The Arc for Justice Is a Long One

Mary Ellen Sheehan, IHM, STD, earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and is a Professor Emerita of Theology at St. Michael’s College of the Toronto School of Theology. Currently, she offers lectures, workshops, and retreats that relate theology to a range of questions emerging in our current cultural context. She draws on the contemplative character of theology to deepen our experience and understanding of God and to explore the meaning of committed Christian discipleship in our world today.

In an 1850 sermon, Theodore Parker – a Massachusetts Unitarian pastor, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate – proclaimed: “A democracy – that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people – is of course, a government of the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake I will call it the idea of Freedom.” In another sermon in 1853, he declared: “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.”

While today hardly anyone ever cites Parker, these two statements are well known. The first one influenced Lincoln who used it to close his 1863 Gettysburg address: “that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Martin Luther King, Jr., compacted the second one in several of his powerful speeches, declaring: “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama had both of these statements woven into a carpet he placed in his West Wing oval office in 2009.

Indeed, the arc bending toward justice is a long one! The Hebrew and Christian scriptures bear witness to the existence of slavery and patriarchy and caste as far back as twelve centuries before the Common Era. Empire building exists generally only through conquering, creating “power over” people, positioning them from higher to lower, and most often placing non-white people at the bottom. The Hebrew prophets critiqued this practice and Jesus and Paul ranted against it, too. In fact, they preached a countering practice, the inclusion of all in the community of God.

Living from the love of God and neighbor made some progress from the time of Jesus and Paul, and yet in 1493 a Papal Declaration authorized subjecting the peoples in the “new continents” and taking their lands. In 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, a male black slave was 3/5ths of a man and no one but propertied white males could vote. Eventually, amendments to the U.S. Constitution gave all U.S. citizens the right to vote. Today, however, slavery persists as sex trade, forced marriages, debt bondage, domestic servitude, non-living wages, and state restrictions on the right to vote. As committed Christians, we have lots of work to do to shorten the arc toward justice.

What do you see as a next step in your own life that can help shorten the arc toward justice?


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