Does the Arc of the Moral Universe Really Bend Toward Justice?

This powerful quote – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. actually comes from the 19th century transcendentalist Theodore Parker.

As we celebrate the accomplishments and the enormous impact of Dr. King’s work, you’ll no doubt hear that quote many times – so we would do well to ponder what it really means.

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Dr. King was always careful to use quotation marks around the original idea and to attribute his paraphrase of the quotation to Parker – after all, we often forget that King studied theology and philosophy before he became an ordained Baptist minister, and that he received his PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. During the previous century Theodore Parker was a minister, too, from the reform-minded Unitarian Church, and an avid abolitionist, advocating for the anti-slavery cause throughout his career as a theologian and pastor in the early- to mid-1800s. Here’s how Parker originally said it:

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.

Regardless of who coined it, though, the statement implies a great optimism – that no matter how much time it takes and how difficult the path, progress toward a better world is happening right now and will continue into the future. To verify that optimism, let’s look at the evidence of this progress in one critical area, and see how the revelation of the Baha’i Faith has released the spiritual energy to help make it happen.

For many people, the idea that humanity has made positive progress on most of the age-old cruelties and injustices that have plagued it throughout history seems absurdly wrong. After all, we are in the middle of another war in Europe with all its horrors. We’re suffering through a lingering pandemic, economic woes, global inflation, catastrophic climate change predictions, continual racism and hatred, and on and on! When looked at from the perspective of the daily news, such an optimistic view would seem to many as either hopelessly naïve, unrealistic, or simply uninformed.

However, if we look at the fundamental principles of the Baha’i Faith, step back from the media headlines, and take a view of events from a longer historical perspective, there is no doubt that progress has been made in each of these principles. Positive changes are happening every day. Obviously, though, we have a long way to go before the spiritual and social teachings of the Baha’i Faith are fully realized, and that major and oftentimes painful challenges are still with us now and into the future. 

Let’s examine this idea in the light of one of the most fundamental principles of the Faith, the elimination of racial prejudice. The unification of humanity is the goal of the Baha’i Faith, as the writings of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Faith, clearly delineate:

O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

In a speech he gave in Cleveland in 1912, Abdu’l Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, said that this “divine civilization:”

… is to be and shall be organized, and the oneness of humankind will be a visible fact. Humanity will then be brought together as one. The various religions will be united, and different races will be known as one kind. 

However, to attempt to describe in any kind of detail the history of race relations, even in just the U.S., is far beyond the scope of these two short essays. But let’s consider just a few areas where moral progress has been made on this most critical issue in some positive ways.

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Around the time Baha’u’llah wrote the passage above, in the United States and many other nations the unspeakable injustice of slavery continued to exist. During that period, the U.S. was about to go through a horrendous civil war which resulted in over 620,000 dead soldiers along with an untold number of civilians, all over the issue of emancipation. 

Of course, once that war ended and chattel slavery was outlawed, many overt forms of racism still existed – and some continue to this day. This includes numerous laws, traditions, and practices that essentially amount to a form of apartheid, with gross inequalities in education, housing, jobs, access to voting, justice and incarceration, health and social benefits, and much more. As well, hate groups still exist throughout the nation, urging their supporters to perpetuate the evils of racism.

Gradually, however, some progress has been achieved. African American men gained the right to vote as U.S. citizens in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and women of all races gained equal suffrage with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. However, discriminatory practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and open intimidation continued to bar people of color from polling places for decades – and their voices and concerns were largely suppressed and ignored. Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark human rights and labor law that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination – failed to fully dismantle many discriminatory policies and practices that still exist to this day. But we cannot allow those persistent failings to obscure the fact that the long arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice. The future, the Baha’i teachings say, is clear: we will make progress as one race, the human race, toward that eventual day when, as Baha’u’llah promised, we would truly become “the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch” and achieve the light of justice.

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