Bending Toward Justice

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from the Unitarian theologian and minister, Theodore Parker:

The proverbs of the nations tell us this:
“The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind to powder;”
“Ill got, ill spent.”
“The triumphing of the wicked is but for a moment;”
“What the Devil gives he also takes;”
“Honesty is the best policy;”
“No butter will stick to a bad man’s bread.”

Sometimes these sayings come from the instinct of justice in [humankind], and have a little ethical exaggeration about them, but yet more often they represent the world’s experience of facts more than its consciousness of ideas.

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. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.

Ellen and William Craft were married. And on December 21st, 1848, they went to the train station intending to go just a few counties over to visit family for the holidays, instead, they fled the South. They fled the 1000 miles to the North from Macon, Georgia by train and steamboat in disguises, up the coasts of South and North Carolina, Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.

Four days later, on Christmas Day, they arrived in Philadelphia to spend three weeks with a Quaker family and then they travelled to Boston after the New Year. There they found a home. William spent his days from then on out making cabinets, Ellen worked as a seamstress, and they were Unitarians, and so they joined the congregation being served by that great minister of old, Theodore Parker.

On the surface, the story of Ellen and William Craft seems rather benign — but their fleeing was not because of politics, it was because of race. They were escaped slaves. Their daring flight from Georgia was only possibly because Ellen was so light skinned she was able to disguise herself as white Georgian, and her husband played the part of the doting slave. And they lived out their days in relative peace once they made it to Boston.

One year after their flight to freedom, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law — where it was signed into law by the President, Millard Fillmore, who was also a practicing Unitarian. Theodore Parker, the minister of the church where several escaped slaves attended alongside their white brothers and sisters, wrote an angry letter to the President, calling him out for betraying his own beliefs and shaming the heart of Unitarianism.

President Fillmore replied, “God knows I detest slavery, but we endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.” Fillmore was not alone in his beliefs. It was common amongst Unitarian ministers and members alike to either ignore slavery or not think of it as politically urgent.

Some Unitarians along with people of other religions also went as far to say that slaves were happier in slavery, because the burden of self-sufficiency was removed from them. Theodore Parker was nearly alone in his belief as a Unitarian clergyman, even in Massachusetts.

Theodore Parker’s rage grew at the President, his colleagues, and his congregants — and his abolitionism took on a view that encouraged the forceful end of slavery — and week after week he preached and preached, he wrote letters, he kept on going — and his views started to spread. Slavery must end — or it will be forced to end.

All across the country, people read his sermons, including William Herndon, an Illinois attorney — whose law partner went by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Amongst Lincoln’s possessions was a copy of one of Theodore Parker’s sermons, with the phrase underlined in it:

“Democracy is over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.” Ten years later, Theodore Parker had already died, Lincoln was elected President, and the Civil War broke out.

Unitarians such as Theodore Parker are woven into the very fabric of our national history — and their words continue to either inspire us or remind us of our highest aspirations. But I do not tell you this so we can congratulate ourselves as the spiritual ancestors of 19th century Unitarianism,

I tell you because the words they spoke are indeed calling us to a moment of realization, even now and especially now with the world we are greeted with every morning. Though we are not facing a world, at least here in the United States, where slavery is the moral issue of our time — we are indeed greeting several moral issues that would challenge the inherent dignity of those around us.

And it is good to remind ourselves that just as that family that escaped Macon, Georgia, there are people always and everywhere looking for an escape from the injustices they are facing. Some may find such hope, and others, so many others, sadly do not.

The real question, though — for Unitarian Universalists, is not will we be on the other end of injustice waiting to embrace those who’ve endured trials we cannot even begin to imagine — but will we be there with them, in the midst of their struggle, simply saying, “I’m here if you need me.”

I don’t mean to tell you the story of Theodore Parker as if he is one of our enlightened heroes of ages past, he was not always that way and he had his own demons. But his life was one of going against the odds and not being welcomed by his Unitarian colleagues.

