first observer. In other words, the arc of a rainbow may be visible to many, but it will never be within one’s reach. We’ll never get under, over or to the end of it.

Unlike the intangible arc of a rainbow, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that a different arc – the arc of the moral universe – offers us something very tangible.

He wrote:

I believe firmly that we will get to the promised land of collective fulfillment. I still believe that, right here in America, we will reach the promised land of brotherhood. I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

For King, the arc of the moral universe was an image that conveyed his understanding that human morality is progressive. It moves forward and offers all of humanity the blessing of unity and peace.

As some of you know, King’s notion about the progress of morality was inspired by 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker. Parker has been described as a “fearless Boston preacher who wrote sermons with a pistol on his desk to protect runaway slaves.” In a sermon he wrote in 1853, Parker had this to say:

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.

Both King and Parker were ministers of action. They may have believed in a Higher Power and a higher moral law, but they also didn’t sit around and wait for justice to arrive.

For instance, at a time when many of his Unitarian ministerial colleagues refused to challenge legislation that set up a federal bureau to capture and return fugitive slaves to their owners, Theodore Parker led the Boston opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Scholar Dean Grodzins tells us more about how Theodore Parker may have helped move 19th century American society along the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

He writes:

Parker [also] served as the abolitionists’ Minister at Large to fugitive slaves in Boston. He chaired the executive committee of the Vigilance Committee, the principal Boston organization providing fugitives with material aid, legal assistance, and help in eluding capture.

In 1850, when a fugitive in his congregation, Ellen Craft, was threatened with arrest, he hid her in his house until arrangements could be made to send her to Canada. During the proto-civil war in Kansas territory,[Parker] raised money to buy weapons for the free state militias. [He] later became a member of the secret committee that helped finance and arm John Brown’s failed attempt, in October 1859, to start a slave insurrection in Virginia. When Brown was arrested, Parker wrote a public letter defending his actions.1)From the biography of Theodore Parker, written by Dean Grodzins in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, an online resource of the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society.

One hundred years after Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., too, acted to help move us along the arc toward justice. In the Jim Crow south with its often intimidating – and sometimes deadly – enforcement tactics, King employed his own tactics of nonviolent resistance, learned from the teachings of Gandhi. Through his persistence and personal magnetism, he created a civil disobedience movement whose aim was to expose segregation’s oppression and segregationists’ brutality.

Ultimately, the 20th century civil rights struggle which King led and shaped became one of the greatest social movements in American history. And, yet, despite our forward journey along the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we still have much to do. More than 150 years after the death of Theodore Parker, we are still living with oppressive laws. And nearly 50 years after the death of King, we still seem to be stuck in the mountains of materialism, racial injustice, indifference to poverty, and hate and violence.

African American males, immigrants, transgender persons, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, and other vulnerable members of our society are still in harm’s way. Women and girls are still struggling against the oppression of misogyny. Muslims are still facing hate and misunderstanding.

What should we do?

I can imagine that Parker and King might encourage us to get busy to help move our world along the arc of the moral universe. And, I believe we can start with something right in our own backyard.

So, who made a sign for Saturday’s Social Justice and Women’s March? If you did, I’d like for you to rise and hold it up high. Beautiful! Let’s see what some of them say.

Okay . . . please take your seats. Wow! Perhaps one of the most important things we can do to reach the Promised Land of peace and unity is to speak up!

As you leave our service today, I’d like for you to take your signs with you and place them on the table just outside the Sanctuary doors. Those of you who are planning to attend the march, I’d like for you to take a few signs home with you today. We’re going to carry this congregation’s messages and voices with us on Saturday to help us be a visible, vocal, and peaceful presence for change.

Thank you everyone!


Friends, while we will likely never reach the lovely and elusive arc of a rainbow, by following the arc of moral universe we can experience together the tangible blessing of Beloved Community.

May it be so, for you, for me, for everyone.


References   [ + ]

1. From the biography of Theodore Parker, written by Dean Grodzins in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, an online resource of the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society.