Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
April 14, 2017
THE END OF THE ROAD
By David Herndon
14 April 2017
First Unitarian Church
In 1853, the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. 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. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
One hundred and five years later, in 1958, Dr. King adapted this quotation, removing many extra words, and saying more simply, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And fifty-five years after that, in 2013, President Barack Obama restated this same sentiment, but with a more pragmatic, cautionary observation: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
For Theodore Parker and Dr. King, the image of the arc of the universe bending toward justice had almost a providential quality: “It bends toward justice.” Yes, it may take a long time, but we will get there. Yes, the final triumph of justice may take place on a bright day that none of us will see, but that triumph is, of course, inevitable. Yes, we will have to witness a great deal of suffering and oppression while that arc is slowly bending, but we can be reassured that it is indeed bending, and bending toward justice. For it is in the nature of the moral universe that it moves inexorably and inevitably toward the good.
Barack Obama stepped somewhat back from this providential view, pointing out that human beings need to serve as agents of justice, that human beings need to serve as the hands and feet of Providence, for it is through the work of people that the universe becomes more just.
This evening, as we celebrate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we have an opportunity to step back even further from the confident view that good always triumphs. Let’s return to the beginning of that quotation from Theodore Parker. He said:“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.” This evening, as we celebrate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we push back against what Theodore Parker said. We ask, “When we look honestly at the facts of the world, do we really see and continual and progressive triumph of the right?” We ask, “What if the arc of the moral universe in fact bends toward injustice and oppression?” We ask, “What if the arc of the moral universe, guided so precariously by the contrary tug-of-war promptings of human nature, bends further and further away from justice?”
Our service asks these questions drawing on the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene, when all of his disciples found that they had neither the attention nor the strength nor the courage to stay true to his mission. We snuff out the candles one by one that represent the disciples abandoning their aspirations and missing the mark with regard to bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Interspersed among the Biblical texts are reports from our own time about the way we have difficulty living up to our aspirations as well. This is not to cast blame on particular individuals, but rather to comment on our collective behavior.
Os Guinness will remind us that in the twentieth century, one hundred million people died in wars and another hundred million people died in genocides and through political repression for a total of two hundred million people. When we look at these facts of the world, do we see a continual and progressive triumph of the right, to use Theodore Parker’s words? And Jim Wallis will point out that thirty thousand infant deaths occur each day in the world, not because of lack of technical expertise, but because of indifference. Again, when we look at these facts of the world, do we see a continual and progressive triumph of the right?
And if we do not see a continual and progressive triumph of the right, then what do we see?
We Unitarian Universalists are optimistic people. Although we acknowledge the shadow side of human nature, we place our faith in the goodness of which human beings are capable. Nevertheless, it is important for us to test this faith against the disturbing and distressing facts we encounter, even if we do this just once each year in this especially poignant worship setting. We may find that instead of seeking to discern which way the arc of the universe bends, we are simply stopped in our tracks as we come to the end of the road, as Jesus came to the end of the road, feeling the string of abandonment and failure in his case, feeling the spiritual absence of a way forward for ourselves. Perhaps it is OK for us to struggle for a couple of days to find a more sure hope, a more grounded optimism, a more tested faith.
At the very end of his classic book The Courage to Be, twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “The courage to be is rooted
in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” This evening, as we metaphorically encounter the end of the road,
may we seek the reappearance of God, the reappearance of whatever it is deep inside us that calls us to catch hold of the arc of the moral universe
and do our best to bend it toward justice.
© 2017 by David Herndon