He was shunned for his Transcendentalist beliefs, for saying Jesus was not divine, for yearning to make Unitarianism a religion that had a moral, instead of complacent, voice.

The modern comparison to Parker would be if all Unitarian ministers in New England and the South refused to talk to me and work with me — and on top of it all held several meetings to attempt to remove me from my work as a minister.

This happened to Parker in his day and each and every time he said, No, I serve God and my heart. Parker had a habit of writing long letters to those who disagreed with him, always titling them “Friendly Letters.” He was not without his passive aggressive side.

But his heart and his idea of God was telling him to keep preaching, to keep serving the good and right, and to remember the faces of those two people and so many other people in his congregation that fled slavery and sought refuge against not only a government that wanted to punish them for desiring freedom, but a religion — Unitarianism — that turned a blind eye.

I do not enjoy wrestling with the demons of Unitarian Universalism, but we have them. And the story of Theodore Parker highlights just how deep the struggle was. Amidst all of the conflict, all of the rejection, the shunning, and his call to action — he went on to say just what you heard in our reading today: Though he could not see the arc of the Universe before him as it leaves the horizon, he surely believed that it bent toward justice.

It bent toward justice for escape slaves seeking refuge, it bent for those still oppressed, it bent for the poor and the rich, it bent for you and me — now and always. Just as much of Parkers story is baked into the story of the United States, that phrase, the Universe bending toward justice, is unforgettably American and became so when Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Parker during the Civil Rights movement.

And indeed, it was true then, for Martin Luther King and for all of us since — the Universe bends toward justice, I truly believe this. My conscience and my affirmation of dignity leaves no place in my heart for a Universe devoid of the good and equitable. But here’s the key. It is up to us. It truly is. It never has not been up to us — not just here in this room, but all who would join in the cause of justice and dignity.

The moral arc of the Universe bends towards justice…because human beings grab hold of that arc and bend it themselves. They do not wait for a miracle, they do not wait for governments, they do not wait for preachers and pulpits to make it so, they bend it themselves. Think of the greats of our time, perhaps not of our living memories, but of our cultural memories.

Gandhi. Martin Luther King Jr. Eleanor Roosevelt. Mother Theresa. All had their own demons to wrestle with — all were imperfect in their humanity but their love and their strength for justice were indeed perfect. They took hold where they saw, in their wisdom, the arc of our Universe and bent it toward a world that we’ve inherited.

So yes, indeed it is up to us. It is up to us when those who’ve suffered show up in our congregations and seek spiritual refuge, and it is up to us when we are faced with injustice in the wider world. And I will admit that I am often at a loss as to where to begin. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the term compassion fatigue.

I’m not referring to the actual clinical compassion fatigue, but the state of being completely exhausted and burnt out when tackling far too much justice at once. Unitarian Universalists are good at exhausting themselves. Theodore Parker certainly was, he died young.

But when we, the contemporaries of Parker, are faced with racism, violence, toxic theology, poverty, and all where goodness is not easily seen — I don’t know about you, but I want to jump in and tackle them all head on. And as a minister, I envision every single one of you on a different task force addressing various issues but all communicating, getting along, finding time for work and rest, but transforming Lexington as well.

But even if we were 600 people here in this congregation, that would not be realistic. Religious institutions move at a different pace than some others, though I imagine not many. But the pace of church can be painful. And when you are faced with so much injustice in the world and the church is still crawling along, it can be frustrating.

So where do we begin and where do we look for guidance? The guidance we seek is partly in the people who’ve gone before us — our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist ancestors. Theodore Parker struggled with his personal views on race his whole life, but as a minister he championed the end of slavery.

How that worked, I do not know — I like to imagine it had something to do with knowing that couple that escaped from Georgia and, on top of it, knowing that even though the person he was was conflicted, he was pulling at the arc of the Universe and people ages and ages hence would benefit. I want to believe that. As to where do we begin, the answer is simpler than one could imagine.

