Lately I have taken more notice of the expression “the arc of history.” I had been half-aware of this saying or versions of it for some time, but only closely examined it in the last few days.
The quote we are familiar with is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice.” This particular form was coined by Martin Luther King in the context of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Now it seems to have been borrowed for whatever the issue of the day is.
But I wonder, is this arc of justice supposed to be ascending or descending?
The original source for this expression was the 19th century American minister Theodore Parker. The first recorded version follows:
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.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
Parker was speaking of justice in terms of punishment or retribution, not reconciliation or goodness. The people who use this quote now think in terms of the correct end to a particular question or debate, or, more generally, the perfect “end state” of human society.
The popular use and application of this quote is incorrect. The arc of the moral universe, or better yet, of history, bends toward Christ.
And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.
And it is a short arc, not long. No farther than from John and Mary on Golgotha, the infant Church, to Christ up on the Cross. Christ of course is justice, but even more so mercy. The perfect blend.
And what is man’s justice?
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I would prefer to be on the ascending arc toward the font of mercy. I do not want the justice of man that we seem to promise, with a hint of menace, to those we disagree with on the issue of the day. I hope no one using this expression would want justice if they truly knew what they were asking for.
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