On Faith and the Moral Universe

This week marks fifty years since the 1963 March on Washington, and for the sake of historical accuracy and relevance I should be thinking about the words “I have a dream,” which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on that day in front of a peaceful crowd of hundreds of thousands. Instead, I’ve found myself pondering a different phrase, this one from Dr. King’s 1967 sermon “Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam.”

You may have heard the quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It isn’t unique to the 1967 sermon (he used it frequently), and it actually wasn’t Dr. King’s phrase but a paraphrased version of a passage by Theodore Parker, the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist. Still, the particular iteration in “Why I opposed the war in Vietnam” feels critically important to me. As the title suggests, the sermon is a critique of the atrocities committed by the U.S. military in Vietnam, as well as the hypocrisy and arrogance of Western dominance over the rest of the world.  Dr. King admits that these views are not popular, but urges his listeners to speak in the name of truth.

“Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it—bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He speaks here not of a dream but of the necessary culmination of human history.

Despite how far we are from it, even so many years later, I still believe we must get to a place of justice, and moreover that we will.

I can say this because I, too, am a person of faith. I have never called myself that before, because all of my life I’ve been told that to be religious is to fully believe X, Y, or Z, and I have never been certain of any details about the meaning of life and death. The truth is, I don’t know which way is which in this universe and can’t find my way out of an existential paper bag, but I have faith. I have faith that we will end up—that we have to end up—at justice. I have faith that there is a moral arc, and that it makes a difference where we (and I) fall along it. I have faith that my actions matter, that love and kindness matter.

For me, religiosity has little to do with accepting a cluster of dubious propositions as fact.  It is a deep, transformative commitment to engage with the millions of questions about why I am here. To have faith is to enter into a state of trust, not necessarily of a supreme being but of the idea that, for whatever reason, my need to make meaning of the world is a legitimate call.  It is a trust that we will bend the arc toward justice, and not in vain.

Those who would generalize religion as destructive leave people like me out of the picture, although my explanation may very well elicit an exemption and an edit: “I meant organized religion.” But this still casts out people like Dr. King (and many other heroes of nonviolence and compassion). Critics of faith often retain his dream and his moral universe, but ignore how deeply grounded these concepts were in his identity as a Christian—as someone who engaged with questions of the infinite and whose life was transformed by particular answers.  His call for justice and his call to ministry were not coincidental, and we can’t just write one off as flawed unless we would dispense with both. To do so insults the intelligence of countless religious men and women who, because of their trust that it was necessary and right, gave their lives to make this world a better place.

In the end, faith amounts to a gift and an obligation.  Dr. King concluded his speech with the words, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

It’s a daunting call to live up to.

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