This community, before you called me as your minister, had one talking point that was common no matter who I talked to: We don’t know who we are. Or, slightly different, we are far too diverse to have an identity or purpose. Since getting here I’ve seen nothing other than exactly who you are — and it is not in a mission statement.

It’s in what you are doing already. Did you know we have over mentors mentoring children at Cardinal Valley Elementary school here in Lexington? That is social justice. Did you know you have a small but mighty group of people serving breakfast at the Catholic Action Center? That is social justice.

Did you know that our kids in our religious exploration program commit themselves to a service project at least once a month? That is social justice. And would you believe that there are people sitting here in this moment that have had their lives changed or saved by Unitarian Universalism? That is social justice.

More than any parade, more than any booth at a festival, more than any check given to an organization, those things — nurturing young minds, feeding the hungry, inspiring the hopeless — those are the actions of prophets and sages past. And we are doing them.

Jesus may have been welcomed into Jerusalem with great fanfare, but he’s remembered for tending to the sick and feeding the hungry. Martin Luther King Jr may have marched multiple times, but he’s remembered for uniting a nation and giving hope to those who thought segregation was here to stay.

Theodore Parker, at least amongst Unitarians, is known as a great theologian, but he’s remembered as someone who challenged his colleagues and congregants to not be complacent. And so it begs the question, what will we be known for — even if we are the only ones that know it?

I cannot answer it for you, but the examples I’ve given you are a good start. The danger of any church social justice program is to get pulled in a million different directions with no critical mass. But we must look to what has risen to the top. What are we doing, and what are we doing well? What can we build on? Where will we take hold and pull the arc of the universe a little more toward justice?

And when we can sit back and look at the things we are doing and say, “well done thou good and faithful servant,” we must wait for those other things — the passions of this community — to also rise to the top. We must wait at the pace of church, but that doesn’t mean the good work we are already doing must stop.

This applies to your personal life as well. What are you doing for yourself and for those around you to make a difference? Are you even doing anything? I don’t ask that as a scolding, I often ask that of myself as well and then I remember, when my life comes to an end, if I changed just one life as a minister, then it is a job well done. This is true for each of us and for all of us as a congregation, too.

If we change just one life, each of us, then heaven on earth, that beloved community here and now, is that much closer to being an actuality. There is this book I stumbled across not too long ago called “God is the Good We Do.” In it, the author, Michael Benedikt, suggests that God is not a being — and there’s nothing supernatural about the word, but God is a verb, a doing, an action.

I can’t help but think of Theodore Parker — because for him, God was not present unless we were doing something to make the world more just and loving. We can’t exactly take credit for such an idea of God, theology is all just commentary on the same ideas, sort of like how philosophy is just one long commentary on Plato, but Parker and this contemporary book have one thing in common.

It is up to us to be God, to be the action, to be the goodness and mercy. From the words of Michael Benedikt:

God is an event, an activity,
God happens
like a flame
like the sparkle of glass
like the glint off water
like the Aurora Borealis
like love blossoming
like a laugh that does not ridicule
like a whisper that is not malicious
like an outstretched hand that helps
like the paper hitting the porch
like a hummingbird at the feeder
like a newly opened window
Like justice being done with mercy.

Where does your lap go when you stand up?
Where does your fist go when you open your hand?
The same place God goes when you diminish life.

As it is written:
“Bring forth the precious from the vile,
and you shall be as my mouth.”
But we go further:
God is the good we do
in everything we do.
God’s very existence
is up to us.

Whether or not the word God is a meaningful symbol for you — we are left with a Universe where that moral arc cries out for us to take hold and bend it toward justice. Will it be in welcoming the stranger and advocating for them? Will it be in nurturing those who are not afforded the same opportunities as many of us? What is rising or has risen to the top? What can we improve upon? Who exactly are we as a people of justice?